Hack the Planet

Andrew Hultkrans on “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut

Sociologist David Lyon at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut. (All photos: Jacobia Dahm)

LEAVE IT TO THE COUNTRY that brought us the Gestapo and STASI to teach the Land of the Free about the perils of surveillance. Unlike the British, who have inexplicably embraced CCTV and other snooping technologies despite having produced Huxley and Orwell, Germans well remember the total paranoia and rigid control engendered by authoritarian systems overly concerned with “your papers.” Hence it was unsurprising but slightly ironic that one of the more substantial and wide-ranging symposia about surveillance on these shores to date was held at the Goethe-Institut New York over the first weekend of December. Titled “Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies,” the two-and-a-half-day conference gathered artists, scholars, theorists, and activists from Europe and North America to discuss the increasingly inescapable digital fishbowl in which we all live and work.

Our response to electronic surveillance, particularly the tracking of online behavior known as dataveillance, mirrors our response to climate change—everyone knows it’s happening, but because it’s largely imperceptible and easily forgotten in the day-to-day, only a small minority does anything to fight it. Also, widespread user complicity—enjoying the “upsides” (Facebook, SUVs) of otherwise baleful trends—stymies mass action and credible resistance. Indeed, social-media addiction closely resembles fossil-fuel addiction. Many people say something should be done, but few are willing to change their own behavior. Press an average person on this point, and you will encounter tortured doublethink not unlike CNN legal pundit Jeffrey Toobin’s initial reaction to the Edward Snowden revelations—calling them “a good thing” while maintaining that Snowden was a traitor who should rot in a cell for the rest of his life. “Hey, I’m all for privacy and the Fourth Amendment,” they’ll say, “but you’ll have to pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands.”

There is such a miasma of obfuscation emanating from the government and Internet companies around these issues that it’s worth keeping a few fundamentals in mind, all of which were touched on at the conference. One, state dataveillance is not about preventing terrorism; it is about social control. When questioned in congressional hearings following the Snowden leaks, representatives of the intelligence community were forced to admit that not a single terror attack was stopped by the domestic phone metadata bulk collection program. Statistically, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning or eaten by a shark—to say nothing of being killed in a car crash—than to be anywhere near a terror attack, and yet in less than fifteen years the government has squandered billions of dollars and shredded the Bill of Rights, ostensibly to protect us from this exceedingly remote threat. Why? That government boosters of Big Data—quantitative reductionists all—appear to be defying their almighty god Probability in this one area is telling.

Artist Trevor Paglen at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.

Two, the highest officials in the intelligence community—Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan, FBI director James Comey, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, and others in both the Bush and Obama administrations have blatantly and repeatedly lied to Congress and the American public about both the purpose and scope of the government’s domestic dataveillance programs. (The Snowden files proved that Clapper perjured himself under oath during congressional testimony; nothing was done.) Following the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the familiar bugaboos were trotted out once again by these shameless sharksuckers—Snowden! Encryption! Civil Liberties!—all apparently to blame for terror operations in which no encryption was used and to which Snowden’s disclosures had no relevance.

Three, for all of their Ayn Rand–inspired corporate libertarianism, the moguls of Silicon Valley are not the oppositional, stick-it-to-the-Man players they make themselves out to be. Their frenzied denials of their complicity with the NSA’s PRISM program had everything to do with brand reputation, user trust, and their bottom lines and very little to do with principle. After all, they pioneered the data collection and mining techniques the government has leveraged since 9/11. Not that I recommend it (you’ll feel more powerless than you’ve ever felt before), but if you actually read the online Terms of Service of Google, Facebook, Apple, et al., you’ll see their desire for your data makes the STASI’s methods look like a Neighborhood Watch program in Pleasantville, Ohio. And it’s all available to the government. While the mere mention of this sounds conspiratorial, it should be unsurprising that the CIA’s venture capital wing, In-Q-Tel, has been directly or indirectly involved with Google, Facebook, and many smaller Internet companies offering dataveillance technologies.

It was with high hopes and, as is perhaps clear, an unnatural surfeit of personal research that I entered the Goethe-Institut on Friday night for the opening of “Images of Surveillance.” The keynote lecture was delivered by David Lyon, a sociology and law professor at Queen’s University in Canada who has researched electronic surveillance since the 1980s. (I recall reading his book The Electronic Eye in the mid-’90s as the Internet was going mainstream.) A compact man with white hair and beard, Lyon specializes in simplifying the complexities of surveillance and its effects for layman audiences; as such, he was a natural choice to present an overarching view of the issues. He defined surveillance as “focused attention to personal details for entitlement, influence, or control,” adding that it was an ancient practice enhanced by new technologies. Discussing dataveillance, he rightly noted that we are automatically sorted into categories based on our online behavior and that categories are then treated differently in terms of access and eligibility; in other words, our life chances and choices are mediated by surveillance.

