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The unblinking eye

Over at Worldchanging, Jamais Cascio has written an article on what has been called the “Participatory Panopticon”: the point in the not-so-distant future at which

we’ll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go; [The point at which] there will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

Cascio outlines the various forces that have brought/will soon bring about this change, the most significant of which he feels to be cellular phones with digital cameras integrated into them. We may be unaware of it, he says, “but the cameraphone[s] in [our] pocket[s are] the harbinger[s] of a massive social transformation, one already underway.” What does this transformation entail? As Cascio sees it, nothing less than total recall, plus any number of unforeseen uses:

And these are just the beginnings of the possibilities. He goes on to describe a future world where “meat memory” has become a thing of the past, wherein each and every individual has a headset or someother camera recording each and everything he or she witnesses. Such records would be uploaded to a future network, a grand depository of as many points of views that possess the technology necessary to play the game. Cascio sees this as a progressive scenario: the end of dishonesty because of the end of its possibility; the end of political treachery because of the completeness of public knowledge; the end of forgetting—of both its blessings and its curses—because of all memory’s digitization and storage on lovely magnetic devices.

I will leave the desirability of these things to personal opinion. I do, though, want to challenge the triumphalist view that Cascio puts forth. I do not see the “participatory panopticon” as anything more than a call for caution. My reasons for this reticence are quite simple: I see no reason why any sort of new technological superstructure will contribute to the betterment of the political process without a major realignment of the personal desires of the people who will be implementing it. To put that another way, I see no reason why your average memory assistant wearing panopticonneer would be any more interested in political processes postpanopticon than he is now — especially not simply by virtue of there being a network of cameras keeping tabs on his congressmen. He’s going to be much more interested in the live feeds of the people across the street sodomizing each other with frozen bananas. Political change will not be brought about by gadgetry.

The model of ‘sousveillance’ that Cascio argues will keep the panopticon a tool of the masses to keep the powerful in check I find similarly misleading. His chosen image of the sousveillance photo is the well known Abu Graib shot of the headsacked detainee with electrodes attached to various parts of his body. This photo was not shot as sousveillance; it was shot as some sort of carnivalesque oddity, some perversion for personal enjoyment—the sort of thing that would proliferate in the channels of the panopticon (see frozen bananas above). The photo’s origin notwithstanding, it still does not contribute well to Cascio’s argument: in spite of the fact that the public was inundated with images of prisoner abuse, there arose no outcry for investigation. The ‘bad apple’ theory won the day and the policy makers who crafted the torture engendering climate slid off the hook into the swelling crests of political gain (cf, for instance our attorney general). If the panopticon were going to usher in a new era of peace, harmony, and superblogging, we would have already have begun to see some returns. That sad state of a political arena shows that simply having information about the suzziness of scummy politicians does not mean they will be replaced.

We also should not make the mistake of calling it ‘participatory’; one does not choose to be watched. “Participatory panopticon” leads one to believe that he can opt out of the arena of mass-veillance, while in all likelihood that will be an impossibility. Lets call it what it is: an unblinking eye with an unprivileged view — that is: the end of public privacy, but not of secrecy.

I could argue for the necessity of forgetting and ‘meat memory’, or for the “active” methods of remembering, such as journaling or any other media through which people consciously and intentionally give shape to the past, but I suppose that would mark me as standing stiffly in the flow of progress. An anachronism. But I have my reasons: if one were not required to make the effort to remember, he would lose the ability to remember. If one relies upon an electronic network for his memory, he ceases to have a memory. But! you say, the electronic memory makes no errors! But! I say, the electronic memory is not memory. Memory is a fluid, living thing.

I may follow up on this, but this post has gone on far too long.

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2 Responses

  1. One blogger I read, Alphonse van Worden, talks a lot about the idea that photography ideologically presages capitalism’s current drive toward corporate control because photography is a way of enclosing anything, any part of the commons; it suggests that any part of the world can be privatized. I don’t know where I stand on that, but it’s a provocative idea.

    As for total recall, if it weren’t used for the purposes of the powerful, it would be useless, practically identical with experience itself: seemingly random and chaotic. It’s meat memory that provides meaning and it’s meaning that allows us to do or be anything.

    The movie One Hour Photo is on right now as I type. It’s less about photography and more about how the lonely, sad guy who works at Wal-Mart is the worst enemy of the middle class family. I guess that’s why we can’t let them unionize…

  2. The thing about this sort of technology is that it certainly will come. And you are right: it certainly will be used to hedge the power of the elite. The question is whether or not people — ie the masses — can use it to keep watch on their masters. I suppose that that sort of thing is a /possible/ scenario. But I am feeling pessimistic at the moment.

    The implications of such a system are very large. Hell, I do things all the time that I have a vested interest in not being remembered. Total recall: total horror.

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