Category Archives: Big Brother

The Mythology of Pokémon Go: Surveillance, Big Data, and a Pretty Sweet Game

Pokémon Go is lulling the world in to a humungous augmented distraction. A distraction that is covering up some pretty intense politics. It is almost as if we stepped into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One—where distraction through virtual reality meets the war between anonymity and surveillance.

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Artist: Dani Diez. You can find more of Dani’s work at www.instagram.com/mrdanidiez/

It has been well publicized that this new app, of which is fueling a Pokemania (a nostalgic resurgence of interest in Pokémon every time a new rendition of the game is released), has some rather arbitrary and invasive access to your mobile phones data—particularly, unhinged access to your Google account and other features of your mobile device.

What is Pokémon Go? This almost seems pointless now, seeing the popularity of the game—but for those of you who have not tuned in to the pokemania. Pokémon was a TV show released in the late 90s, which became dream fuel for a generation of children and young adults. It featured a young boy, Ash Ketchum, who embarked on a Journey to capture Pokémon in a technology known as the “pokeball” through the direction of the Professor (A man who studies Pokémon). After the Pokémon is caught, the young boy (and the thousands of other Pokémon trainers) would aspire to train it to battle other Pokémon.

Shortly after the show caught on, Nintendo released Pokémon Red and Blue for the Gameboy Colour. These games became an absolute hit. I remember walking to school with my eyes glued to my little pixelated screen—traversing over roads and dodging cars while battling with Pokémon and trading them with my other schoolyard peers. The games slogan repeating through my cranial, “Gotta Catch Them All”.

Nintendo continued to release Pokémon games designed for their various game platforms up until present. Each successive game included an obsessive and nostalgic excitement that took over the gaming community. Or anyone who had grown up playing Pokemon Red and Blue, as well as collecting the Pokemon cards.

Pokémon Go is a game that can be played on a mobile smart phone that uses geolocational data and mapping technologies that turn the phone into a lens peering into the Pokémon world.  Through the interface of your mobile device, you can catch Pokémon wandering the “real” world, battle through gyms, and find items that will aid your journey. It augments the world around the user so that everything and everywhere becomes a part of the game.

Just like its predessor, a game known as Ingress, many of the geo features in the game were set up around important places: art exhibits, cultural or historical sites, and parks. Following the maps would lead you through a productive tour of a cities geographical culture.

I want to explore the obsessive and nostalgic excitement through a techno-socio-cultural lens. I will unpack this critique into three parts: (1) the sociology of privacy, (2) Big data and algorithmic surveillance, and (3) the culture of nostalgia and the digital sublime.

Before I continue with this post—I want to assert that it is not an all-in-all terrible, megalomaniac, Big Brother type game. Pokémon Go is enabling new ways for people to engage in the social world. Check out this sociological blog post exploring just that. However, it would be silly to not apply a critical perspective to this.

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Taken from Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/wokemon/?fref=ts

There are some restrictions I’d like to apply to my analysis: (1) Pokémon Go is not an immature or irrelevant activity, millions of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are playing it—meaning it has a ton of significance. As well as, (2) The people playing Pokémon Go are not zombies or passive consumers, they are very intentional and unpredictable social actors that have the ability to understand their situation.

Sociology of Privacy

One thing that boggles the minds of surveillance studies scholars is how the vast population of people using social media and mobile applications do not care about invasive surveillance embedded in everything they use.

In my own interviews of Facebook users in 2014, many of my participants claimed, “I have nothing to hide”. A pervasive mentality that enables big corporate and governmental entities to gain access and control to large swaths of data. This nonchalant attitude towards surveillance allows for massive ground in the dismantling of our rights to privacy. Though such an attitude is not surprising, as the entire ecosystem of social media is set up to surveil.

David Lyon, in his book “Surveillance After Snowden”, asserts that privacy is generally seen as a natural and democratic right that should be afforded to all citizens—but admits that a problem lay in that informational privacy is not as valued as bodily or territorial privacy. Even if information, data, and metadata are much more revealing than the both bodily and territorial surveillance.

Lyon notes three important points about privacy that are all very relevant to the current epidemic of pokemania: 1) the collecting of information has now been directly connected to risk mitigation and national security, implying that we are not safe unless we are surveilled. 2) Everyone is now a target of mass surveillance, not just the criminal. 3) Data collected through mass surveillance is made to create profiles of people—these may be completely inaccurate depending on the data collected, but you will never know the difference.

I would like to add a fourth. How can the data be used to swing massive profits? The corporation Niantic, creators of Ingress and Pokémon Go, use their privacy policies to legitimate “sharing” (sic: selling) of data with governments and third party groups. Government surveillance is often the focus of criticism. However, capitalist corporations are not often held accountable to ethical practices. Who is selling this data? Who is buying this data? And what is this monetized data being used for?

As Lyon asserts, Privacy is not about individual concerns—it is important socially and politically for a well-balanced democracy. Edward Snowden has been known to say, “It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about democracy”. While we continue to allow powerful groups to chip away at our privacy for entertainment, we literally give up our ability to criticize and challenge injustice.

Snowden reminds us that when we give up our democracy to the control room—there is zero accountability, zero transparency, and decisions are made without any democratic process.

So while we are distracted trying to catch a Snorlax at the park, we are giving away more and more of our lives to mysterious and complicated groups that want nothing but large profits and control. For a much more scathing review of this, see this blog post on surveillance and Pokémon.

Big Data and Algorithms

So what about the data. What is big data? First off, it’s all the craze right now. As data scientists, social scientists, policy makers, and business gurus scramble to understand how to use, abuse, and criticise such a thing. Big data is consistent of two large disciplines—statistics and computer science. It is the collection and analysis of unthinkably large amounts of aggregated data that is collected and analyzed largely by computer software and algorithms.

