[-empyre-] Indra's Net

Lichty, Patrick plichty at colum.edu
Thu Jan 27 23:36:42 EST 2011

The Age of the Transparent
“The global village is at once as wide as the planet and as small as the little town where
everybody is maliciously engaged in poking his nose into everybody else’s business.
The global village is a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony; you have
extreme concern with every else’s business and much involvement in everybody
else’s life. It’s a sort of Ann Landers column written larger. And it doesn’t necessarily
mean harmony and peace and quiet, but it does mean huge involvement in
everybody else’s affairs. And so, the global village is as big as a planet and as
small as the village post office.”
-- “McLuhan on McLuhanism,” WNDT Educational Broadcasting Network, 1966

"There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when
everything becomes visible? We'll dream of being blind."
— Paul Virilio

Given Foucault’s reflection on Bentham, I would like to say that his analysis of
the Panopticon seems almost quaint by comparison when McLuhan and Virilio are
taken into consideration.  The Panopticon assumes a sort of top-down Orwellian
scenario of ubiquitous but uncertain surveillance.  The issue here is that the Panopticon
exists, but like artificial intelligence and infopower, it did not turn out to be like
1984.  I have my picture taken several times a week by tourists, casual phone users,
bank machines, friends.  Facebook privacy controls are useless, whether from
social engineering or holes in the protocols, same for gmail.  Skype stores a
database of all communications that you and anyone else have had for as long
as you leave your history on.  WIRED Magazine ran an article chronicling a man
who tried to go “dark”, but was found within 30 days.  People can have personal drones
 operated remotely by iPhone that could snoop in offices or outside windows,
a la the British movie version of 1984. Privacy online, and personal privacy have
become a vestigial organ.  In short, anyone can watch anyone else if they want
and (top down, bottom up) there isn't much that anyone else can do to avoid it.

The issue here is that not only is UbiSurv (Ubiquitous Surveillance) a near fact
in the First World, but British house fraus crowdsource monitoring security
cameras from their homes.  This is the gesture – surveillance is no longer top down
– it has become a culture of everyone watching everyone else and putting
it on Facebook.  Make no mistake, command and control (C&C) still exists,
but government has begun to privatize the gaze to the aforementioned
crowdsourced camera watchers, almost like Galaxy Zoo for watching for
transgression.  But on the other hand, we are not in control of what our
friends take of us and put on Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, or there has become
a lessening difference between the police box on the utility pole, the
ATM camera, or the millions of iPhones aimed at us.

What has emerged is not the Panopticon, but a large, disheveled, all
encompassing Indra’s Net of architectonic zones of surveillance – personal,
corporate, institutional, military, but most important interpersonal.
This is where the relation gets really interesting.  When the capturing
gaze is not from C&C to the masses (one architectonic), but from person
to person or from the person looking back at C&C, (which could be a
tool of dissent), the relation totally changes.  We wind up in an uneasy
landscape where transparency is ubiquitous and as WikiLeaks suggests,
the preferred state of being.  And yes, I am suggesting that in the age
of WikiLeaks, the only ontology is that of the transparent, they can be
found to be at any time anyway.

But my students seem not to have a problem with any of this; they relish
this interconnectedness, they feel that privacy is a relic, so why cry for it?
If no one is doing anything wrong, why worry?

The issue today, in my opinion, is not with the Panopticon per se, but
ubiquitous transparency and like surveillance in the age of the personal
recording device and social media.  First-worlders have become Warholian
people watchers on steroids, and personal privacy has become a myth.

The questions are:
Where are the densities and architectonics of this Ubiopticon?
How are the vectors of gaze (dis)organized, and how can the aware individual play them like an instrument?
What are the strings in the new Indra’s net?
Can it be disrupted or subverted?

Thank you for reading my cheery missive, and thanks to everyone for having me here this week.

More information about the empyre mailing list