Category Archives: infobreach

The Slender Man, Legends and Cultural Anxieties

Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.

I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).

I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.

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What is a legend?

Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.

The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.

Cultural Monsters

As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.

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What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.

Surveillance

The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.

Social Control

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The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.

Secret Agencies

The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.

More Research

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Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences.  There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.

Social Media: Moving beyond the Luddite trope

Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.

How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.

But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.

At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends.  It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.

So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.

The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.

I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.

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.

 

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Surveillance @ Wayhome Music and Arts Festival: social sorting, capitalism and everyday life

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Festival goers sorted by their bracelets into General Admission and V.I.P

After being apart much of the spring and summer season myself and my friend Rachelle met up in Southern Ontario to on a mission to check out Wayhome Music and Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte. If you have never heard of Wayhome (or similar festivals: Osheaga, Shambala, Bass Coast, etc.), it is a large three-day long music festival on a large strip of farmland just outside of Barrie, Ontario. For some this means a weekend snorting crystals, guzzling beer and dropping M. For others, an ecstatic rhythmic dance experience with thousands of sweaty, scantily clad bodies. For the locals Wayhome was a “misuse of agricultural land and a disturbance”. For us, it was a reunion and a bunch of musical fun. Having gone through the parts of life where dropping copious quantities of drugs was fun and cool, and no longer being prone to getting blackout drunk—we had a brilliant opportunity to observe what we had thought was going to be a colourful hippy dippy experience. However, what we experienced was a far (distant) cry from what our expectations had been. It was nothing like the life changing and spiritually ecstatic festival culture we read about in magazines or experienced over documentaries.

Though it was phenomenal to be able to move our bodies to the live playing Alt-J and Modest Mouse—we fell prey to an overt money-making, capitalist fiasco. Everything was heavily clad in sponsorship and advertisement logos. Even many of the attractions were just public relation campaigns made to hi-jack festival goer’s social media in order expand corporate advertisement reach. A slurry of beer companies, water companies, phone companies and fast food branches had set up booths amid the five main stages. Everything was expensive—especially if it was under the category of a ‘need’. Food damn well set us broke and god forbid you buy a drink from the bar.

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V.I.P Bracelets allowed for access into restricted areas.

Capitalist exploits aside, what caught me as most interesting was the festival’s surveillance infrastructure: RFID bracelets, security check points, cameras (everywhere), and even drones filming the dance pits from above. I need to note here that I am not trying to paint up an illustration of dark, mysterious festival conspiracy theories. Nor am I talking about Big Brother. But I would like to demonstrate just how surveillance is used at Wayhome to socially sort and position festival goers into different socio-economic classes. Being sorted this way—Wayhome uses various strategies to open and close doors of opportunity and shape the very experience of those who are attending and spending large sums of cash to be there. Let’s expose the mundane surveilling structures that comprise the everyday life of festival goers.

According to “The New Transparency“, an interdisciplinary team studying surveillance issues in Canada, we live in a culture that has normalized surveillance—we track, record and analyze just about any data that we can mine or scrape from people’s actions, online identities, and opinions. For better or worse we exist in a time and place that has come to rely on the use of large amounts of personal and interpersonal data. This sort of surveillance has many faces. From the bloated intelligent agencies (NSA) and whistle blowers (Snowden) to street cameras and Facebook. These technologies and strategies of surveillance are so embedded in our everyday life we take them for granted. They are in the realm of common sense. And when something falls into the realm of common sense we are less likely to notice it, let alone look at it with a critical lens.

Using smart phones to snap images and share them on social media such as Instagram or Facebook (with a sweet filter of course) is an example of what sociologist’s call “participatory surveillance“. This sort of surveillance, which may have a whole plethora of social benefits, is something we conduct together physically and digitally. Another form of surveillance, the form that relates to Wayhome, is how people are grouped together and sorted through some form of technological mediation. The technology in this case is the RFID bracelet that everyone at the festival must wear.

These bracelets were little strips of synthetic cloth, with a small RFID chip placed inside, and a locking mechanism so that you can’t take it off your wrist. According to Dr. David Lyon (2007), “These devices (RFID) rely on small tags that may be read wirelessly from a tiny antenna as the tag passes near the sensor” (113). He further elaborates that they perform categorization based on geo-locational data (ibid 113). These bracelets came in many different colours. Each colour represents a social position at the festival. Yellow bracelets were for general admissions—the lowest rung of the social ladder, the proletariat of Wayhome. Red bracelets were for VIP—which just about cost you your left kidney and child’s university savings. This was the bourgeois. There was also a diversity of bracelets for staff, artists, stage crews, media and volunteers. The whole rainbow was covered. Because these bracelets lock when they are put on it freezes any chance of social mobility, in other words, movement between different classes of people. Another important thing to note is that all festival goers were asked to preregister their RFID bracelets to their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for social media and security purposes. This linked the physical bracelets to individual, digital information about the festival goer.