Boyd and Crawford (2012) offer a much more precise definition. They assert that Big Data is a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” that can be broken into three interconnected features:

  1. Technology – Computer science, large servers, and complicated algorithms.
  2. Analysis – Using large data-sets compiled from technological techniques to create social, political, cultural and legal claims.
  3. Mythology – Widespread belief of the power of Big Data to offer a superior knowledge that carries immense predictive value.

The big problem that remains is how to find, generate, and collect all of this data? In terms of social media and video games much of this has to do with offering a “free” service to consumers who take the role of the “prosumer”. The prosumer is a social actor that both produces and consumes the commodity they are “paying” for.

In terms of social media (like Facebook), while users interact with each other, they are producing affective or emotional data through liking things, sharing things, and discussing things, that are then collected by algorithms and fed back into the system through targeting advertisements. The user is implicit in both the production and consumption of that data.

The user is given free access to the social media platform, however, they pay for it through giving the platform a transparent window into their lives that is than monetized and sold for large profits. People’s reactions to this form of surveillance are variant: some people offer scathing criticisms, others don’t give two shits, and some act a little more cautious.

Why is this important for Pokémon Go? Because you trade your data and privacy for access to what Pokémon Go has to offer. It is incredibly clever of think tanks in Niantic—using the nostalgic Pokemania to usher users into consenting to ridiculous surveillance techniques.

It gets worse. As Ashley Feinberg from Gawker identified, the people responsible for Niantic have some shady connections to the international intelligence community. Causing some in the surveillance studies field to fear that Pokémon might just be an international intelligence conspiracy (It sounds crazy—but it makes complete sense).

David Murakami Wood coined to the concept of “vanishing surveillance”. This is a phenomenon, intentional and unintentional, that allows surveillance capacities in devices to fade into the background. Resulting in users not being aware, or at least completely aware, that they are being watched. Pokémon Go, an innocent video game that is enabling new ways of being social in public, becomes an invisible surveillance device that may have international and interpersonal consequences. And it is the Pokémon themselves that allow for the surveillance to vanish from sight and mind.

A Culture of Nostalgia

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So what drives people to consent to all of this? What kinds of cultural patterns allow and shape us to an almost fanatical state when a Pokémon game is released?

The first factor within the culture of Pokémon is its appeal to nostalgia. Jared Miracle, in a blog post on The Geek Anthropologist, talks about the power of nostalgia. It taps into the childhoods of an entire generation—it even moves outside the obscure boundaries of gamer culture into the larger pop cultural context. It wasn’t only geeks that played Pokémon. It was just about everyone. This might provide an explanation to why so many people are wandering around with their cell phones before them (I’ve seen them wandering around Queen’s campus today, while I was also wandering around).

However, it is not all about nostalgia. I believe that the nostalgia plays a role in a bigger process of the digital sublime and the mythologizing of the power of media.

What is a mythology? According to Vincent Mosco, in his book The Digital Sublime, defines myth as, “stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life”. This is a form of reality that represent how people see the world from the every-day-life perspective.

Myths are also implicit in power. “’Myth’ is not merely an anthropological term that one might equate with human values. It is also a political term that inflects human values with ideology… Myths sustain themselves when they are embraced by power, as when legitimate figures… tell them and, in doing so, keep them alive”.

These myths, along with nostalgia for Pokémon paraphernalia, generate the digital sublime. A phenomenon that has us go head over heals for new technology. The mythologies that support it can be positive or negative.

Positive mythologies might sound a little like this: “Pokémon Go is allowing us to leave our homes and experience the world! We meet new people and we are empowered by new ways of interacting with each other. Hurrah!”.

Negative Mythologies are also important: “Pokémon Go is creating a generation of zombies. People are wasting their time catching those stupid Pokémon. They are blindly and dangerously wandering around, falling off cliffs, and invading private property. Damn those immature assholes”.

Both of these mythologies cross over each other to colour the experiences of those who play and those who watch.

We need to be careful of generating mythologies about the capacity for games to facilitate freedom, creativity, and sociality. We also need to be careful not to apply to much criticism. Such mythologies not only create a basic, overly simplistic way of understanding gaming, surveillance, and human culture, it also blinds us to nuance and detail that may be important in its broad understanding.

So while people dangerously block a highway to catch rare Pokémon, walk over cliffs because they aren’t paying attention, or disrespectfully attempting to catch Pokémon in Auschwitz, there are also people who are leaving their houses to engage with the world, using Pokémon to fight depression and other mental illnesses, and creating super cool maps of rare Pokémon spots.

Drawing things together—A Political Economy of Pokémon

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Don’t be so paranoid.

Taking a techno-socio-cultural perspective allows us to engage with Pokémon Go with a nuanced understanding of its positive and negative characteristics. It is possible to look at how this media creates a complex ecosystem of social concerns, political controversies, and cultural engagements with nostalgia, mythologizing, and capitalist enterprise.

Pokémon Go is indeed enabling a ton of new ways of interacting and helping people with mental illness get out of their homes to experience the world—however, we can’t forget that it is also an advance technology developed by those who have interest in money and power.

Regardless of the benefits that are emerging from use of this application, there are still important questions about privacy and the collection and use of Big Data.

So Pokemon Go isn’t just enabling new ways of being social with the larger world. It is enabling new ways of engaging with issues of surveillance, neo-liberal capitalism, and social control through the least expected avenues.

After all of these problematics become more and more public—will we still trade off our freedom for entertainment?

Oligoptica: Why Surveillance Isn’t Perfect?

