[-empyre-] posted for Helen Grace

Renate Ferro rtf9 at cornell.edu
Mon Nov 4 15:29:47 EST 2013

Helen's post below got completely scrambled when it came to the mod site a
couple of days ago.  It was meant for last month's discussion so my
apologies to Patrick, but I promised her I would post it for her.  Thanks.

Digital cameras and surveilling data
I read today on the front page of the Taipei Times that NSA has been
intercepting Google & Yahoo traffic but assurances are given that US users
are OK really because NSA is only interested in foreign traffic and in
people who pose a threat to the US. Given that it appears almost everyone
foreign is potentially a threat, there is little comfort at all in the NSA
assurances for any of us who are not American.  But in any case, I am not
so interested in the generally paranoid scenarios that have become the
dominant narrative of these discussions of the surveillance potential of
all the ubiquitous technology we now use.

So I'm especially interested in this discussion of digital cameras and
surveillance because in fact it seems we now somehow enjoy all the
attention and especially the grand visions and images that can be derived
from these possibilities. Most recently I’ve especially enjoyed the images
produced from the swooping up of huge quantities of Instagrams to produce
lovely beguiling images of the patterns of cities (since I’ve been working
on the patterns of cities, though without resorting to military-grade
methods - as admiring as I am about the possibilities such methods afford,
in spite of the worries we have).


What interests me more is that a new feature of ubiquitous image-making has
been a kind of ‘evasion of capture‘ by people in the taking of images – at
least on the basis of analyzing a modest few thousand camera phone images
taken in Hong Kong in recent years. If our devices give us a lot of
software and algorithms to help us take ‘better’ pictures (face
recognition, smile detection etc) the fact is, from the data of our
research at least, the face doesn’t enter into the picture in two thirds of
cases. This is a very big change from earlier research on amateur
image-making in the US in the post-war period, where it’s been claimed
(Chalfen, 1987) that 90% of such images contained full-frontal portraits of
smiling people. (Only 10% of our images are of smiling faces; there are
more pictures of food than smiling people, at least from what we’ve

So all the nice machinic capabilities, reflecting a universalist assumption
of family form & amateur interest may be simply unnecessary.  But we pay
for them of course, in this cost-outsourcing phase of technological
development, adding to profits, cashing in on the generally
publically-funded (in university research) stage of surveillance technology
development after 9/11. This actually concerns me more than the fact that
my data is swept up by whoever might consider anonymous me to be a person
of interest.

Professor Helen Grace, 葛海崙
Associate, Department of Gender & Cultural Studies
Research Affiliate, Sydney College of the Arts,
University of Sydney

Founding Director
MA Programme in Visual Culture Studies
Chinese University of Hong Kong


Visiting Professor,
Room C2-420,
Department of English,
National Central University,
300 Jhongda Rd,
Jhongli, Taoyuan County, 32001
32001 桃園縣中壢市五權里中大路300號


Renate Ferro
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art,
(contracted since 2004)
Cornell University
Department of Art, Tjaden Hall Office:  306
Ithaca, NY  14853
Email:   <rferro at cornell.edu <rtf9 at cornell.edu>>
URL:  http://www.renateferro.net
Lab:  http://www.tinkerfactory.net

Managing Co-moderator of -empyre- soft skinned space
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