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Monday, September 10, 2007

Technology in the active voice.

I recently became aware of a very good anarchist journal out of Britain called Voices of Resistance from Occupied London. In it they cover a wide range of topics and their first issue has a lot of interesting stuff in it. In this issue, there's a great interview with the always interesting Mike Davis about surveillance and security in the modern city. To the question, "Why aren't cameras being vandalised in London?" he responds:
That would be one of my questions too. I think that we need to propagandise and fight for the idea of a universal insurrection against surveillance state, against the erosion of civil liberties. We need to encourage people and find every way possible in which to resist, subvert and destroy the apparatus of surveillance and control. Of course, millions of teenagers do that anyway. Kevin Lynch wrote a book on vandalism; he was very interested in vandalism as an urban process, in spontaneous vandalism of all sorts. He studied it in the seventies, partially to understand how architects could combat it and partially because he was interested in its logic. He thought that anything that involved people and the built environment, including destroying it, was a good thing. If you wanted to generate a theory of participatory architecture or urbanism, vandalism seemed to be the most common and popular form of participating in the built environment by revolting against its dehumanisation, in working class council estates in American inner cities and so on.

I think we need a strategy to support each other; we should vandalise and subvert the surveillance state and the middle class that supports it. Tearing down the armed response signs from peoples' lawns freaks them out... Not that the armed response is real or reliable, but people get immense reassurance from having the sign there. If you remove it they think that all forces might mobilise against them and that they might get killed the next day. I started off vandalising lawn jockeys - these are a phenomenon of American segregation and racism. They are black jockey figures put in the lawn like the pink flamingos they put there. They are popular amongst people who are nostalgic of the old racial order, when all blacks were servants or slaves. When I went back to L.A. in the late eighties I discovered that there were quite a few of these around houses in Beverly Hills. It is something to which all the creative energy of youth needs to be applied: to find ways in which to fight back and subvert the surveillance society.
Surveillance is on the way to ubiquity as the system - and as Davis smartly points out, it's citizens - strive for the total abolition of all unregulated space. All space must be watched, goes the new ethic. Further, spaces that are not watched are considered dangerous and threatening, and not only by the State. Just look at an ad for cell phone GPS! We are all encouraged and encourage each other to voluntarily participate in these systems of surveillance, forgetting the power they have to control and regulate our behavior. Properly viewed, these technologies are not conveniences, they are interventions by the rich and powerful into our lives.

Take the case of John Halpin, now threatened with termination from his job because his employers offered him a work cell phone with the hidden objective of tracking his movements. Having used the GPS system inside to establish John's tendency to skip out of work early, an administrative trial judge recommended firing the 21-year veteran.

But here's the problem. Halpin wanted the phone. Not every worker who was offered one took them - although the secret purpose of the new phones was not revealed to anyone. So, why did he take the phone?
Some workers refused the free-phone offer, saying they preferred to use their own cells.

Richard said the unsuspecting Halpin "admitted he took the phone because he liked the walkie-talkie and other functions it has."

She dismissed concerns about whether the city had to warn Halpin in advance of the cellphone's tracking abilities.

"The department [of Education] is not expected to notify its employees of all the methods it may possibly use to uncover their misconduct," Richard decided.

"The undisputed intent of issuing the cellphone with GPS was for the department to be able to determine the whereabouts of its supervisors in the field."
In this case, Halpin had the choice whether to participate and he opted to take the phone without considering its potential for subverting his attempt to reclaim from his bosses some time from work. That's probably because, as hinted at above, he never considered that the tech would be used that way.

And why would he, after all? This society has adopted a technology that has huge implications for how we organize our lives - and how the boss and other authorities will try to organize them for us - without considering the implications. There never was a discussion about these technologies and whether we would use them. Again, we can ask why, and the answer is that we have been sold a political line that technology is neutral when in fact it is a weapon in the hand of a ruling class that seeks to control, manage and remake us so that they can maintain and expand their wealth. Because we believe the lie, we don't question when technology changes our lives. And, cleverly obscuring their power behind technology, the elite escape any blame for the dislocations technology causes to our lives. Technology's affect on our lives is discussed only in the passive voice: it's "change". What a tremendous coup for the elite!

But such technologies are not always imposed voluntarily, of course. If we don't voluntarily take them, the ruling class has no objection to forcing them on us. Take the case of Falluja which, in order that the imperialists could impose their will on the rebellious city (what is generally euphemistically referred to in the media as "succeeding in Iraq"), has been turned into the poster-child for biometric security.
The Marines have walled off Fallujah, and closed the city’s roads to traffic. The only way in is to have a badge. And the only way to get a badge is to have Marines snap your picture, scan your irises, and take all ten of your fingerprints. Only then can you get into the city.

The idea: deny insurgents “freedom of movement,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Smitherman, who heads the biometric badging program for Multi-National Forces-West, here in Al-Anbar province. “Like Mao said, insurgents are like fish swimming in the sea of the people.” These are the high-tech nets, “to keep ‘em from swimming freely.”

There are still plenty of holes in the nets. The biometric systems don’t all talk to one another. Nor do they interface, really, with the other fingerprint- and iris-tracking systems used in other parts of Iraq. Getting the machines to work far, far out in the field can give a Marine migraines. (And, for today, let's not even get into the privacy and human-rights implications.) But, in combination with other measures, the badges do seem to be having an effect. After years of bombs and machine gun fire, the city of Fallujah has suddenly gone quiet.
Let's read that last part again so we don't miss it: "After years of bombs and machine gun fire, the city of Fallujah has suddenly gone quiet." This is the true objective of the ruling class with regards to the rest of the planet's people. Pacification. And their project now more than ever depends on the application and spread of technology, sold to us as neutral or even progressive, but with the sinister intent of controlling us and rendering us unable to resist them or to organize our own lives as we see fit.

And of course they sell it as a boon to human society. That's how they sell wars, strike breaking, police and prisons, too. Increasingly, technology is the ideology of the ruling class. And, as anarchists do with wars, strike breaking, police and prisons, we would be well-served to approach technology, too, with a deeply critical eye.

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