We have all likely heard of the panopticon. An architectural design of a prison, thought up by Jeremy Bentham, that was suppose to maximize surveillance capacities so that prisoners always felt as if they were being watched. Even when they weren’t. It consisted of prisons revolving around a central guard tower that could watch every move of every prisoner, all the time. However, the guard tower is made to be opaque—so the prisoners can’t watch the guards.

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In 1975, Foucault borrowed this idea to illustrate his concept of disciplinary power in one of his most famous books—Discipline and Punish. The basic idea around Foucault’s use of the panopticon is that when people feel as if they are constantly being watched, they begin to self-discipline. The panopticon can refer to a prison. But it is meant to refer to society in general. Or many of the institutions in a society. The more people feel that they are being watched, the better they act. This watching could be through authorities, or even, your neighbors.

Though Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power is super important to many who study sociological theory—his example of the panopticon is overused and often misleading. It does not accurately represent the nature of surveillance in contemporary society.

The idea of the panopticon better characterizes a society of “total surveillance”. A completely, balls-to-the-walls, 1984, Big Brother-type (dys)utopia. Thankfully, there is currently no technology on earth that can allow for total surveillance.  We may be a society of ubiquitous surveillance, but not a society of total surveillance.

So how do we “move beyond the panopticon”, as so many social and cultural theorists have been calling for? There is one useful theoretical framework that builds on Foucault’s work. This is the concept of the oliopticon. A concept that was proposed by Bruno Latour during his incredibly critical arguments of Reassembling the Social.

Latour criticizes Foucault for drawing up a total surveillance “utopia” that is made of “total paranoia and total megalomania”.

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He writes,

“We, however, are not looking for utopia but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see well…”

 

Latour is staunchly reminding us that something that is everything is nothing at all. The panopticon is made to be too perfect. It is made to see all. It’s something, that as academics, we can’t possibly empirically record or understand. But the oligopticon is the existence of countless scopes meant for watching. Countless surveillance devices. They only see everything together, but because they rarely communicate it could hardly be called “total surveillance”.

Latour continues,

“From oligoptica, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possible—as long as connections hold. Nothing it seems can threaten the absolutist gaze of the panoptica, and this is why they are loved so much by the sociologist who dream to occupy the center of Bentham’s prison: the tiniest bug can blind oligoptica”.

However, this does not entirely rule out the panopticon. As Kitchin and Dodge in their book Code/Space assert, the power of codes and algorithms may some day be able to unite many of the streams of the oligoptica to create a menacing panoptic machine. However, due to the unstable nature of the practice of scripting code, running code, and working hardware—it is liable to bugs, errors, and absolute mutiny. So don’t hold your breath.

The panopticon, for now, has its place—but it’s a more appropriate theme for a science fiction novel than a good work of social science or philosophy. It serves as a powerful reminder of where a ubiquitous surveillance society could lead us, but not as a very good characterization of surveillance today.

Science Fiction, Mixed Media, and Surveillance

For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.

Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.

As Richard Hoggart says,

“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”

So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.

The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story.  Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement.  What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.

P.S. They are in no particular order.

Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:

SOMA 

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SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.

Ready Player One

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Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.

Nexus

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Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.

The Circle

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Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.

Slenderman

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Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.

 

Snowden visits campus via live feed: NSA whistleblower addresses a packed Grant Hall

 

Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA) hosted a video conference with Edward Snowden on Thursday in Grant Hall.
Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA) hosted a video conference with Edward Snowden on Thursday in Grant Hall. Photo: Arwin Chan

Originally appeared in the Queen’s Journal on November 13th, 2015.

“I am just a citizen.  I was the mechanism of disclosure. It’s not up to me to say what the future should be — it’s up to you,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told a packed house in Grant Hall.

Snowden — a polarizing figure globally — was invited as the keynote speaker for Queen’s Model United Nations Invitational (QMUNi) for the Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA).

As the talk commenced at 6:30 p.m., Snowden was met with applause.

The buzz surrounding Snowden’s Google Hangout talk on Thursday at Grant Hall started early, as crowds started lined up to enter the Grant Hall. The building quickly hit capacity.

Snowden began with a discussion of his motivations to disclose countless NSA confidential documents. He told the audience that he once believed wholeheartedly that mass surveillance was for the public good.

He came from a “federal family”, he said, with relations to both politics and military.  He said once he reached the peak of his career in government intelligence — when he received the highest security clearance — he saw the depth of the problem.

After that realization came the release of classified documents to journalists in 2013, his defection from the NSA and his indefinite stay in Russia.

“Progress often begins as an outright challenge to the law. Progress in many cases is illegal,” he said.

However, he has made himself into more than just a whistleblower. Snowden has continued to push for and encourage discussion about mass surveillance.

“Justice has to be seen to be done,” he said.

“I don’t live in Russia, I live on the Internet,” he said at another point during the talk.

When asked about Bill C-51 — the controversial terror bill in Canada — Snowden said “terrorism is often the public justification, but it’s not the actual motivation” for the bill.

He continued to say that if you strip the bill of the word “terrorism”, you can see the extent to which the bill makes fundamental changes that affect civil rights.

Snowden’s talk was intended to encourage discussion about mass surveillance. QIAA had initially contacted Snowden’s lawyer and publishers, who handle Snowden’s public affairs, and after a long process of back-and-forth negotiations they secured Snowden as a keynote speaker.

Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center and author of the recent publication Surveillance After Snowden, acted as the moderator for the talk.

David Lyon, right, mediated Thursday night’s question and answer period with Edward Snowden. (Photo by Arwin Chan)

There were mixed opinions among audience members about Edward Snowden and his mass disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence documents to journalists in 2013.

Some students, like Mackenzie Schroeder, Nurs ’17, say Snowden’s actions were gutsy, but had good intentions.

