|> Neural Magazine|
David Lyon interview.
by Alessandro Ludovico
You said that "The body became a source as well as a site for surveillance." Surveillance also means the disembodiement of people and the construction of the people's data-doubles. It's a progressive loss of identity in favour of the predicting power's delirium. Do you think the perception of our own body is also mutating? Does it lead us to obsessively taking care of the body itself? What you think of the old cyberpunk motto 'the body is obsolete'?
Paradoxically, the body becomes a site for surveillance at just the time when communication, including surveillance, becomes less 'embodied'. But in a sense, it is already data extracted from bodies that circulates within surveillance systems. It is because the body has become a site of style and of self-care within contemporary consumer capitalism that it seems to be threatened when biometric surveillance is developed. Unfortunately, the idea that humans are 'embodied persons' with multiple characteristics has been fragmented so that some seem to deify the body while others regard it as 'mere meat'. While recognizing that how we view bodies changes over time, it is still worth noting that the concept of 'embodied persons' is a good starting point for critique -- both of body-obsessions encouraged by consumerism, and of body-denial, encouraged by cyberpunks, and theorists of 'virtuality' as well as by surveillance systems.
What does it really mean 'privacy' today? We have to modify the notion we intuitively had or have to enforce it adding new rules to be respected by?
Privacy means different things at different times in history and in different countries around the world. Today's form is often a product of the modern world's split between 'public' and 'private' spaces, and of the citizen who has a right to be protected from the intrusions of the state. Because so many base their critique of some aspects of surveillance on 'privacy' I respect this as a means of entry into the debate. But it is inadequate because it supposes the problem is primarily individual -- not a social issue -- and because it therefore puts the onus on the individual to protect herself in policy and in law. Instead, the negative aspects of today's surveillance systems should be questioned in terms of human rights and even more importantly, social justice. It is important to control the flow of information about oneself (this is an 'informational privacy' principle) but also equally important that all who process data be accountable for what they do. Today's surveillance involves 'social sorting' and calls for practices that are sensitive to who is being sorted for what purposes and with what consequences. It is easy to assume, for example, that video surveillance could be used to 'curb terrorism' but in airports and at borders this may mean prejudicial categories of race being invoked.
You said that "surveillance is generated by the need for tokens of trustworthiness in increasingly private and privatized societies." So the privatization of everything that once was public, and the perpetual fear of loose it, are the main causes of the surveillance needs? Isn't a process of progressive individuals' isolation that creates this kind of needs?
Yes, my argument (following, in part, that of Steven Nock) is that privacy causes surveillance (and not just vice-versa)! It's because we've created a world where people want more and more to be 'private' in the sense of individually self-sufficient and autonomous, that we have to resort to means of compensating for the lack of social knowledge of each other that exists where there are more interdependent relationships. This is also the reason why we should not think of all surveillance as necessarily sinister or malign. It's just a feature of the organization of the modern world. Like any human activity or institution, though, it can exhibit negative and destructive qualities, about which we need to be constantly vigilant. Of course, there are also other levels on which this situation can be addressed. Encouraging the growth of non-individualistic social relationships can be done in many contexts!
The actual 'SimCity' model, that you carefully described, represents the real world in a centralized control that can't succeed even in its more honest premises. How a social process of 'hi-tech surveillance technology refuse' would start? Will it have to force us to collaborate each other more than we do now?
As I said in response to your previous question, the kinds of individualized societies that we are creating in the twenty-first century have very negative consequences for many who through no fault of their own are left out, or marginalized, or in some ways disadvantaged. The SimCity model is one that assumes software can sort things out adequately, and that given the right algorithm, fiscal, environmental, social, and other forms of urban planning can be worked out. The idea -- developed most clearly in economics -- that statistically modelling the world is the best way to approach planning, is steadily being transferred to other areas of life as well. But real world social life is more complex! And, yes, it involves slow-and-steady communication, the building of trust, the forming of relationships, and long-term collaboration -- all things that the fast world of the instant, high-speed connection discourage!
In the reconfiguration of time-space relations, the live picture of surveillance cameras isn't just an illusion of predicting behaviours in a more complex environment? And the feeling to be constrained and observed doesn't limit our freedom, stimulating our intelligence to overcome it as humans has always done in the past (i.e. in the Berlin Wall)?
Yes, of course! I have never taken the view that 'technology' or 'governing authorities' are somehow 'in control' of our destinies. Such determinism is a big mistake. All surveillance systems depend for their operation on the compliance of those who are 'watched'. Some people do comply, others negotiate (giving false information when opening a hotmail account, for example), while yet others resist. In New York, the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public places has given rise to groups who perform theatre in front of the cameras, and others that set up web sites showing the exact location of all cameras. People whose lives are scrutinized by large scale welfare systems , too, show great ingenuity in protecting their lives and the lives of their families, in the face of 'welfare' intrusions. The point is that each new constraint on freedom has to be recognised for what it is, and confronted appropriately.