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Alt-J light show from the perspective of general admission.

According to Lyons (2007), “playspaces” or places of leisure, such as shopping malls or music festivals, have some of the most intensive surveillance (108). Much of this surveillance categorizes and sorts those who are welcome (those with bracelets) and those who are not (those who sneak in). There is an assemblage of surveillance technologies that are not quite connected, but can be drawn together in various forms to create profiles on individuals and gaze over populations in aggregate. I will write on the assemblage in another future post, but for now, you may want to read The Surveillant Assemblage by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson. On another note, it would be interesting to know how much data Wayhome mines from the RFID bracelet and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram connections. Likely, it is very profitable for them.

Surveillance is everywhere. Many sociologists our heralding us a surveillance society. It is certainly about time we bring this often hidden aspect of our lives under some critical, public scrutiny. Many of the technologies are still very cryptic and mysterious in their ways of watching, categorizing, and sorting people. But the power for them to mediate our life choices is vast. From music festivals to social media to surfing the web and walking the streets. We are always watched and watching.

Kyle Curlew (@curlewKJ)


 

Related Topics:

The New Transparency – Interdisciplinary report on surveillance issues and trends in Canada – http://www.sscqueens.org/projects/the-new-transparency/about

The Surveillance Studies Center – Interdisciplinary center for studies of surveillance at Queen’s University – http://www.sscqueens.org/ The Varsity – Festival report card:

WayHome – critique of Wayhome written by a critic at The Varsity newspaper – http://thevarsity.ca/2015/08/06/festival-report-card-wayhome/


Sources:

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.

Haggerty D., Kevin and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology. 51.4 (2000): 605-622. Web.  2 Oct. 2015

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

 

Palestine

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.

Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series Presents…

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If you are in Kingston, ON or have a way to get here, this is definitly a seminar that is worth checking out.

Info below from the Surveillance Studies Centre event page:

http://www.sscqueens.org/news/ssc-special-guest-speaker-nadera-shalhoub-kevorkian


 

‘Militarized Surveillance and Palestinian Childhood’

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 12:30-2:00pm

Jeffrey 234

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

“Through an examination of the trapped condition of colonized childhood in historic Palestine, the presentation conceptualizes Palestinian childhood within a settler colonial framework and considers the particular and distinctly territorialized, spatial, and biopolitical relationships between state criminality and Palestinian childhood. The talk traces the ongoing targeting of Palestinian childhood through different geographical spaces and historical periods. Considering the fragmentation of Palestinian geographies— via borders, checkpoints, walls, settler violence and other militarized restrictions of movement — a spatio-temporal emphasis is key to understanding how the targeting of children and the maintenance of various punitive measures within spaces of exterminability serves colonial interests.

About the speaker: Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a longtime anti-violence, native Palestinian feminist activist and the director of the Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa. Her research focuses on law, society and crimes of abuse of power. She studies the crime of femicide and other forms of gendered violence, crimes of abuse of power in settler colonial contexts, surveillance, securitization and social control, and trauma and recovery in militarized and colonized zones. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s most recent books are: Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, Cambridge University Press, April 2015 and Militarization and Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: The Palestinian Case Study, Cambridge University Press, 2010. She has published articles in multi-disciplinary fields including British Journal of Criminology, International Review of Victimology, Feminism and Psychology, Middle East Law and Governance, International Journal of Lifelong Education, American Behavioral Scientist Journal, Social Service Review, Violence Against Women, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy: An International Forum, Social Identities, Social Science and Medicine, Signs, Law & Society Review, and more. As a resident of the old city of Jerusalem, Shalhoub-Kevorkian works to end the inscription of power over Palestinian children’s lives, spaces of death, and women’s birthing bodies and lives.

Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has been brought to Queen’s through the Principal’s Development Fund International Visitors Program.

