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Wikisurveillance: a genealogy of cooperative watching in the West

posted by:Michael Arntfield // 11:59 PM // October 02, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX

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As the duly elected Liberal government currently serving the Province of Ontario stands poised to infuse one of the largest revenue collection and fine levying agencies in the Western hemisphere—the Ontario Provincial Police—with $2 million (Can) to fund the operation of a state-of-the-art spy plane ostensibly required to identify “racers” or “stunt” drivers using the King’s Highways (Cockburn & Greenberg 2007), all while police in Britain continue to append audio-video recording equipment, or “Bobbie-Cams,” to the helmets of their patrol officers in the vein of Paul Verhoeven’s dystopic 1987 film Robocop (Satter 2007), one is prompted to take a look back at the corpus of police surveillance devices suborned by modernity, that have in aggregate given way for what might be called the golden age of voyeurism.

The mechanical metamorphosis from Althusser’s (1971) Ideological State Apparatus, into the more palpable “technical apparatus” (Ellul 1964: 101) of the police as we know them today, has been achieved in large part through a process of technological determinism, or the means by which human culture and history are simultaneously rendered and reified by our machines. In other words, the ubiquity of those police surveillance and reporting tools that have pervaded urban life for well over a century, has in turn propagated a mimetic response in occidental consumer culture whereby the general public is increasingly enamored by the “democratization of surveillance” (Staples 2000: 155) made possible by portable, affordable, and elegant devices that, through their egalitarian accessibility, make “coercion embedded, cooperative, and subtle, and therefore not experienced as coercion at all” (Ericson & Haggerty 1997: 7). As public and private interests ultimately converge through a phenomenon I call wikisurveillance, the denizens of this self-supervising panoptic state cooperatively pen the requiem for once valued tenets of privacy through the normalization, even fetishization, of corporate and private data mining, cell phone videography, security camera ubiquity, home “monitoring” systems, the proliferation of spy stores, and systemic Facebook cultism.

As such, I define wikisurveillance as the manner in which the community at large has been seduced by, or at the very least summarily acceded to, the idea of watching, recording, reporting, and even the expectation, or exhibitionism, of being watched, as the new de facto social contract for the post-industrial age. Ergo, the computing neologism “wiki” is an appropriate prefix to denote and describe this present Zeitgeist of freelance information brokering in which we presently live, as not unlike any open-source wiki-based text that is publicly inclusive, accessible, modifiable, and even corruptible in its design, the commercial surveillance technologies that define the new historicism of Western media have fostered an age of consensual spying and reporting perhaps best described as the Vichy state of late-capitalism. As conventional law enforcement’s monopoly on surveillance has consequently been muscled out by a veritable coup d’état spearheaded by free unlimited video messaging, Dateline hidden camera specials, and “how’s my driving?” bumper stickers, we must to some extent acquiesce to the troubling truism that Orwell was wrong: that “[t]here is no Big Brother…we are him” (Staples 2000: 153).

From the discreet distribution of “Constable keys” in the early 20th century to select citizens who could then access locked police signal-boxes and secretly report on the activities of their neighbors, illegal or otherwise, through to the efforts of the Ontario Green Ribbon Task Force in the early 1990s to have affluent commuters armed with what were then nascent and comparatively costly cell-phones report on the movements and identifiers of any vehicle similar to that believed to have been driven by serial killer Paul Bernardo, to modern AMBER-Alerts that function under this same basic pretense, and ultimately to the use of virtual communities like You Tube to solve crimes as serious as murder in some instances (Quintino 2006), there is indeed a long standing confederacy between hegemony and communications technology—even a co-constitutive evolution—which is being increasingly co-opted by private citizens and private enterprise as the state’s observational authority is deregulated.

As Western law enforcement continues to increasingly assert itself through largely privately owned and definitively for-profit entities whose loyalty remains to its capital interests in earnest, the “technical apparatus” of the police is diffused amongst an untrained, unaccountable, and largely anonymous civilian populace who mimic the police methodology by not only buying the compatible hardware, but also buying-in to the associated mindset that all human activities have an inherent intelligence-gathering value.

Whether it be the regular use of clandestine listening devices in Dunkin’ Donuts stores throughout the US (Staples 2000), or the Argus Digital Doorman maintaining and potentially selling off a facial recognition database containing the images of all visitors traveling to and fro any subscribing condominium or apartment building, we see that wikisurveillance allows the Western narrative on both privacy and paranoia to be scribed by a cabal of agents provocateurs who, in working for purely commercial interests, transform the thin blue line into a proverbial Maginot Line of strategic technical installations that expedite the erosion of human agency in not only the management, but also the manufacturing, of law and order.

Wikisurveillance has shown us that the rise of the dreaded police state in the West will not come with the terrifying, sweeping reforms of some new radical and totalitarian government that somehow seizes power, nor from under the boot of some fascist despot, but rather, with the efforts taken in the here and now largely to protect actuarial assets. While police agencies are generally subject to public oversight and accountability, and to archival audits and the eventual de-classification or disclosure of some information, where, when, and how the fragments of unregulated and individually mined data presently floating around will ultimately be used becomes the nagging query written into the code of wikisurvillance. As all human activities become increasingly part of a permanent and quantifiable record that is in large part privately owned and maintained, the Monday morning quarterbacking of historical surveillance data will consequently ensure that “[a] crime can always be found” (Solove 2007: 5) amongst the assorted images, as the floating definition of deviance ensures that crime becomes the last truly renewable Western resource.

Michael Arntfield is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario.

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