Yesterday I attended the online launch event for Edgelands, a pop-up institute that is being incubated at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. The Institute’s goal is to study how our social contract is being redrawn, especially in urban areas, as a consequence of technological changes such as pervasive surveillance and unforeseen crises such as the global pandemic. The design of the EI is very distinctive: it is time-limited (5 years), radically decentralized, and aiming to bridge gaps between perspectives and methodologies as diverse as academic research, public policy, and art. It is also notable for its focus on rest-of-world urban dynamics outside the North-Atlantic space (Beirut, Nairobi, and Medellín are among the pilot cities). Some of its initiatives, from what can be gleaned at the outset, appear a bit whimsical, but it will be interesting to follow the Institute’s development, as a fresh approach to these topics could prove extremely inspiring.
An interesting report in Medium (via /.) discusses the PRC’s new pervasive surveillance program, Sharp Eyes. The program, which complements several other mass surveillance initiatives by the Chinese government, such as SkyNet, is aimed especially at rural communities and small towns. With all the caveats related to the fragmentary nature of the information available to outside researchers, it appears that Sharp Eyes’ main characteristic is being community-driven: the feeds from CCTV cameras monitoring public spaces are made accessible to individuals in the community, whether at home from their TVs and monitors or through smartphone apps. Hence, local communities become responsible for monitoring themselves (and providing denunciations of deviants to the authorities).
This outsourcing of social control is clearly a labor-saving initiative, which itself ties in to a long-run, classic theme in Chinese governance. It is not hard to perceive how such a scheme may encourage social homogeneization and irregimentation dynamics, and be especially effective against stigmatized minorities. After all, the entire system of Chinese official surveillance is more or less formally linked to the controversial Social Credit System, a scoring of the population for ideological and financial conformity.
However, I wonder whether a community-driven surveillance program, in rendering society more transparent to itself, does not also potentially offer accountability tools to civil society vis-à-vis the government. After all, complete visibility of public space by all members of society also can mean exposure and documentation of specific public instances of abuse of authority, such as police brutality. Such cases could of course be blacked out of the feeds, but such a heavy-handed tactic would cut into the propaganda value of the transparency initiative and affect public trust in the system. Alternatively, offending material could be removed more seamlessly through deep fake interventions, but the resources necessary for such a level of tampering, including the additional layer of bureaucracy needed to curate live feeds, would seem ultimately self-defeating in terms of the cost-cutting rationale.
In any case, including the monitored public within the monitoring loop (and emphasizing the collective responsibility aspect of the practice over the atomizing, pervasive-suspicion one) promises to create novel practical and theoretical challenges for mass surveillance.
I have belatedly joined the masses in seeing the Netflix documentary. I was surprised that throughout the presentation the issue was framed as one of individual (recreational) choice and of manipulation of interests and inclinations: such a way of seeing the dilemma completely elides the extent to which the platforms have penetrated the workplace, providing compelling market incentives in favor of participation for work reasons to those who are perfectly aware of what the tech companies are doing. Much like the rebuttals to Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism argue, the problem with the analysis is not technological, but social and economic.
I just read a story by Tanya Basu (in the MIT Technology Review) about the use of single-page websites (created through services such as Bio.fm and Carrd) to convey information about recent political mobilizations in the US. It’s very interesting how the new generation of social-justice activists is weaning itself from exclusive reliance on the major social media platforms in its search for anonymity, simplicity and accessibility. These ways of communicating information, as Basu underlines, bespeak an anti-influencer mentality: it’s the info that comes first, not the author.
It is early to say whether the same issues of content moderation, pathological speech, and censorship will crop up on these platforms, as well, but for the time being it is good to see some movement in this space.