This talk is co-presented by Sociology, Faculty of Law, Global Development Studies, and Gender Studies


 

Ready Player One: An Exploration of Anonymity and Surveillance

Let’s talk about anonymity. I had just finished a book recently, a really interesting and socially relevant science fiction called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is centered on a technology called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) which is an immense virtual reality video game. It is comprised of a pastiche (collage) of all of history’s Western pop culture in one seemingly infinite digital space. In other words, this virtual world is a large mash up of Star Wars, Star Trek, Disc World and just about every movie or imaginary world you can conceive of. Very po-mo, I know. What is truly interesting about this world, however, is that its creators—two computer engineers from Gregarious Simulations Systems (GSS)—made the entire world centered on anonymity and Internet freedom. They also provide the game for free to all users. Though there are internal costs and hardware costs in order to use OSASIS fully. It is almost utopic. However, the surrounding physical world has faded away due to neglect and capitalistic exploit and has become frighteningly decadent. So there is a sharp contrast between the utopian paradise of OASIS and the dystopian wasteland of the actual world. As well as the inevitably interconnectivity of these two worlds that make you question if OASIS is actually the utopia it claims to be.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2

Book Cover Art — Ernest Cline

The concept of anonymity in our society (across many societies) is becoming increasingly important. Even more important is the question of whether or not access to such a social status as anonymity is even possible anymore due to the complex issues of surveillance. The ability to surf the cyberweb as anonymous beings is a skill in computer literacy that is lacking in our educational systems. This is incredibly important because so much of our interaction is now on the Internet and connected mobile devices. Our interactions are thus transparent to various groups with the power or capital to spy on us.

What is anonymity? Gary T. Marx (1999) defines anonymity through a series of features. He writes, “To be fully anonymous means that a person cannot be identified according to any of the seven dimensions of identity knowledge”. These features include: access to legal name, access to a person’s physical address, access to symbolic sets (SIN or biometric data), access to other symbols that may not directly link to legal name and address, distinctive behavioral patterns or appearance (tattoos), social categorization (race, gender, sex and sexuality), and possession of knowledge or artifacts linked with a particular group. It is important to note that pseudonymity and anonymity are two different things. Pseudonyms can be traced back to particular social patterns, groups and other symbols or data that can betray a person’s identity.

This sort of internet utopia, even with the (in)famous TOR browser (anon internet browser), does not exist (nor may it ever exist). Even in the OSASIS anonymity is an illusion as characters build fame and notoriety through the use of pseudonyms. As is even demonstrated in the story of Ready Player One—the characters physical locations and identities are betrayed by their psuedonyms and online behavior.

Ernest Cline’s story tackles very important cultural friction that is currently occurring over the Internet. It is a digitized civil war that is taking place between Internet Service Providers, Multi-national Corporations, and National Security Intelligence groups and hackers/hactivists, open-source coders, computer scientists, and activists. The Internet is not a neutral place. Though, the original ideological projections of the Internet devised this digital “space” to be one of the free sharing of information, knowledge and communication. It has been carved up with imaginary corporate and state boarders. And these boarders are likely to be very opaque, intersect, converge and are difficult to discern. And as the surveillance report in Transparent Lives illuminates,

“…In twenty-first-century Canada, surveillance is expanding steadily as personal data flow, in unprecedented ways, between private and public bodies. 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.”

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada – Trend 3

 

This is especially true when data flows over national boarders where our state laws can no longer protect the data of Canadians.

To sum up my point: we live in an era of mass and mysterious surveillance and it is incredibly problematic that we (including myself) lack the computer literacy to traverse the Internet anonymously. This is an incredibly large societal issue in the Western world (and abroad) as many of us conduct most of our work and social life over the Internet. Cline’s novel, among other things, really speaks to this issue of anonymity and surveillance. The Internet provides us with various “spaces” where we can practice sociality outside of the regular contexts of capitalistic and individualistic life.

I would like to also note that there are many places to learn computer science and coding for free:

  1. https://www.bento.io
  2. https://www.edx.org/course/introduction-computer-science-harvardx-cs50x
  3. http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html
  4. https://anoninsiders.net/how-to-join-anonymous-1527/
  5. https://anonintelgroup.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/how-to-join-anonymous/

There are many other resources over the Internet that you will be able to explore through a Google search: including free courses and video games that teach code as you play. I am incredibly new to this world as well. If you have more sources you would like to share, please feel free to comment below. The way forward in preventing the full carving up of the Internet is to learn to become computer literate so we (those who traverse cyberspace) are able to build and protect safe and open-source spaces.


Sources:

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.

Cline, Ernest.  Ready Player One. Random House, 2011. Print.

Marx, Gary T., What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity.  The Information Society, 1999.  Web. Sept 17. 2015.