Thursday, 22 July 2010

Top Secret America

Washington Post investigation 'Top Secret America' pulls a lot of information together about the world on intelligence, covert law enforcement and the like. There are also some pretty good visualisations helping to make sense of this information. It's worth a look.

I'm oddly amazed by the amout of space these intelligence operations need, as well as the Posts focus on absolute numbers. The size of these operations touches on something I was thinking about yesterday - intelligence gluts surpassing any analytic capability because of the sheer amount of data produced by contemporary surveillance systems.

Additionally, Wired magazine has reported on the role that congress played in the large numbers of contractors involved in intelligence, and the claims that publishing this information puts US national security at risk (the list of sites was first run past people in US intelligence services to check this wasn't the case, and some of the locations are vague).

Wonder if there'll be something like this for the UK any time soon?

Monday, 19 July 2010

ISA 2010 conference

Last week, I attended the International Sociological Association world congress in Gothenberg Sweden. I was presenting a paper on UK news media representations of surveillance as part of a panel on Culture and Surveillance, organised by Torin Monahan and David Lyon.

The conference programme can be searched here. ISA is an absolutely huge conference, running from Monday through to Saturday (I did Wednesday to Friday), with multiple panels running from 8.30 in the morning, until around 10.00 at night. It was a bit of a struggle to navigate at times, but I managed to get along to some interesting sessions alongside our own. I thought I'd write about them here for people not lucky enough to have taken a trip to Gothenberg (which I really liked as a city).

Surveillance and Popular Culture (link)

Ariane Ellerbrok (Uni. Alberta) presented about her research on face recognition systems and their shift from a security focus to a use in various commerical, convenience, and playful applications. She argued that the previous justificatory rhetorics that the face recognition industry has had to provide at each turn (national security, citizenship administration etc) are being shifted as useable, consumer technology using face recognition emerges - for example, the face recognition automated tagging of faces in the latest version of Picasa, or the in-progress Recognizr. Ariane suggested that the status of these technologies (Which are still full biometrics linked to verified personal identities) as toys has the effect of silencing the need for justification and makes traditional logics of critique problematic, and called for more examination of the role of play in facilitating more serious surveillance technology.

Nelson Arteaga Botello, Universtad Autónoma del Estado de Mexico, spoke about H1N1 Influenza Surveillance Systems in Mexico: An Approach from Biopolitical and Cultural Studies. This focused upon the one year state of emergency applied by the Mexican government in the 'swine flu' outbreak and the moral panic surrounding this. He analysed this through a governmentality framework, focusing upon the visibilities, tactics and strategies and the creation of a security dispositif. This presentation raised for me a thought about governmentality and it's applicability to different nations. You would have to incorporate public attitudes towards government problematisations (in Mexico, apparently, the public tends to be immediately sceptical to any problem that has been identified by the government).

I was up at this point, presenting a description of the two frames found in UK news media discourse that are used to evaluate and make sense of surveillance. The idea is that news media is a site of political contestation and also forms a source of interpretative resevoirs people use to make sense of surveillance more broadly. There are two frames, one broadly positive, and another broadly negative, but neither is quite the enlightened critical discourse we might be seeking. The paper went well, coming in on time, and I got a couple of good questions. Quite enthused about writing up this research further and trying to get it through into print.

Lorna Elizabeth Muir (Uni. of Aberdeen) gave a talk on
Assemblages, Data Doubles and Deleuze’s Dividual: Cinematic Representations of the ‘Control’ Body. She looked at depictions of surveillance the control/discipline shift in cinema, finding that whilst there was some critique, many film directors were also fairly complicit in the process. Her theoretical framework was an engagment with Deleuze's control society model and examined the difficulty of representing data based surveillance, with the result that all imagery seems to focus upon the level of the human interface (text and graphics onscreen)- the visual being actually unecessary for the surveillance machine. Lorna looked at Enemy of the State and how this film shows the data double whilst at the same time destorying the real life. The ace phrase she used here was 'extracting info from the human whilst discretely rendering its obsolete' Lorna's big question is what are the alternative futures being marginalised by these Hollywood blockbusters? As illustration below, I've added Mark Coleran's showreel. He's a graphic and interface designer responsible for a lot of the surveillant images in contemporary cinema.

