Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Detect A Distinct Change In Myself

Some of you know that once upon a time I was a newspaper photographer. Even when I wasn't working I would have my camera with me, and if something newsworthy came up I was there taking pictures. Even on vacation: I remember one time in Vancouver when I ended up at the Vancouver Sun offices late one night, after having been scolded by the local police for getting too close to the action.

This past Sunday we went out of town to visit a corn maze with some new friends, and along the way we came across an accident that had just happened, so recent that there were only two other vehicles on the scene. I don't know all the details, but it appeared that a motorbike rider had been caught in a sudden gust of wind (and hoo boy, that wind was something that day) and had been blown into the side, luckily not the front, of an oncoming car. The car was parked further up the road, and I found out soon after that the woman driving it had a head wound that was bleeding like head wounds do. The motorbiker was lying on the road, with a woman from another car on her knees talking to him and his riding buddy standing beside him, and one more guy on his cell phone calling 911.

This tableau, in another era, would have inspired me to jump to it with my camera, get shots of the action and the injured rider.

Strangely, this time it didn't. We pulled over to the side of the road, and Tony and I both jumped out. I told him to stay on our side and I ran to the other, and together the two of us directed traffic, seeing how only one lane was open. Many people slowed down to offer to call 911, and one woman came over to offer first aid. I also ran to get a blanket out of the first woman's car, and then, eventually, two fire trucks and an ambulance came and blocked off the road and we all sat around and watched (barring a moment when I approached a firefighter to tell him about the woman in the car with the head wound, and so off he and a few of his cohort went), except for those people who decided to drive across the farmer's field. Eventually, the biker was loaded into the back of the ambulance and off they went. Judging by how things went, his injuries were not severe, although I suspect that at te very least he broke something.

It was about an hour later, while walking through the maze with my camera, that I thought about what I had done, and more significantly, what I had not done. And I was not disappointed by my response.

Surprised, perhaps, but not disappointed. And pleased that Aidan and Brennan were able to witness their Dad doing the right thing, not as a conscious choice, but just because it was indeed right.

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Another Cool Thing

Dismantling, cutting up, and generally hacking books into new shapes and forms can be really quite splendid.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Coolest Thing I've Seen This Week

It has to be this private library, which is an astonishing thing in so many ways.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Somewhat Outdated Thoughts on the Panopticon

The outbreak of social networking sites since I wrote this paper (in 2002) has thrown a bit of a curve ball into my thinking, but updated thoughts will have to follow later. In the meantime, I came across this while moving my files from my old Windows piece of crap to my new MacBook and thought it worthwhile to toss it out to the e-winds (and in the hope that I didn't already present it, but Google tells me No). It was a paper for a 400-level critical theory class, and I did well on it:

Modern Technology and the Panopticon:
Embracing or Reversing the Growing Rhizomatic Surveillance Structure

In his essay on subjectivity, Michel Foucault writes about Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, describing a structure that enables those in control to see all, while themselves remaining unseen, and at the same time making it impossible for those under surveillance to be able to see or communicate with each other, thus precluding the possibility of an organized resistance against the watchers. Foucault suggests that the Panopticon needs to be “abstracted” (87); both in fact and in fiction, however, the Panopticon is no longer an abstraction, but rather a structure taking on hardened reality, if not in the architectural design that Bentham imagined, then in a no less real construction that surrounds our everyday lives.

To suggest, as Foucault does, that “it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use” (87) acknowledges on the one hand that it is indeed a political (as well as commercial) technology, while on the other hand misses the fact that it has very much become attached to many specific uses. The Panopticon rules our lives, is pervasive in almost every aspect of Western society, only differing from the original conception in that it gives different people in different circumstances the control of the central tower.

Haggerty and Ericson, quoting Deleuze and Guattari, discuss “Rhizomatic Surveillance” (par. 30); in plants, the rhizome is another plant grown above the surface via an interconnecting root system. The more times the roots branch out and find soil for upwards growth, the more plants that appear above the surface. The metaphor for camera surveillance systems is apparent; a vast system of cameras, all trained on the streets of a town, city, or even country - in 1999 it was estimated that Great Britain had 500,000 such cameras (par. 31) - shows that the roots of such a system can allow for more and more cameras to spring up, weed-like, since once the initial root, the structure of the surveillance system, is in place, it is only a matter of will, money and location - the soil - to allow for more cameras. These roots run deep, and their success in one location will guarantee that they take root in others, with more communities taking advantage of a proven technology in order to keep track of citizens with the ostensible purpose of protecting these same members of society. Modern technology has begun to turn this on its head, however. The proliferation of webcams has started to bring this power to see all to any person with a computer and an internet connection. The site Tommy’s List of Live Cam Worldwide is an example of this, a compilation of many hundreds of webcams as well as a brief explanation of the view that each one shows. While some of these cameras are set up by government agencies, in most cases to hopefully entice tourists, there are many being run by ordinary private citizens.

