[-empyre-] Contesting the Netopticon

Joseph Delappe delappe at unr.edu
Tue Jan 25 06:01:01 EST 2011

First off I want to say thank you to Simon for organizing this most interesting conversation and for inviting me to participate.  I would also like to thank all those who have participated in this discussion of the netopticon.

I must admit that I have been keeping one eye slightly on the postings back and forth over the past two weeks as this has been the start of a very busy term - my ability to focus upon anything in specific has proven to be more challenging than usual.  Yesterday I spent 6 hours reading straight through the entirety of the postings regarding the topic of the Netopticon.  I have found the discussion to be fascinating in substance yet maddeningly disjointed in structure.  This is the first time I have actively participated in such an email based "conversation".  I put this in quotes as it seems fascinating that, in the same manner we denote "friends" on facebook we seem to willingly embrace this type of forum as a "discussion" or "dialog" when in reality what we are doing might be more similar to a very smart chain letter or perhaps an exquisite corpse of theoretical discourse. This may sound like a criticism yet I do not necessarily intend it as such - it would seem a good place to start commenting on the notion of the netopticon by noting perhaps how readily we come to embrace such seemingly benign alterations of words such as "friends" on Facebook or "discussion" in this context.  Simon's consideration of the Stockholm Syndrome is perhaps relevant in this regard.   Honestly I am not entirely sure where I am going with this but I am thinking of this bit of dialogue from Woody Allen's Annie Hall:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs."

One might consider this forum to provide an effective metaphor for the larger issues we are attempting to address.  We are at once appropriately concerned by the potentially invasive role of the internet which has rapidly transformed so many aspects of our daily lives, while at the same time we seem willing, dare I say even eager to embrace such as they provide something equivalent to the aforementioned "eggs".

While reading through the posts I have been taking notes and copying segments upon which to comment - by the end of yesterday I had five pages of text!  Rather that go through all of this, I will try here to put some of my thoughts in order.

After reading through the posts yesterday, my thinking went towards the consideration of Chatroulette - as I am typing these words I am live on Chatroulette for the first time.   I thought it might be interesting, in light of the multilayered, interventionist nature of much of my work on the internet, to attempt to formulate my post whilst engaged in this online experiment in shared surveillance.  I see you, you see me!  Multitasking the netopticon!

In regards to artworks that explore this issue, I would first suggest Hasan Elahi's ongoing work to "Tracking Transience" (http://elahi.umd.edu/) as perhaps a seminal example of an artist creating a work that ultimately examines and questions our rush towards embracing the expression and spread of "me" across the internet while at the same time providing a critique of our government's overreach since the 9/11 attacks.  Hasan, if you don't know of his work, was detained by Homeland Security on returning from an exhibition of his work in Africa.  Some months earlier, Elahi had emptied out his storage unit in Tampa, Florida some weeks after the 9/11 attacks and was later interrogated for several months after his detention to prove that he was not a terrorist (the owner of the storage unit had apparently turned him in for looking Middle Eastern - he is actually of Bangledeshi lineage).  After clearing his name he asked his FBI interrogator how he might once again travel abroad without being detained on his return.  The FBI suggested that he stay in contact with them while he travelled so that they might insure that he would not be further detained.  What started as text email communications to the FBI eventually included photographs of his travels - which eventually evolved into an extensive conceptual project on the web that obsessively documents Elahi's every movement, every meal, every toilet used, waiting rooms at airports and a "live tracking" feature pinpointing his location on a satellite map.

Another work I would like to site is that of Wafaa Bilal.  His most recent project  "3rdi" involves the implantation of a functioning web camera into/onto the back of Bilal's head actively streaming still shots at one-minute intervals.

What I find fascinating in regard to both of these works is that they both take our growing fascination and use of the internet to effectively express the digital "me" to certain extremes.  These are perhaps also the pathologies mentioned in an earlier post in a quote from Sherry Turkle's book, "Alone Together" (which I am just finishing). In Elahi's case one could look at the evolution and explosion of the use of Facebook, which now includes options for tracking one's location, as something that at once seemed extreme to becoming everyday.  One hears more and more about people, particularly adolescents, obsessively uploading hundreds of photographs, status updates and texting each other continuously over the course of their daily lives.  In light of this progression from pathological activity to typical behavior, one might predict that Bilal's project to attach a web camera to his body is likely predictive of what could become normal in the years to come.

Finally, as I must head of to work just now, I would like to close out this post by making a comment regarding Wikileaks that might tie everything together. Pure speculation here and likely more science fiction than theory.  The efforts by Wikileaks to share state secrets and information that governments would rather us not know about is, from my perspective, a very good thing.   Several years ago, in 2006, I began a project to type the names of dead U.S. military personnel into the text chat of the "America's Army" computer game.  This game, beyond its stated role as a marketing and recruiting tool for the US Army also allows the military to track individual player performance, but I digress.  Part of my intentions with this project, beyond protesting the war and their computer "game", has been an effort to draw attention to the fact that we have generally not been allowed to see images of dead or wounded Americans on the battlefields of Iraq (the Wikileaks video is a rather disturbing yet necessary violation of this policy http://www.collateralmurder.com/).   Since the inception of my "dead-in-iraq" project, I've often wondered what it would be like to have web cameras attached to the helmet of every soldier on the ground fighting our wars and to have this information readily accessible via the internet.   Should not we, the citizens of a nation propagating such violence on the other side of the planet be allowed to see just what it is our military is doing on our behalf?  We presently have a number of military facilities in the U.S., including one in Nevada, where remote video and other information from drones, planes and troops on the ground are fed in real time.  Will we eventually be able to access such information?  Would this be a good thing?

Anyway, really must be going.  My Chatroulette experiment has been rather telling.  At first, I found myself deeply uncomfortable by the stream of faces watching me type this post - mostly young men and women sitting, looking bored, apprehensive yet curious.  The oddest ones are those who don't go to the "next" view immediately - some watch me, as I turn my head to look at them on my laptop (I am typing on an external monitor) the generally quickly switch away.  Eventually, as I've spent several hours here now typing, I've come to ignore the presence of this invasive video exchange - I've come to a point of accommodation of sorts - maybe I am just ignoring it really but all the same it is interesting how much we can allow ourselves to do in the context of the netopticon.   I am sure there is a performance in the making here, perhaps a reading of Foucalt into Chatrouletter?

More soon and thank you for considering my ramblings!

Joseph DeLappe

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