Another guest, Akif Hasni, a PhD student in political studies, said he thought Snowden’s actions were important, despite the problems associated with publishing that information.

Other guests at the event didn’t completely agree with Snowden’s whistleblowing.

“It’s a dangerous thing to tell newspapers about. The thing about guys like Edward Snowden is that no one is going to know if what he did was good, while the action itself may be,” Sam Kary, ArtSci ’15, said.

Kary referred to John Oliver’s Snowden interview, where Oliver highlighted damages to national security caused by careless redacting of leaked documents by The New York Times.

The failure to properly redact leaked documents revealed the name of an NSA agent along with information on how the US government was targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Mosul in 2010.

— With files from Kate Meagher 

YouTube Red: Google and the double exploitation

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It was recently announced that YouTube, owned and operated by Google, is planning on releasing a paid subscription service. This would entail a prioritizing of services to those who are able to afford it and creating exclusive content for those who are willing to pay. This is all kinds of messed up—but the most nefarious aspect of this is that they are already making money off of you.  Google uses you much like an employee (though unpaid). All of the content you generate, use, or provide “free” to Google, they organize and trade through complicated surveillance systems to swing a profit off of surplus value. This is why services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free. They are funded (and make ludicrous profits off of) your personal information.

Reading about Youtube Red prompted me to explore some of Google’s Privacy Policy to understand how Google uses our information to generate a profit. I’d like to note that Google owns a whole lot of Internet applications we tend to use in our everyday life. YouTube is only one of these applications, though a really important one.  These policies are attached to a good many things we do on the Internet.  Though the policies are provided to the user in a way that paints Google as a benevolent partner in your access to good services and relevant advertisements—the truth is that the website profits greatly off the information you provide them. This may seem very obvious—but I think we need to recognize that this definitely changes the face of Google’s intentions. They effectively disguise any exploitative functions of their information use through flowery language. An illustrative example of this is how they cleverly change ‘trading’ information to ‘sharing’ information.  The use of the word ‘sharing’ implies that information is given as a ‘gift’, but it also evokes good feels about Google’s intentions.

An interesting power we grant Google through the Terms of Use is that they have agency over the use of the content we upload, despite saying that we retain ownership of such content. The policy reads:

“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

They use complicated and automated means of surveillance in order to collect, organize, and monetize your data. They also are free to make use of your user-generated content—things you created with your time and effort, though you are not paid for this.  Regardless of how you understand your relationship with Google, you should understand that the relationship is framed in a Capitalistic system. You are a Google piggy bank.

The concept of the cyber prosumer is discussed by many political economists and surveillance theorists. Cohen (2008) introduces the concept of prosumer into her work on surveillance and Facebook. This concept can be used for any Web 2.0 social media application (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). It is most certainly a part of Google’s political economic structure. Cohen observes, “Business models based on a notion of the consumer as producer have allowed Web 2.0 applications to capitalize on the time spent participating in communicative activity and information sharing” (7). To call a social media user a prosumer is to say that they both produce and consume simultaneously while using Google services. They produce the user-generated content that is then sold to advertisers and used to target advertisements back at the prosumer.

In the process of Google capitalizing off this user-genreated content the prosumer is involved in ‘immaterial labour’. This is a concept devised by Lazzorato (1996) to talk about the informational and cultural aspects of labour exploitation. Though the Internet looked far different in the 90s, his concept has become even more valuable with the advent of social media. Lazzorato (1996) elaborates that immaterial labour is “the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (1). He breaks this concept down to two components: informational content and cultural content (ibid 1). Informational content refers to the shift from physical labour to labour organized by computer and digital technology (ibid 1). Cultural content refers to the production of creative and artistic artifacts that were never (and still aren’t) considered in the realm of labour (ibid 1).

This concept is incredibly useful for understanding the role of social media in capitalism—as immaterial labour, often expressed as the realm of fun and social, becomes the unrecognized exploitation of users as corporations utilize their creative potential for capital gain. Bauman and Lyon (2013) express, “The arousing of desires—is thereby written out of the marketing budget and transferred on to the shoulders of prospective consumers” (125). Though it is to be noted that this use of immaterial labour can be said to be a fair trade-off for free use of Google’s services.

The troublesome part of all of this is that if they begin to charge for subscription fees for better services (preferred services) it will take on a doubling effect of exploitation. First, the prosumer engages in immaterial labour through the creation of user-generated content that Google consolidates to produce surplus value from thus generating profit. And then, the prosumer is charged a subscription fee for use. In terms of labour, you will essentially have to pay to provide Google with the fruits of your labour.

What may be even more troubling is if Google is allowed to succeed with the implementation of YouTube Red than it will likely provide incentive for other social media sites, such as Facebook, to do similar things.  This is a conversation we should not take lightly.  Surveillance might have its benefits to society, but when used by social media sites through the capitalist framework, two issues come to mind: exploitation and control.  We need to take a critical stance on this or we might slip down the slippery slope of subscription social media.


Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity.

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

Lazzarato, M. 1996.  ‘Immaterial Labour.’ Generation Online. Retrieved November 5, 2015 (http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm).

The #poliecon of Social Media and Surveillance: They are watching you watch others.

 

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Layered surveillance through mass media. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!

Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).

Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations.  It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.

In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base.  The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from.  I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.

First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).

Fuchs observes,

“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).

This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.

The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8).  Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother.  He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.

During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content).  Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.

It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.

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Big brother is watching you watch others. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

Post-script:

Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil.  We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society.  To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial.  We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility.  Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people.  But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.


REFERENCES:

Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.

Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.

