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Mobolized or Immobolized in the Mobile Era
by Sara Diamond
In April of 2002, we at the Banff New Media Institute held an event entitled Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones that ultimately provided the strap lines which hold up Issue 4 of HorizonZero. Both the concept of "intimate technologies / dangerous zones" and this issue attempt to capture an identical duality: that the new technologies we use to enhance intimacy are also the very same ones being used to open up the social arena of discovery around once-private affairs.
We intend to open a dialogue here about the accelerating invisibility and ubiquity of technology. Wireless technologies and delivery systems may soon overtake our current wired state, creating even greater possibilities for personal mobility -- but apparently only if one is in the right economic or racial category. There are aesthetic
and ethical parallels to social shifts of such a monumental nature, and we need to think carefully about wireless and implanted mediations in all areas of human life.
Computer gadget designers and clothing makers are producing wearable, personal technologies that adapt to a variety of personalities and uses, effectively creating new virtual, social spaces. Youth have made great use of mobile phones, creating powerful alternate communities and languages that allow them to play while they learn. Cheap, mobile technology seems to be a model for sustaining the peer-to-peer revolution, and enabling SMS (Short Message Service) "texting" and file and image sharing. Yet, at the very moment mobility increases, mass culture becomes more uniform.
Do we want to be connected 24/7? What are the boundaries between liberty and control? Perhaps the erosion of privacy is desirable, demanding more social responsibility from us as individuals, and challenging what goes on behind the closed doors of the family. Surely there is a relationship between the current love of reality and event television in the West, and our increased disinterest in privacy. If we want to live life as if it were a performance, in public and formerly private spaces, then mobility will certainly help us to achieve this: Without question, intimate technologies transform our selves, the way we tell stories, relate, play and work.
The questions posed by ubiquitous computing appear even more prescient after September 11, and in light of the ongoing tragedy of global warfare. Mobile technologies can allow us to feel safe and connected, but they can also amplify surveillance and harassment. As designed experiences, intimate technologies permit us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, yet they also provide us with camouflage and amplified defense mechanisms. Security forces and governments describe mobile devices as tools of terror, and have acted to lock down ownership, even introduce tracking of message sources using GPS. On the other hand, the same locatable cell phones are also links to family, friends and community.
We should be as concerned by immobility as mobility. How can we connect wearable technologies, the mobility of fashion as style, and the desire to fasten communication subtly on our bracelets (or on our bodies), with an era of localized warfare, globalization and the reordering of identities? After all, erasing the technologies of
the self is a time-honoured strategy of war.
Without belabouring this point, and without in any way condoning Al Qaeda, I pose the following question: Can any of us shake from our minds the images of Al Qaeda prisoners held in the hot cages of Guantanamo? Stripped of their religious icons, shaved and dressed in vibrant neon orange, these men live out and symbolize a loss of state protection, a conscious side-stepping of the Geneva Convention, a spiral into the virtuality of the global political vortex. Is the era of ubiquitous technology a return to feudal status for some? Social theorists Girogio Agamben and Jamie King both suggest that modern political rights were never "inalienable," but in fact absolutely conditional on citizenship in a nation. Remove a person's nationality and you remove their rights.
By way of illustration, we have recently seen intensified monitoring (via intimate surveillance techniques like body-searches, fingerprinting and iris scanning) of Canadian citizens trying to cross the US border -- specifically, citizens born in what is apparently the wrong place: the Arab states of the Middle East. News agencies
like InformationWeek.com (see: "U.S. Military Creates Deep Biometric Database", October 29, 2002) have reported that, "Biometrics data has also been shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and military researchers say there are plans to extend the collection process to Iraq in the event of a U.S. invasion." (These plans have since been withdrawn.) Racial profiling, not nationhood, becomes the fundamental source of identity.
One thread of this discussion returns us to notions of the individual and their ownership of space, weaving back to assumptions about statehood and identity. Privacy is a construct that hangs, in part, on the social transformations and resulting bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Privacy stands hand in hand with the establishment and strengthening of the nation state. Ideas about citizenship, belonging and related rights are integral not only to identity, but to the design of identity -- for example, through architecture. As Giles Lane points out in this issue of HorizonZero, the Reformation, with its religious dissent, required an architecture of privacy where one could pray undetected in solitude. But architecture isn't the only form of identity that can be designed. Labour, fashion and art historians have also chronicled the organization of the bourgeois family, and a division of labour that included domestic work. Middle class women stayed at home while working women doubled as homemakers and workers, and clothing became a representation of mobility, privacy, gender identity, individuation and, finally, access to citizenship.
Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the design of intimate technologies is alarmingly gendered: Men play at being cyborg, engineer, designer, military machinist. Women play with the utilities of flirtation and seduction, the intimacy of emotions in the context of wearable clothing and devices. There are some exceptions.
Canadian artists and researchers have consistently intervened into the creation and disturbance of intimate technologies. This interest is both perplexing and understandable, emanating as it does from a nation with only regional nationalisms and a whispered history of state surveillance. Steve Mann, for example, speaks directly to these perplexities, attempting to define a new ethics of shared surveillance -- one that grants respite neither to terrorism nor state control.
Other interventions have concerned themselves with the legacy of past centuries, in which Canada's Aboriginal peoples were systematically stripped of their means of expression -- including spiritual and linguistic identity, and national status. Skawennati Tricia Fragnito is a Mohawk-Italian Canadian who uses virtual cut-out dolls and avatars (often in collaboration with her colleagues at Nation2Nation) to "redress" cultural identity and Aboriginal nationhood. Also, the tensions between the skins we wear that are not mobile, and the mobility of self-designation in the 21st century.
Perhaps Women in Black have emerged with the final fashion statement in a world of global conflict. Throughout the years of the Argentinean dictatorship, the Mujeres de la Plaza de Mayo, dressed entirely in Black, would pace silently in Buenos Aires, mourning the disappearance of their loved ones, crying out silently for their return. Women in Black now walk the streets of major cities around the world. Dressed in black, they
have adopted the burqa or chador -- the public clothing that conceals individual identity for orthodox Muslim women when they appear in public. Women in Black silently ask for an end to wars, and for the reinstatement of human rights for all prisoners.
This complex weave of mobility and immobility, privacy and public disclosure, masking and unmasking, is our modern world.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.