Digital optics: vision, supervision and souvision

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  • Digital optics: vision, supervision and souvision

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  • Abstract

    We live in a world networked by all-encompassing swathes of surveillance, a terrifying, thrilling, ubiquitous and pervasive mesh of machinic spies and surrogate watchmen. There is little else but I and eye: self, identity, digitality and the labyrinth of vision technologies that ensnare this all. We thread through it like guilty suspects, software fugitives seeking the few respites of unsurveyed terrestrial space that mirror the few remaining spots of untrodden land upon this earth. This is the age of the data environment – of vast interconnected spaces beyond our senses, control and imagination: a messy, complex sprawl of natural and man-made climates laced with swirls of data, electromagnetism and radiation, where the soft rules the hard and computers are more powerful than the buildings that house them.

    Technology proliferates at a pace outstripping the most hyperactive imagination: at moments it appears that fantasy leads reality, that the everyday verges on the fictional as technological shifts exceed what we had previously thought possible. Some of our most shocking, provocative and intrusive revolutions emerge in the exploding field of surveillance.  This paper examines the identity and effectiveness of our ever-increasing spatial systems of surveillance and argues for their function not only as system architecture, but as an extensive and complete form of contemporary spatial architecture, replete with their own logic, language and systems of defence, their own mechanisms of social, climatic and dimensional control that one might more traditionally associate with architecture. It examines the way surveillance reinforces societal atomisation and categorisation, breaking crowds and cohesive groups into individual fragments whose flesh and bits are routinely further decomposed for clinical analysis. It also examines the way surveillance codifies and legislates behaviour, dictating an ever increasing slew of characteristics from pedestrian gait to lawful facial expression, skin temperature and minute electrical fluctuations, heartbeats and breathing rates. The paper then presents a complementary digital response, outlining not only software and hardware engineering solutions promulgated from within the surveillance fields to curb its excesses in the proposition of an acceptable equilibrium between liberty and justice, privacy and surveillance. It also surveys the radical counter and anti-surveillance measures from outside the field, exemplified by a host of artistic projects that have become increasingly propositional rather than documentary as, for instance, historical video work cedes to new media. The paper concludes with reference to, and illustration of, the author’s own work in relation to our performance under a surveillance regime, with its exploration of ‘ambiveillance’ – the ambivalent nature of our response to excessive surveillance (our host country, for instance, has the most surveillance per capita in the world, yet its population consistently, lasciviously, vote for further rollouts) – and methods for living harmoniously within a surveillance society whilst productively subverting it.