For those who do not trust these cameras, the internet has also enabled a solution, in this case a website called iSee. The service was created by the Institute for Applied Autonomy and an offshoot of the New York Civil Liberties Union called the New York Surveillance Project. The intention of the service is to allow people to navigate Manhattan along routes unpopulated by surveillance cameras. Such is the extreme desire of some to avoid the all-seeing central pillar of the Panopticon that, as Wired News has put it, “like water’s path of least resistance, a travelers’ ‘path of least surveillance’ can be so circuitous it transforms a walk of several blocks in an odyssey of miles” (par. 9) and, “[c]amera coverage is so dense that [a map of] the island of Manhattan looks like a red chili pepper” (par. 5). This is the result of a sort of tug-of-war, in which the larger party has all the muscle and the smaller party is required to develop other methods to pull on his or her end of the rope. In essence, the pervasive surveillance of society by what amounts to thousands or even millions of rhizomatic artificial eyes has rewritten how many members of the same society act and react in their everyday life. The reality of the panoptic viewpoints of all of these cameras - all designed so that the government, corporations, and even individuals can watch the movements and actions of perfect strangers - has altered the reality of the existence of others, those concerned with the danger such cameras might pose to their lives and lifestyles.

Alternately, there are millions more for whom the cameras have not become an intrusion; rather, they are a welcome overseer. Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer noted in an opinion essay in Maclean’s that “George Orwell scared the bejeebers out of us with his Big Brother. But when I was a kid, it was actually a comfort knowing that my own big brother was watching over me while I played in the park” (par. 8). Sawyer goes on to quote Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, who says, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (par. 10). While this might seem to be a snide way of dealing with objections, Sawyer goes on to say, “[i]n other words, such monitoring and tracking is already going on to benefit big business. Why not take advantage of it to improve our own lives” (par.10)? What this fails to account for, however, is the very nature of the surveillance. Is Sawyer, as a white, upper-middle-class male living in a comfortable suburb of Toronto considerably less likely to have his lack of privacy used against him than, say, a black man living in a poor urban area of a large American city? Quoting Fiske, Haggerty and Ericson note that he “concludes his insightful analysis of the surveillance of American Blacks (particularly Black men), by proclaiming that `although surveillance is penetrating deeply throughout our society, its penetration is differential. The lives of the white mainstream are still comparatively untouched by it'” (par. 41). In his novel Earth, science fiction writer David Brin postulates a future where older members of society wear small video cameras, recording everything and consequently making it even more difficult to act privately; this is a not unreasonable guess about the future based on the reaction of most people to video surveillance today; the penetration loses that differential via a complete democratization of the intrusion on privacy.

The corporate panoptic structure also involves cameras, although their very nature means they are not rhizomatic in structure, but rather single-rooted; a security system in a store generally does not, unless tapes are taken to court for testimony, tie in to cameras and monitors belonging to other companies. Where the corporate structure grows beyond its own boundaries is in other day-to-day sharing of information, in preferred-customer cards and other similar plans that track the spending habits and lifestyle choices of everyone who opts in to the system. When companies cross-pollinate their rhizomatic surveillance structures, new, ever more pervasive forms begin to take root. An example of this would be the Canadian gas company Petro-Can, which now takes credit cards from Sears Canada, allowing the customer to build up points to go towards purchases with either company, while at the same time allowing both companies to keep track of the consumer’s spending habits while offering an enticement to keep the consumer spending money at Sears and Petro-Can, rather than any other department store and gas station, even if other companies offer exactly the same products and prices, and sometimes even if their prices happen to be cheaper.