 

Spaces of Exterminability: Israel-Palestine, Precarity and the Capital-Nation-State

Palestine

In the last few days I had the pleasure of attending a series of talks hosted by the Surveillance Studies Center at Queen’s University. It was the most inspiring and emotionally stirring talks I’ve ever seen. Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevokian from the faculty of Law-Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke passionately, in an academic manner about surveillance issues. More particularly, she was speaking, from what she had called a new lens of analysis, through the perspective of children effected by militarized surveillance in East Jerusalem. From this standpoint she expanded her discourse on settler-colonial violence and the racialized, systemic and systematic extermination of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israel state. I would like to state before I get into my own analysis of these talks that I am no expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, I was stirred to write something about it as the issues are incredibly real, terrifying, and in need of visibility in the Western world.

This is a complicated and nuanced conflict to which I have no expertise or experience—with that said, after (or before) reading this response to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian’s talk please Google this topic thoroughly. In this response, I will talk about the work Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian is conducting and then I will add a few thoughts that have been burning inside me which will extend her work and theoretical orientation. Also, if you are more interested. She’s published a book recently, check it out here. I only ask that we don’t engage in polarizing this conflict—as Dr. Lyon had mentioned in one of our lectures—it is a very complex conflict that includes the life worlds of so many millions of people. In what I talk about, and what Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian very aptly asserted, these are systemic processes and social structures. Not necessarily the crimes of individual people.

Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center, gave an introduction to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian at the beginning of the first event. Notably, he added a very important thread of information that served as a backdrop for the talk. Dr. Lyon reminded the audience that most of the world’s surveillance technology comes out of Israel. He further asserted, that the testing of these technologies occurs on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. A terrifying notion. However, an important point of to bear in mind as we sift through this incredibly heavy, dense discourse.

Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian (2015) began her talk with an assertion that the conflict between settler-colonialists and the Israel government and the Palestinian natives is not an event, but rather a structure and a process. It is a very real structure that uses the power of the state to discipline, control and torture the very real bodies and life-worlds of Palestinian people. This process is conducted through militarized surveillance (that which sorts, categorizes and regulates people for the purpose of control) which exposes Palestinian people to disproportionate amounts of violence and oppression. Further, as mentioned above, she studies this phenomenon through the lens of children impacted by this systemic and systematic violence. She then expands from children to the lives of Palestinian people in general.

Like many other colonial-indigenous relations, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian illustrates how this process of violence and surveillance is becoming an atmosphere of constant disappearance—where indigenous people, objects, and culture are devastatingly impacted. She describes three main fundamental issues with settler-colonialism: Colonialism is not an event but a structure; settlers indigenize themselves, removing the natives from their home; and the structure of settler-colonialism is based on the “logic of elimination”—cultural, historical and physical. This is empirically demonstrated by Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian by way of illustrating how the Israel government uses bureaucratic measures to demolish homes, exposing Palestinian families to disproportionate homelessness and loss of citizenship. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian introduces a concept she calls exterminable spaces. This can be understood as both actual geographies in East Jerusalem and metaphorically referring to the disappearance (extermination) of social and cultural life-worlds. I will return to this concept to discuss it in light of Judith Butler’s discussion on citizenship and illegal immigrants shortly. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian uses this concept to understand the experiences of Palestinian children, she says, “Children are heavily racialized and mediated by racialized bureaucracies in these exterminable spaces”. The life-worlds, the everyday experiences of these children become saturated in fear. Fear of the settlers, fear of the police, and fear of the military. Back dropped with constant militarized surveillance and enforcement of brutal punishments.

There was much in this talk that I do not have the space to discuss (which you can explore through her book)—however, I would like to mention one more important point that she explored in her talk. The legal status of children (and adults). Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian explains a fundamental point—children do not receive the status of citizen or permanent residence automatically. These children must apply for it under particularly narrow conditions. As a direct result of this, there are over 10 000 unregistered children. Because they have no papers or places to belong, they are exposed to disproportionate rates of state violence and arrest. As well as homelessness. They are directly placed into exterminable space.

This is where I would like to break off from Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian and expand on two points in particular that were on my mind as I listened to her theory and her story. The first a political economic discussion of Kojin Karatani’s (2014) “capital-nation-state” trinity as it relates to the state and corporate violence against the Palestinian nation. The second is Judith Butler’s concept of precarity as it relates to the illegal ‘other’ in the “capital-nation-state”.  I feel that these two theories provide an interesting insight into the situation occurring in Israel.

Karatani (2014) takes on the task of reinterpreting the ebbs and flows of the model of world history Karl Marx devised in his work on Capital. Instead of a focus on the mode of production (as Marx bases his entire approach on), he instead approaches world history from modes of exchange. In doing this, Karatani levels out the field for the concepts of capital, nation, and state. Marx had assumed that nation and state emerged from capital (mode of production)—however, Karatani argues that capital, nation, and state are tied into trinity. The three primary modes of exchange, throughout all of history, had been linked together in some way or form to produce social relations.  This removes the privilege afforded to capital as the preconceived superior mode of exchange.

The capital-nation-state trinity is incredibly important, in my opinion, to understanding the friction between Israel and Palestine. Capital is the process and flow of money to make more money (Harvey 2010:40). State is a sort of rationalized, legal body with a “monopoly on violence” (as Weber would say) (Frankel 2001).  Nation is a community, or a group of human beings who share common historical and cultural practices (Connor 2001). It is important to note that sometimes, as Connor discusses, nation and state become conflated as nation-state. There is an important distinction because more times than not there are several nations under one state—and usually one nation dominating that state. This typically has terrible consequences to every other nation not associated with the priorities of the nation-state.  In the case of Israel and Palestine, the state is under the control of the Judaist nation.  Further, the interests of private corporations developing surveillance technology are enabled and encouraged by this state to test on the people of Palestine.  So there is a connection between state (those who monopolize violence), nation (the Zionist belief that Jerusalem is a city and land for the Judaist people), and capital (the production and commodity exchange of surveillance technology). This makes up the capital-nation-state apparatus. But in order for this to exist—a group(s) must be excluded. In this case, it is the Palestinian people.