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

Andre Mondoux, Quebec University brought the panel to a close speaking about Television and the Banalisation of surveillance, using examples from various television shows (24, Paradox, Battlestar Galactica, and faked reality shows) to illustrate his talk (delivered from an iPad no less). Surveillance is banalised in these depictions because it becomes the background, and in presenting ideology as non-ideological. Andre also spoke about hyperindividualisation, and the idea of totally free subject, freed by itself, for itself, and for which all discourses are equal. The pragmatic takes over the symbolic and the way to create meaning it to look at things.

Technological Futures (link)

This was a really interesting panel. the first paper Michael Strassnig (Universitaat Wien, Austria) presented on Technologies of Imagination: Rethinking Spaces for Negotiating Nanofutures. This was a research project aimed at looking at the co-production of technology, understanding the dynamics of expectations and how these impact on the future. The case study was research on nano-technology in Austria. They used a system called Play Decide, derived from an EU FP6 research project, which looks really interesting, and something we could potentially harness for VOME. They based IMAGINE workshops on this which allowed people to take advantage of exerpt information on cards, whilst having the experts physically absent and thus allowing open discussion and contestation. The cards can be used to assemble a range of different narratives about nano-science.

Carlotta Bizzarri spoke about the use of Robots for educational purposes in a research project where the took lego mindstorms robots into several schools in Spain, using participant obversation to see how it effected education. Apparently, there was some destabilisation of power relations as some students were more knowledgable about the technology than their teachers. However, it looked like gender dynamics remained important in the mainstreams schools with students identifying boys but not girls as experts on the technology.

Daphne Esquivel Sada presented on Synthetic Biology or 'the route towards the engineering of life'. This examined the evolution of bio-engineering, kitchen-sink biology, and the modularisation of bio-bricks based around open source ideologies. This egalitarian logics allows anybody to contribute and upload genetic designs to communal databases, avoiding duplication of work, and allowing relatively amateur scientists to participate. There was the familiar discussion during the question regarding if this was 'democratisation' or not.

Michelle Robitalle (Montreal) presented on transhumanist political ideology in her paper entitled "Self-Determination and Optimization of Individual Capacities: Towards a Brand New Self-Made Body?". She did a really interesting analysis of the way that transhumanism took a series of liberal and libertarian rights and interpreted them in a particular technological way. So for example, the right to the body, because a right to improve the body through technological means. There were interesting discussion about the role of the state in this, and to what extent other people should pay to support these 'rights'. The transhumanist idea is based upon the three views of the body as perfectible, informational and obsolete. It would be interesting to take a Freeden inspired conceptual morphology look at Transhumanism.

Visual Methodologies (Link)

Collecting and Producing visual data and methodologies of analysis was crammed into a small room with a large number of people, suggesting that this topic might need more face in future given the interest that it attracts. I was interested in visual methodologies for various reasons involved with the VOME project, our use of video elicitation and also the surveillance theory perspective and my personal interest in photography.

Dario Da Re (Padua and Veron) presented on the visual tool kit. He advocated the use of computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (and suggested looking at Surry's offering in this area). He argues that manual analysis is impossible with video material, but that it can often be data heavy given the file size. Video, he argued, are particularly effective for understanding Proxemics (the way humans structure space, placement in social actions and social status) and Kinescics (body language, non-verbal polysemics, only 30-35% of communication is through language). He recommeded the use of ATLAS.ti based on a VISE principle (visualisation, integration, serendipity and exploration) for its ease of coding, retrieval, and memo functions.

Maciej Frackowiak presented some methodological and theoretical insights from his research project using photo elecitation to examine the boundary between erotica and pornography. He identified the challenge of non-stable imagery, where context is highly important in making the distinction. An image taken off the internet and rendered in the same format as a glossy art print destablises supposedly settled boundaries. He argued that images are a window and a puzzle. Maciej stated that photographic elicitation is a cultural practiced based upon a particular definition of a photo, and that the atmosphere of an interview is (as always) very important.

Lukasz Rogowski gave a very interesting talk on iconoclasm - the destruction of images. This was not limited to religion but drew in further examples of this tension, leading him to the argument that iconoclasts do not doubt the power or effectiveness of the image, but rather they are fearfully aware of the power of the image. He identified several types of iconoclasm. Transformative iconoclasm such as the destruction of the Berlin wall, or pulling down a statue of a dictator are used to mark epochal change. Everyday iconoclasm is where an individual would destroy photos to mark a change in their life, often done in solitude and silence. Digital/Virtual iconoclasm includes spoof sites and parodies online, pictures showing destruction and the digital creation of damage (end of the world images). This talk triggered off a lot of questions from the audience. It made me think of the fear of iconoclasm that drives resilience planning in the UK, and the on-going contestation over photographers rights in public spaces.

