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Lost in Cyborgspace
Steve Mann's critics don't concede him much privay
by Angus Leech
It can't be easy being Steve Mann. That much is certain. For starters, after being simultaneously dubbed "World's Most Popular Cyborg" and "Crazy Steve" by the hounds of media, Mann might as well have an Augmented Reality target emblazoned on his EyeTap clad forehead. Few other Canadian digital artists have ever been so thoroughly surveilled by their peers, it seems, and the critics have rarely been gentle. Many times, the arrows have simply been wooden and banal: accusations of making art that seems weird and ugly,turtlish and coarse. Other times (and more interestingly) it's Mann's approach to being human that has been questioned: His fellow artists have wondered about the integrity of his notions of community, his approachesto social activism, his design of intimate technologies and interventionist performances, after so many yearsof living behind cameras and all manner of augmentative apparatus. Maybe some of these people have justbeen burned one too many times by cyborgs at parties who pretended to be listening while, behind those darkglasses, they were actually checking their email. Whatever the reason, dissent is in the ranks. But it is not thepurpose of this column to judge Mann or his critics. Rather, it is only to point out that not everyone agreeswith the Cyborg's theories concerning privacy and surveillance.
The most prevalent critique of Mann's thoughts on privacy seems to revolve around the notion that today, inthe West, we enjoy a level of privacy unimaginable in the old days of ten persons to a single room cottage. Tomany of us this situation seems normal, we've gotten used to it. But it hasn't always been this way -- and still isn't this way in many areas of the world. So, when Mann has said that we are living in a modern day panopticon of state and corporate surveillance, where fear of being watched is supposed to keep us all well behaved (in a status quo sense); and when he says that we ought to learn to "shoot back" at hidden cameras so that the watchers will behave themselves and respect our rights to privacy (however we choose to define them), a few other theorists have called a foul.
One such theorist is Giles Lane, director of Proboscis (UK) and a leading force behind their Private Reveries / Public Spaces research initiative. Lane sees much of the current discussion about privacy and surveillance as "stuck in an Orwellian moment," and describes Mann as "completely trapped." Lane continues: "Instead of rethinking the nature of surveillance, he's simply reflecting back the discourse -- he is locked within his own panopticon...At the moment we are already disempowered by an 'us and them' dialectic, where we're tricked into a kind of paranoia about our relationship to the government, and our relationship to corporations trying to sell us things. So, how can we turn this argument around?...Can we reverse the dialectic of power that causes us to fear government or corporate surveillance of our private lives without adopting the same tactics, and therefore being always already co-opted and appropriated by them?" [Giles Lane is quoted here from a presentation delivered at the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) in April, 2002, as part of Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones, a conference sponsored by the BNMI's Human Centred Interface Project.]
How might we avoid adopting these same tactics? "I think," says Lane, "that it requires a fundamental rethinking of our concept of privacy, and our place within culture, society, and particularly politics." To begin this rethink process, he recommends taking a good long look at the way ideas about privacy have evolved culturally and historically.
"I think that privacy is a Western cultural form," says Lane, "and I don't think it's an inalienable right." He notes the absence of similar formulations of privacy in numerous other cultures and societies. Lane suggests that in the West privacy was "born of the Reformation...If you look at documentation of the mediaeval period, private spaces don't really exist. Certainly not in a domestic setting, and very rarely in public space either. But at the time of the Reformation, suddenly you have conscience of faith. A previously universal religion effectively splits into two camps: Protestant and Catholic. And wherever one of the camps is dominant, those deviants who cling to the minority religion have to start practicing in private...But privacy is actually the child of the Enlightenment. It's the child of ideas of the sublime wherein suddenly the concept of the individual, and the cult of the individual, start to really gather force."
Lane also sees Western ideas about privacy as part of an "economy of scarcity," noting that, "It has value precisely because we so rarely find it. A lot of the conversation around privacy has treated it as a commodity rather than a condition... So I think there's a debate we can have around why privacy is so scarce for us, why everyone has formulated privacy as this scarce moment."
Lane admits that he has few answers. Indeed, his history lesson seems to raise questions more than anything. If privacy is an idea rooted in post-Reformation, pre-microchip lifestyles, how will Western notions of it beforced to evolve along with technological society into the future? Will the influence of new electronic accoutrements, like wearable mobile devices that keep us constantly connected to networks of other "cyborgs" (adigital environment that Mann dubs "cyborgspace"), spawn a sort of "anti-Enlightenment" where Western culture starts to shift away from individualism and old ideas of privacy, toward a greater preference for connectedness? And is it useful to keep thinking about privacy as a right and a commodity, or is it more like a context or condition open for constant renegotiation?
In his book Cyborg (with Hal Niedzviecki; Canada: Doubleday, 2001), Steve Mann says that we need to distinguish between the kidnap of personal information by institutions bent on secretively violating our privacy, and the communal sharing of information that happens when individuals intentionally form communities in cyborgspace. Giles Lane would likely disagree with this "us and them" dialectic. But Mann also says that "privacy as we understand it has already been irretrievably lost. Rather than lament this loss...we must find a way -- both conceptually and actually -- to move forward into the cyborg era." He predicts that this era of cyborgspace will be "an accessible hive of activity where the boundaries between public and private...finally break down." So, are these two theorists, while disagreeing on some very essential points, actually going in roughly the same direction?
Maybe Steve Mann isn't totally lost in cyborgspace after all.
Angus Leech is English Editor of HorizonZero.