Judith Butler (2009) talks about her concept of precarity and performativity in the contexts of gender and citizenship.  This theory, augmented with the work of Karatani offers some interesting insights.  Butler describes precarity as,

“…(Precarity) designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become deferentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection. Precarity also characterizes that politically induced condition of maximized vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection” (ii).

I feel that precarity is an important concept in light of Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian’s “spaces of exterminability” which throw the life-worlds of real human beings into disproportionate exposure to violence at the hands of state and settler. Butler continues to discuss the issue of who is and who is not considered a subject, in other words, a person (iii).  The nation-state has the power, through bureaucracy and the monopoly on violence, to impose citizenship.  In this way, the nation-state is able to regulate and sort desirable people from undesirable people.

Notably, Butler incorporates the work of Hannah Arendt who says that the nation-state structurally excludes and produces stateless persons (vi). But she also notes that those stateless people are able to resist their forced lack of personhood (vi). In other words, exercising personhood and the right to have rights is a sort of performance that can be conducted with or without citizenship.  When those who are not citizens engage in the performativity of personhood–their situation is much more precarious (vi).  However, in the case of Israel and East Jerusalem, there is a utilization of state violence to systemically and systematically remove and harm entire ethnic groups. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian asserts that the state military and police use techniques such as technologies of surveillance and security check points to control the mobility of Palestinians and “fragment” their ability to form cohesive communities. This separates family, friend and community from each other because the ability to travel (or exercise mobility) requires citizenship and permits which are easily revoked and heavily regulated. The Palestinians are not only rendered nonpersons and thrown into exterminable space, but they are also a stateless nation with very little chance of challenging the current regime or engaging meaningfully with the capital-nation-state.

I found this method of understanding the conflict very engaging. However, more important than any academic discourse on this incredibly terrible but very interesting topic is what can we do about it. I asked Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian in the conclusion of her last talk about how someone who is so far removed from such conflicts (most Canadians) could practically help the situation. She replied with two things. The first, which was followed by chuckling from the audience, is to elect a new government. The Harper regime has been very unhelpful and mostly unproductive and problematic when approaching this conflict (I will leave qualifying this for another blog on another day). The second was to amplify the message that emerges from her academics and her politics. Before I explain this, I would like to remind you that this is not a conflict to be polarized. There are likely structural causes to the violence that is occurring in this country. We can’t play the ethnic blaming game. But we can raise the public alarms about the role of the Israel State in this very subtle form of genocide. So I implore you: blog, discuss, debate, disseminate, analyze, speak out, and for the love of god, VOTE.


Sources:

Butler, Judith. 2009. “Prefromativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.” Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4(3):i-xiii.

Connor, Walker. 2011. “nation-state.” Pp. 417-418 in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and J.M. Ryan. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Frankel, Boris. 2011. “state.” Pp. 609-611 in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and J.M. Ryan. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Karatani, Kojin. 2014. The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. Durham and London: Duke University Press. .

Shalhoub-Kevokian, Nadera. 2015. “Militarized Surveillance and Palestinian Childhood”. Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series. Queen’s University. Lecture.

Shalhoub-Kevokian, Nadera. 2015. “Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear”. Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series. Queen’s University. Lecture.

Colombian “Shadow State”: The blending of public and private sectors in mass surveillance

Digital binary code on computer screen, pen pointing out "we're watching you" surveillance breach in red characters.
Adobe stock image

The deployment of surveillance in the 21st century digital (shit-show) of a society we live in carries some especially decentralized features. We can no longer look at the state as a central apparatus from where surveillance emerges and is conducted. And we also can’t assume that surveillance has shifted to a new center in the private industry. This “blurring of sectors” is one of the main trends in Canadian (and certainly, global) surveillance reported by Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Read this particular chapter of the report for free here. This is an interesting meditation on these important, and really complex, issues in light of the development of a “total” surveillance program in Colombia.

According to a report released by Privacy International –the Colombian state has, over the past few decades, constructed a vast surveillance net that borders on total surveillance. An apparatus that has, in fact, been used on political opponents, leftist Guerrillas, and activists in the past. This is what Vice News refers to as the “Shadow State”. A story that is shaping up to look like some sort of dystopian sci-fi. This could also be a case study in the dangers of unimpeded surveillance for state or private interest.

Let’s look at a quick recap of its development (according to Vice News)! In the 1990s, the Colombian state invested in a surveillance system called “Esperanza”. In sociology, there is this concept called surveillance creep which essentially means that once surveillance system is set up, it continues to grow and eventually take on tasks that were never its initial intention (Lyon 52). In the case of Esperanza, it was expanded over the next few decades until a new program was developed. PUMA was developed in 2007, and through surveillance creep was later upgraded to super-PUMA through a multimillion dollar investment. These systems now have the capacity to track and log phone calls and conversations to government servers to create profiles on all citizens. Much of this work is done without warrant or heed to the established laws governing intelligence agencies or state surveillance. For a much more detailed description of the story—visit the VICE article.

What I found interesting was the focus of the article on the centrality of the state government in the construction and implementation of their “shadow state”. They do discuss the private industry in the article. However, not mentioned is that there is likely to be a thin veil of separation between the involved capitalists and the state.

   “Surveillance is big money,” explained Rice. “If you sell people guns, they may come back for more guns someday, but if you sell surveillance, you immediately start providing customer support, IT services, and upgrades.”