While it may be hard to pin down exactly which is the cause and which is the effect, a result of the average consumer’s willingness to be tracked, to give up his or her privacy in the name of convenience and possibly of safety, is the desire of the self-same consumer to turn that gaze on others, and even to proffer themselves to others’ gazes. Speaking at the Reflections on an Ethical Society conference in Toronto, Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay warned: “We seem to now be a culture that rushes to embrace exposure. It is as if a colossal inversion is taking place: we want to be naked on the stage in public. The attention accrues more value than protected autonomy. Nobody knows you when your blinds are down and you’re not out” (par. 13). The desire to know about the public lives of public people has now been equaled by the desire to share with the public moments of lives of people who formerly might have chosen to remain private, or to share with the public moments of lives of people whom, to put it bluntly, the vast majority of society does not care for. Or do they? The proliferation of reality television shows is part and parcel with this phenomenon, and Kay mentions the “inexorable intrusion of utterly personal questions into daily political discourse”, shows such as “Jerry Springer, Survivor, [and] Big Brother” and then says, “[i]t isn’t just celebrities who are exposed in this way, we make celebrities of those who expose. And, I want to argue, we gradually assume a sense of entitlement to look” (par. 17). Note that here Kay doesn’t say “those who we expose”, but rather, “those who expose.” The distinction is important, for it signals the belief that it is the so-called ordinary people who are choosing the exposure, rather than having that exposure thrust upon them. Thus, they are making themselves subject to surveillance, which while on the surface is a different form than that of pervasive cameras in the streets of New York or London, in the end still involves cameras perpetually recording their every move, and in this case broadcasting their movements - sometimes even their private thoughts, if given voice while standing off and alone - to an entity larger than the government or a large corporation, the television-viewing public.

There is one other significant area of everyday life in which the majority of the citizenry seems to have abandoned any expectation of privacy from the all-seeing eye, although this area is also the scene of the most intense fight to retain freedom from invasion of the twin panoptic towers of government and business, and that is the internet. With odd exceptions, most people using their computer for email or to browse web-sites now seem to be aware, even while not caring, that their every move while online can be tracked; however, the large number of programs available to ward off such surveillance seems to be a signal that there are many who do indeed value their privacy, even if the numbers are not large in relation to the entire computer-using public.
In the case of the internet, the structure no longer takes a rhizomatic form; rather, it can be thought of as more of a vast forest with a wide variety of independent plants. The root networks are still wide, and indeed, there is much sharing of information, but in this case there is no single monolithic entity to which all surveilled information flows. There are efforts being made to change this, though, especially in light of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and at present the governments of many nations, not the least of which is the United States, are in the name of security fashioning plans to break through the final walls of privacy, many of which involve the existence of information on computers and on the internet.

David Lyon, in writing about Mark Poster, discusses the “Superpanopticon” as a device of the “world of consumer surveillance”, Foucault and Bentham’s Panopticon becoming a creature with “no technical limitations”, “which imposes a norm, disciplining its subjects to participate by filling forms, giving social insurance numbers, using credit cards” (665). In other words, freely giving away parts of their identities - parts, ironically, that have already been involved in sapping privacy from everyday life - in order to partake of the corporate superstructure that has taken over vast swaths of the internet. The fact that the corporate world will happily share such knowledge, as well as purchasing habits and any other loose nuggets of information, is not lost on some. American newspaper columnist Molly Ivins has recently written on this topic, discussing the new Total Information Awareness program being instituted by the United States government, which “will provide intelligence agencies and law enforcement with instant access to information from e-mail, telephone records, credit cards, banking transactions and travel records, all without a search warrant” (par. 4). Therefore, as a consequence of our willingness to place all of our personal information online, one part of the panoptic superstructure will be sharing, whether forced or voluntary, that personal information with the other part of the superstructure.

As seen earlier in attempts to get around surveillance by mapping paths to avoid cameras, there are efforts being made to avoid this sort of access on the internet. But aside from programs that are able to at least temporarily hide a private persona in a public sphere, the internet has allowed a stronger response, one that bears a small similarity to the private webcams that document everyday life from a personal viewpoint, but that takes that independent action and greatly expands it, in effect flipping the very notion of the Panopticon inside-out. In essence, it is the people’s answer to the question of who watches the watchmen? The people, self-appointed as they are, and empowered by the perceived democratic nature of the internet, are the ones who do the watching. Not everyone agrees with this view, however; Spears and Lea state “that prevailing analyses have promoted a rather optimistic liberation account, with CMC [Computer-Mediated Communication] helping to extend freedom and control over one's informational and organizational environment” (41). Spears and Lea are likely right to be pessimistic about the ability of individuals to avoid the panoptic presence, even at the remove of a paper written eight years in the past, but what has not been accounted for is the continuing one-upmanship exhibited by many users of the internet. A Google search for the term “PGP” - Pretty Good Privacy - yields over 2.1 million hits, an almost identical number of hits when the term “Hacking” is entered. In other words, there seems to be a fairly equal balance between sites devoted to protection from incursion by government and corporations, and sites devoted to breaking through barriers. And while some of the hacking involves private individual on private individual, as well as outright theft, there is still much devoted to outing the bigger interests of the twin panoptic towers of government and business, a non-rhizomatic structure fighting back in an unorganized fashion against the continually branching and connecting roots. Other methods are used in this same battle, to be sure, including legal and political means, but even when taken together they must still be considered to be a large series of separate entities, sometimes working together, but not attached at the core root.