Dennis Zuev presented on an analysis of youtube video used for political purposes by activists in the Uyghor nationalist movement in China and how resistance occured in the fields of popular music and culture rather than in the open. He also showed how internationalised the Uyghor diaspora was and how it interacted in this online video conversation. It reminded me of the Chechen diaspora's use of the internet for political communication.

(mis) Understanding the Internet

I also got a brief introduction to Socio-Cybernetics courtesy of the Socio-Cybernetics research committee's panel on Understanding Cyberspace and the Internet. I went along, because I've got a take on understanding cyberspace and the internet that's currently sitting in the paper on cyber security. I didn't get too much from this panel, and the cyberspace/cybernetics link is possibly only an etymological one.

One paper was an intro to philosophy of science, featuring Kuhn and , the need to start science again from the beginning (?!) and the utterly solipsist claim that everything was happening inside the head of the presenter. I'm not sure. I felt painfully, really present. The one paper out of three that had anything to do with cyberspace and the internet used a generational analysis, arguing that the 'gameboy people' basically had different ways of thinking, and that this was problematic for developing critical thinking skills - they (we?) see the world as a screen, and can always start a new game if they loose the current one. The presenter asked 'what kind of political discourse is possible in 140 characters). The presenter suggested that he (and his generation) simply couldn't undestand why young people put personal information online.

The trick is not to assume it's because they're young, or have 'different minds' but to do some detailed examined of the infrastructure encouraging information sharing, the educational environment in which young people develop information literacy, and in the best case - ask them.

Sociology of the Military

This is an area with some overlaps with Security Studies in International Relations, which I used to teach at Birmingham, and still maintain a strong research interest in (especially where it overlaps with surveillance studies), so it was interesting to see it from a sociological perspective (and again it suggested there's not too much real space between the two disciplines). The one stand out presentation that I saw was from Orna Sasson-Levy, Edna Lomsky-Feder and Yagil Levy from Israel, presenting on their work with transcripts of the Breaking the Silence interviews. Breaking the silence is a group of Israeli former soldiers, who publish annoynmously the statements and testimony of Israeli soldiers of their abuses (and abuses they witnessed) in the occupied territories. For the first time, Breaking the Silence had published a report using the testimony of women soldiers. Making use of the interviews from this, the academics have done their own analysis (which I recommended they should share back with the research participants). They identify the particular way that women soliders would often criticse childish and immatures male behaviour (over-enthusiastic) in the military, whilst holding on to their own rationality in the face of accusations of emotionality. They identified a potential shift from 'republic motherhood' to combat experience as the standpoint for female critique of military practice. Finally, the idenfied that breaking the silence was unable (for reasons they saw as endemic to Israeli society) to critique the occupation per se, but only the way in which it was being carries out.

I popped into a couple of other sessions, but they're not relevant to the purpose of this blog. It was interesting to be a politics type spending time at a sociology conference, and could to spend a little time thinking about a broad range of sociological issues and themes. There were also plenty of ideas that I could apply back to my own research. Finally, I really liked what I saw of Sweden.

Monday, 12 July 2010

the facebook republic

website Visual Economics maps out facebook applications and pages as if they were a set of countries.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

ICS Book review: Goold and Neyland

My review of Ben Goold and Dan Neyland's book 'New Directions in Surveillance and Privacy (Willan: 2009) has been published in the journal Information, Communication and Society.

(There's a typo in the first line that snuck in since my last proof-reading)

New Issue of Surveillance and Society - Surveillance, Children and Childhood

There's a new issue of Surveillance and Society just published on the topic of surveillance, children and childhood. This is a really interesting topic, which I'm taking a bit of a look at currently in terms of privacy/online safety education for kids. I was switched on to the issue of surveillance and children by listening to two presentations that were part of the ESRC/Surveillance studies network seminar series 'The Everyday life of surveillance'. Mike McCahill and Rachel Finn's work is featured in this journal issue in an article 'The Social Impact of surveillance in three UK schools: Angles, Devils and Teen mums'. Also worth mentioning in this field is Torin Monahan and Torres's edited book 'Schools under Surveillance' (reviewed in the issue) and also Emmeline Taylor's work in the area of surveillance in schools.