VICE News.

To only focus on the use of surveillance to reproduce and safe guard state power is to ignore many of the other contributing factors and risky slopes that exist in these situations. One being, that a collection of private interest corporations are cashing in big time on the suffering and repression of an entire nation. Of course, this cash grab is obscured and made opaque by discourses of terrorism and crime. So not only is the state as a result becoming more powerful through draconian and cloak and dagger strategies—but a slurry of private corporation is also filling its coffers.

According to the VICE news article:

“The dozens of documents reviewed by Privacy International show that the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems have been especially crucial in building Colombia’s electronic spying capabilities. Both have helped steadily expand the country’s “network” surveillance system, which uses a series of probes to latch on to Internet servers and collect data from 3G phone networks.”

These private corporations, I would speculate, also have access to the collected data in aggregate of an entire country’s population. The Transparent Lives report writes,

“The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

So even though abuse from the Colombian state is actually terrifying—there is at least, even if they are not always followed, a set of governing laws. Which is sometimes not the case of a private industry that is mandated to swing large profits. But the likely case seems that there is probably quite a lot of overlap between these surveillance corporations and the state interests.

It is increasingly important to see surveillance as a process that transcends traditional boundaries between public and private sectors. As these sectors, in an age of global capitalism are beginning to merge in many complicated ways.

Slenderman: The Boogieman of Surveillance Society

Over the winter holidays of 2014/2015, I was asked to do some research for one of my professors, Dr. John Bodner, a folklorist who studies some pretty sweet things (treeplanters, 4chan, and internet culture, among other things). He asked me to conduct some research on the frightening Internet boogieman—Slenderman. It was a lot of data collection, historical mapping, and taking screenshots of everything. Throughout my research I got to pour over an uncomfortable amount of short stories and YouTube videos, forum boards and blogs—that both contributed to Slenderman’s mythos but also engaged in meta-discussion about the creation of Slenderman (there are some pretty impressive wikis on the topic). I was also home alone at the time, as my roomies all went home for the Christmas break. My research became apt nightmare fuel that had me checking over my shoulders every now and then while engaged in my readings. While I was thinking about the scary features of Slenderman, I made a connection—the story and mythos of Slenderman, the generator of fear and loathing that gave so many people nightmares, is a particularly great metaphor for surveillance in our culture.

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One of the first images of Slenderman created by Victor Surge. Accompanying caption reads, “One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.”

Before I delve any further into that thread of ideas, let’s explore the short form of who Slenderman is. It is an interesting instance of folklore because its exact genesis is traceable to the (in)famous Something Awful forum board on the Internet. In 2006, Eric Knudson (known online as Victor Surge), posted the first post about Slenderman. It can be found in this forum discussion here. He posted a series of photos, with an accompanying narrative, to a paranormal photo contest. Not only did he win, but the contest was derailed by users creating alternative stories to Slenderman. From the original creation, Victor Surge lost control over the mythos of Slenderman which was drawn into the pastiche of Internet folklore and culture. It was literally claimed by the Internet.  At some point Victor Surge had tried to patent and copyright Slenderman.  This was thankfully an attempt that failed terribly.  Eventually, Slenderman hit 4chan (which was later deleted and was never archived) and became viral.  Slenderman now has an uncountable amount of stories, histories, characters, and characteristics which are feed into the overall mythos through countless forms of media (youtube, blogs, ARGs, Twitter, Tumblr, etc). There are seemingly infinite pictures floating around on the Internet with Slenderman subtly lurking and watching in the background. And furthermore, Slenderman has been parodied many times (search Slenderman or Slendy on Tumblr and see for yourself).

Slender-Man-Original-Manips-urban-legends-23022767-590-406
The other original image created by Victor Surge. Accompanying caption reads, “”we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…” 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

Slenderman became especially popular after a YouTube group founded Marble Hornets in 2009—this was a low budget short film series that followed the narrator who while he filmed an amateur movie that captured the haunting images of Slenderman. This was later followed by two more video series on YouTube called EverymanHYBRID and Tribe Twelve in 2010. The phenomenal thing about these vlogs is that they became interconnected in developing a narrative of Slenderman—often working off each other’s various plot lines. They also worked with dozens of independent blogs who role played stories of Slenderman. All of this role playing and story generation was connected to a large scale alternative reality game (ARG) in which all the players used a combination of real life and a slurry of media forms to act out a story live with thousands of other participants. I was blown away as I mapped out and explored this development. I was also particularly jealous that it was now by and large over—because I really wanted to get involved and play a role.

As I researched Slenderman’s development, exploring the mess of blogs, vlogs, twitter and tumblr accounts, and wikis floating around in cyberspace, I realized that in most cases Slenderman doesn’t actually do much. There are some narratives in the mythos where Slenderman brutally murders his victims. But mostly, he watches. He watches from afar. He watches from windows. He watches his victims as they sleep. Creepy eh? Most of the time a when a character spots it is when they are reviewing film footage (the film usually becomes quite distorted when Slenderman is about) or photos in which it is lurking obscurely in the background. It becomes very clear that Slenderman spends a lot of its time watching. Slenderman surveils its victims. A slow punishment which eventually drives his victims to lose their sanity. Many of its victims simply disappear. And those who try to investigate often become victims of Slender surveillance themselves.