Of the Panopticon, Foucault wrote, “[i]t is an important mechanism, for it automizes and disindividualizes power” and immediately after, “[p]ower has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up” (86). This last is another way of defining the rhizomatic principle, a “concerted distribution” which allows for the growth of mechanisms of surveillance and diminishment of privacy. Coupled with the bureaucracies inherent in government and big business, this power indeed “disindividualizes”, its sense of automation and broad scope ironically placing an overriding sense of anonymity onto a mechanism designed specifically to remove anonymity from others. Also ironic is the selling of the panoptic eye as something to be desired, so that individuals seek to give up their privacy in order to emulate others who have surrendered their lives to the very same eye, believing that they are becoming a part of a special few, not realizing that, as Foucault wrote, “[o]ur society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance” and that we are “in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism” (88). Turning the panoptic machine back on itself is the final irony, using surveillance to counter surveillance, all the while within a non-rhizomatic structure, a structure that actually promotes individualization, even if done under the veil of pretty good privacy.

Works Cited

Baard, Erik. “Routes of Least Surveillance.” Wired News 28 November 2001. 26 November 2002 .

Brin, David. Earth. 1990. New York: Bantam. 1991.

Foucault, Michel. “From Discipline and Punish.” Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan, eds. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, 2002 ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.

“Hacking.” Google. 27 November 2002. .

Kevin D. Haggerty and Ericson, Richard V. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology. Vol. 51 Issue 4. December 2000. 12 November 2002. Academic Search Elite. UNBC.

Institute for Applied Autonomy iSee Home Page. 26 November 2002 .

Ivins, Molly. Untitled column. Creators Syndicate. 21 November 2002. 22 November 2002. .

Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Reflections on an Ethical Society.” Bright Weavings Home Page. 4 November 2000. 24 November 2002 .

Lyon, David. “An electronic panopticon? A sociological critique of surveillance theory.” Sociological Review. Volume 41 Issue 4. November 1993: 26 pp. 12 November 2002 Academic Search Elite. UNBC.

“PGP.” Google. 27 November 2002. .

Sawyer, Robert J. “Privacy: Who Needs It?” Maclean’s 7 October 2002. 12 October 2002 .

Tommy’s List of Live Cam Worldwide. 26 November 2002 .

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Few Words on Genre Movies

Are posted by me over at SF Signal, along with words by other authors. Go check it out.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bird Watching

Well, we're mostly settled in to the new digs, although I've been having ongoing computer problems, which means the laptop doesn't go online anymore and the desktop has seizures every once in awhile. All of which is my excuse for why I've been quiet lately. I'll see if I can fix that.

Anyhow, on Saturday we took a drive east of here, along Highway 16 towards the Quill Lakes (Big and Little). There was an interpretive center listed on the map, smack dab between the two lakes, and it turned out that the road leading there was all gravel. Along the way we saw six Sandhill cranes in a farmer's field, which made it all worthwhile right there, which is a good thing, because it turns out that the map was wrong, and that the center had been shut down ages ago. Which we found out by not seeing it at all and coming out the other end on Highway 5, right by the town of Quill Lake.

A visit to the local diner clued us in, but also brought a suggestion we travel a little further east to Wadena, and a bird sanctuary that was nearby. We did so, and it was well worth the time. We had the place all to ourselves, and during our walk we saw a flock of Wilson's snipes (a first for Aidan and me), snow geese, mallards, coots, plovers, a Northern Harrier, Marsh wrens, various blackbirds, another Sandhill crane, a muskrat, two garter snakes (one dead), a Boreal Chorus frog, and loads of interesting insects.

We intend to visit more birding locales. It's Aidan's ultimate goal in life to see a Whooping crane in the wild, and while it's no small feat, it's certainly more likely here than back in Prince George.

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