As we are increasingly surveilled, Lyon continued, we have less transparency regarding the process and which entities—public and private—are collecting our data. He faulted the “user-generated content” of Web 2.0, and the shifting norms regarding public disclosure of personal information it inspired, as part and parcel of our current predicament. As he summarized some of the NSA’s domestic dataveillance programs revealed by Snowden, he reminded us that “the Cloud is not fluffy” but instead composed of solid server farms and undersea cables, and implored the audience not to succumb to paranoia. Lyon concluded that Snowden and his practice of parrhesia, an ancient Greek concept loosely translated as “truth telling,” should be an inspiration to us all—a model for active resistance against murky and dispiriting developments.

Merve editor in chief Armen Avanessian at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.

On Saturday morning, I walked in on the tail end of a talk by technology writer Evgeny Morozov on “surveillance and the emergence of the neoliberal welfare state,” and settled in for presentations by three academics who would then join for a panel discussion. The first of these, Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt, looked straight out of central casting, with his Trotskyite glasses and layered black-on-black ensemble. Arguing that Orwell’s Big Brother and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison (Foucault) were no longer useful metaphors for contemporary surveillance, he proposed instead the notion of an “exposure society” driven by desire. “Hate Week has been replaced by likes,” he quipped, and panopticism, which ultimately leads to self-censorship, could not account for the “mad frenzy of disclosure” on social media. Harcourt offered Dan Graham’s installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout, 2014, with its reflections, opacities, and distortions, as a more accurate update of the Panopticon metaphor. Contra 1984, he concluded, it is easier to tame the passions by feeding desire than by brutally crushing dissent or instilling fear of observation in a populace. And it is our own desire that has enslaved us.

Merve editor in chief Armen Avanessian followed Harcourt, discussing the ultimate aim of dataveillance: prediction. Noting how “smart” personal assistants like Google Now tell us what we want to do today and tomorrow (and we actually do it), he outlined the concept of the “preemptive personality,” the endlessly profiled and guided subject who is shunted into precalculated futures in a system that could be characterized as digital predestination. He added that the “derivative paradigm” of cybernetic capitalism increasingly pervades all of life in that our predicted future value determines our present set of opportunities. Avanessian described contemporary capitalism as “digital feudalism,” in which the lords are data aggregators and the serfs are the users who willingly disclose their data to the system.

Historian of science Jimena Canales at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.

Jimena Canales, History of Science professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, delivered one of the weekend’s more illuminating presentations, walking us through the roots of surveillance from medieval times to the present. She cited the Domesday Book (1086), William the Conqueror’s extensive and unprecedented survey of the British Isles, as the foundational project of modern surveillance. Describing the Casa de Contratación (“House of Trade”) in Seville, Spain, a sixteenth- through eighteenth-century bureaucratic agency that recorded and regulated all trade and emigration to the New World, she showed a slide of the handwritten “CV” of Don Quixote author Cervantes, which he had submitted to the agency in order to travel to the Americas. Displaying quotes from Pierre Laplace and Charles Babbage, she discussed the concept of the “Ideal Chronicler,” an omniscient God analogue that is able to see the past, present, and future simultaneously, a role increasingly played by the Internet. Ultimately, she concluded, being for or against surveillance was beside the point; we should instead take an epistemological approach toward understanding it and its effects.

On Sunday, I arrived to a packed house for a midday talk by artist Trevor Paglen, the former geographer who has embarked on multiyear project to “watch the watchers” by taking long-distance photography of top-secret listening stations around the world. He also dives for undersea fiber-optic cables between the continents that the NSA, GCHQ, and other intelligence agencies tap at their “choke points”; quantitatively tracks the paths of surveillance satellites; and exposes the cartoonishly villainous insignias and mottos of arcane government subagencies tasked with electronic surveillance and cyberwarfare operations. Paglen showed slides of all of the above activities, lingering on the absurd patches for the NROL-9 unit of the National Reconnaissance Office, which depicts Earth in the clutches of a gigantic octopus with the slogan “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach.”