We live by and large in a surveillance society. Much of our social engagement with other individuals and groups has subtle (and not so subtle) forms of surveillance embedded in the interactions. This could be data collection for advertisements, NSA spying for national security and the reproduction of power, or ‘creeping’ friends on Facebook and Instagram. Everywhere around us there is surveillance. And we co-participate in surveilling others through social media. There are already terrifying metaphors, such as Big Brother and the Panopticon, that people use to understand and interpret the mass surveillance ongoing in our culture. David Lyons (2007) writes, “Concepts such as ‘surveillance society’ draw our attention to the ways in which our whole way of life in the contemporary world is suffused with surveillance. In this perspective, the gaze is ubiquitous, constant, inescapable” (25). With this in mind, the constant barrage of surveillance, it is not surprising that the boogie man of the 21st century is a monster that engages us through surveillance.

Slenderman as the boogie man of the information age. The man in the suit watching from afar, barely visible. The faceless NSA and CSIS agents watching you through lines of code and metadata. Haunting your every digital move. It is the unseen horror. Worse than the monster under your bed because it watches you even when you hide under your covers. Slenderman was created by thousands of people writing amateur stories about the hidden surveiller. Surveillance is a theme that underscores the entire mythos. I feel like we can deduce that the reason so many people conceive of the boogie man in this way is because they (we) are trying to understand a very complex fear of constantly being watched in our everyday life. It is also interesting to note that the other name that Slenderman is known by is The Operator. This alternative name carries the ring of Intelligence agencies and spies. It wouldn’t be surprising that other similar folktales begin to emerge from the internet hive mind as we become more and more enmeshed in the digital world and all of the surveillance that entails.


Sources:

Lyon, David. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Polity Press: Cambridge, 2007. Print.

 

Participatory Surveillance: A critique of our focus on big brother

One common misconception of surveillance studies is that by and large those who engage with this academic field study humongous and dangerous macro scale conspiracies and hierarchy based surveillance.  Indeed, this is a sentiment I fell into until I became more familiar with the field (and subsequently fell deeply in love with the literature).  Just the same, state and corporate surveillance is a major topic and theme in sociology—however, there is also a focus on the mundane.

In a folklore methods course I took in my undergraduate—the professor, Dr. John Bodner, lectured that common sense is a dangerous rhetoric.  Common sense embodies the mundane.  The mundane everyday things that we take for granted.  This could be the various privileges we do or don’t enjoy.  The shade of our gender.  The colour of our skin.  The tones of our voices and pronunciations.  All of these common sense social things are vastly complicated and have real consequences on our life choices.  Common sense is in fact a complex sense.  Because this common sense is embedded in our social relations—it is of direct relevance to a sociologist.  The mundane is actually quite interesting and when engaged through sociological methodology, we can learn an awful lot about human nature (and as relevant to this post, technology).

Surveillance as a value neutral activity is very much embedded in our everyday life.  A very capturing report by The New Transparency titled Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada offers an overview of how surveillance is embedded in the everyday lives of Canadians.  This report is written in a capturing way that is accessible to those who are not familiar with heavy and dense academic jargon.  We are surveiled by our digital technology for marketing and national security.  But we also engage in surveiling each other through the use of social media.  An example of this is when you “creep” or engaging in browsing a friends (or strangers) photos and status updates.  Anyone with a social media connection (Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and many others) engages in this activity.

The point I really want to touch on is that surveillance isn’t always terrible, scary, invasive and big brother(ish).  However, I am not proposing the opposite either.  Surveillance is not inherently good or useful.  Surveillance does not necessarily translate into safety.  One of my favorite sociologists, José van Dijck (2012), maintains that, “connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144).  I’d like to approach this topic with a curious excitement, as well as caution.  Though we may use communication technology and social media in empowering ways—the Internet is run by powerful corporations who are mandated to swing (large) profits.

I would like to talk about one interesting piece of literature in particular—Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance written by Anders Albrechtslund.  It is an informative and fun read that sets out to address some of the more conspiracy driven surveillance theories.  It can be found here for free published by First Monday.  Albrechtslund, among other things, addresses the dystopian discourse of surveillance.  So what is ‘participatory surveillance’?  According to Albrechtslund, “The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory”.  Rather than surveillance in its original dystopic conception as destroying and rendering the subject as powerless and watched over, Albrechtslund suggests that surveillance in social media sites actually produces subjectivity (identity and community) and empowers users in a social realm that flattens (gets rid of) power relations.  In other words, surveillance is not the work of Big Brother, but the interactions of people, strangers and friends, in producing and sharing content online.

In a short and sweet summary of Albrechslund’s conception of participatory surveillance—it galvanizes the user to participate in the construction of identity, through identity construction it empowers the user to grow as a human being, and allows a sense of interactive community through the sharing of user-generated content.  We construct our identities through the use of user-generated content (posting photos, updating statuses and writing autobiographies), we engage in watching and surveiling other user’s content through our feeds or the act of ‘creeping’ while at the same time other users are engaged in surveiling us.  And finally, we are building an information economy of shared content.  All of this occurs through a horizontal power dynamic where instead of surveillance being situated in some state or corporate center—it is spread out in a complex collection of networks that are comprised of us.

I’d like to end this blog post with a thought about human nature (likely a thought that will charge the topic covered in my next post).  Engaging in participatory surveillance and social networking sites are inherently ‘anarchistic’ interactions.  I would like to proceed with caution with this word ‘anarchy’ as it is incredibly media saturated by negative latent meaning.   By anarchistic I mean that the sharing of user-generated content occurs outside of the normalized capitalist ontology of profit (we only do things to make more cash).    Think of all of those interest groups on Facebook where people share ideas with strangers and volunteer there time to generate content for free.  The Internet offers us so many great examples of human nature as inherently cooperative, and not strictly competitive.  Just a thought, but perhaps the Internet provides us with the context to shape human nature itself.


 

Sources:

Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13.3 (2008). Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

van Dijck, José. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.2 (2012): 141-155. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.