Paglen then Skyped with well-known hacktivist and Tor Project contributor Jacob Applebaum in Munich. Paglen recently collaborated with Applebaum on Autonomy Cube (2014), network hardware repurposed as a sort of living sculpture. The sculpture creates a free Wi-Fi network within the gallery or museum in which it sits that is connected to the Tor network, enabling users to browse the Web anonymously. It also serves as a Tor network hub, one of many peer-to-peer relays that make the network possible. Applebaum described today’s Internet as a “hostile network,” with the NSA storing all communication activity in databases for future searches and the British GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) using “dirty tricks” to “destroy, deny, degrade, and disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them. Applebaum reserved special opprobrium for GCHQ, whose practices are modern-day versions of the “reasons we shot British soldiers and broke away from the empire” in the American Revolution.

Paglen said that museums are currently installing internal tracking systems, but he believes that they should instead be “safe spaces,” free autonomous zones unconnected to the larger surveillance network. His project with Applebaum—an “institutional enhancement” that also served as institutional critique in the mode of Hans Haacke—was a step in this direction. Neither technology nor art will save us from current trends, Paglen concluded, but they can help.

Left and right: Artist Simon Denny at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.

New Zealander–born, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny followed, presenting a survey of his often tongue-in-cheek images and installations that satirize and investigate the iconography generated inside the NSA and similar agencies (e.g., the laughably designed slides Snowden disclosed). To create his installations for this year’s Venice Biennale, Denny tracked down commercial artist David Darchicourt, essentially a cartoonist whose hand resembles a less warty and detailed Drew Friedman, who was contracted by the NSA to produce many of its internal graphics. Ironically, Denny and his partner were able to find Darchicourt through social media, specifically Adobe’s LinkedIn-like design job network. Darchicourt was also an exhibition designer for the NSA’s public cryptography museum, and Denny constructed miniature versions of some of his designs for the Biennale. Chillingly, Denny said that some people approached him outside the Biennale, identifying themselves as members of the US intelligence community, and told him that they (and by extension, the intelligence agencies) regarded Denny’s work—and even the Snowden leaks themselves—as “trivial.”

“Images of Surveillance” was capped by cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen, who abandoned his scheduled topic “how to win the war against positivism,” which I was looking forward to, in favor of a somewhat rambling distillation of the various issues raised over the weekend. He began by translating a 1927 Brecht poem he was reminded of by one of the talks, its repeated refrain: “Erase your traces.” The subject with interiority has been replaced by the subject with data traces, he said, and the constant collection of personal data resulted in flat subjectivities. This echoed an oft-referenced quote from Hannah Arendt: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.” Riffing on Canales’s presentation, he mused about “total collection entities”—God and the Internet—saying that machines, like God, cannot get bored; they record all data and regard each point equally. He then asserted that biometric and other self-generated data put us on the other side of Guy Debord’s “spectacle”—the wall of media imagery between the subject and direct experience—allowing us to share in the joy of being objectified. The contemporary narcissist faces two screens, he continued, entertainment (spectacle) and mirror (biometrics). He bizarrely claimed that, despite the total collection entity of the Internet, the most boring among us would inherit the earth.

Diedrich Diederichsen at “Images of Surveillance” at the Goethe-Institut.

Diederichsen’s talk, such as it was, illustrated one of the pitfalls of surveillance studies. As a topic, it’s endlessly interesting, always mysterious, and easily lends itself to wild or half-baked theorizing in the contemporary academic mode. While occasionally thought-provoking, such lines of inquiry can ignore or trivialize some dire realities that need to be faced now before they become so entrenched that they are ineradicable. To my mind, dataveillance promises to be one of three major issues we as a species will have to confront in the next twenty years, its unchecked expansion promising increased digital feudalism; the clockwork determinism of predictive analytics, which constrains our life choices if we don’t have the right data profile; and malevolent hacking and disruption by both governments and private individuals or collectives.

Of the other two issues, one concerns the dark implications of recent advances in genetic science. Personal clones and designer babies are on the horizon, and a new eugenics movement will eventually arise, one based not on race or ethnicity but simply on “viability”—the genetic potential to live a full, healthy life, free of disease, disabilities, or mental illness. (If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca [1997], you have a sense of how the new eugenics will play out.) Naturally, the new eugenics will make great use of the identification and prediction powers of dataveillance to cull the “invalids” from the herd, perhaps even before they exhibit any “invalid” traits. The third issue is, of course, climate change, which has the force to render all technological systems inoperable and hence irrelevant.

With respect to dataveillance, I throw my lot in with tech activists like Snowden and Applebaum, computer people who can translate this grim reality in a way that is both horrifying and galvanizing to the general public. Repurposing Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s slogan, my motto is “Fuck Art, Let’s Hack!” In any case, for all of its diverse offerings, “Images of Surveillance” didn’t present any opportunities to dance.