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<nettime> The Locative Dystopia
drew hemment on Fri, 9 Jan 2004 18:23:20 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The Locative Dystopia


   During 2004 a number of international events will be looking at the
   emerging field of locative media, commencing with MobiloTopia at
   Transmediale.(1) One issue to be explored is the relationship between
   the interventions of geo hackers or artists and mechanisms of
   surveillance and control.
   2004 opened with the cancellation of a number of commercial airline
   flights at the bequest of the US administration. This serves as a
   reminder of the mundane and arbitrary operation of power ("Its got to
   the point where if there's anybody called Mohammed aboard, your
   flight's got a problem" - senior airline source, quoted Guardian, 3
   January 2004), and also of the renewed focus on surveillance and the
   ability to accurately locate potential suspects.
   This is an obsession shared by locative media, albeit in another name.
   Locative media uses portable, networked, location aware computing
   devices for user-led mapping and artistic interventions in which
   geographical space becomes its canvas. The rhetoric of locative media
   gestures to a utopian near-future in which the digital domain and
   geographical space converge, and the course it plots towards this
   future demands not only that data be made geographically specific but
   also that the user - if not defined by their location - at least
   offers up their location as a condition of entering the game. In this
   respect, not to mention its choice of tools, locative media operates
   upon the same plane as military tracking, State and commercial
   surveillance, its concern for pinpointing and positioning shared with
   coercive forms of social control, forcing a consideration of how
   locative media might challenge, or be complicit with such forms of
   social control, and of the point at which the locative utopia rubs up
   against the dystopian fantasy of total control.
   Much focus has been placed on new legislation introduced following
   September 11 and its impact on civil liberties. But as organisations
   such as Statewatch have commented, much of this legislation had been
   proposed long in advance. And the question is not just how powers of
   surveillance or political control have been extended, but of how the
   nature of surveillance and control have changed. Deleuze has argued
   that the disciplinary society of factories and prisons has given way
   to the control society, where mechanisms of domination are less
   evident but far more pervasive and operate through codes and
   passwords. If the renewed focus on pinpointing and locating is
   legitimised rather than caused by geopolitical instability, might it
   be a general function of control societies, in a way that is distinct
   from the place of the Panoptic gaze within disciplinary societies? The
   increasing centrality of surveillance systems to the commercial sector
   suggests a new role for surveillance, that of not controlling
   deviancy, crime or terrorism but of managing consumption, producing
   not docile subjects so much as better consumers, the imperative of
   efficiency applied not just within commercial enterprises themselves,
   but throughout the cultural domain. Following this logic further, then
   - in parallel with the rise of coercive forms of State surveillance,
   and accompanying the huge proliferation of new surveillance
   technologies, from biometrics to RFID tags - we might expect to see
   surveillance become a cultural entity in its own right, and the
   locative capacity itself embraced and consumed like any other product,
   as a form of culture or leisure activity.
   To take the example of mobile phones, their rapid uptake, both in the
   West and increasingly in the global South, has created an
   unprecedented capacity for tracking and monitoring individuals.(3) The
   mobile phone in many ways encapsulates the new relationship of power
   better than any other technology, in a similar way that the Panopticon
   did for the last. (Indeed, Bentham's famous design for the Panopticon,
   an ideal prison in which the inmates can be observed at all times
   without knowing when the observation takes place, so that they
   internalise the gaze and ultimately police themselves, envisaged tin
   listening tubes connecting the control tower to each cell, in an
   uncanny forward to the mobile phone.) The mobile phone is carried on
   the body, and so connects the individual directly to ever
   proliferating databases, operating simultaneously as identifier and
   electronic tagging device: it is a wearable technology that places the
   Panoptic eye in your pocket and the body within the circuits of
   dataveillance. The mobile also highlights the arrival of lateral or
   'synaptic' surveillance, in which the top-down model of
   State-sponsored surveillance is displaced by a situation in which
   contents are generated within and circulate across horizontal
   networks, and it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the subjects
   of surveillance from its agents - as in the use of picture phones and
   the rise of 'cellphone vigilantes' (Mitchell). Perhaps of more
   significance still is the way that with mobile phones surveillance
   mechanisms are marketed as consumer products in the form of
   Location-Based Services, such as the service introduced in Finland
   enabling parents to track the movements of their children 24 hours per
   day, without consent if the child is under 15 (requiring new
   legislation in Finland with the rest of the EU expected to follow).
   Other services are based on models of entertainment and leisure,
   fitting neatly with a social and psychological shift identified in a
   number of contributions to ZKM's CTRL[SPACE] catalogue: whereas
   Orwell's 1984 expressed and embodied a fear of the future as a place
   in which all people and all things would be observed at all times, we
   now live in a present, it is claimed, characterised by "scopophilia",
   a mix of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and an ontological need to be
   observed. While this perspective may have its limits beyond the
   still-exceptional cases of web-cams and reality TV, with the mundane
   and everyday use of mobile phones surveillance is being dispersed and
   also transformed, a technical capacity to locate becoming a tool to
   help us consume better and a new form of entertainment. The complex of
   control and communication in mobile telephony is not imposed but
   embraced for both business and pleasure, a system of power spread
   through marketing and accessed through subscription services.
   To the extent that locative media simple celebrates the ability to
   locate all things at all times, it could almost be described as little
   more than a marketing wing for this branch of the control society,
   locatives style leaders as much as early adopters. Equally, in
   competing with the corporates in the race to produce a locative
   operating system, a location-aware internet or geo-repository it risks
   being just another player in the Location-Based Services market. And
   yet where the focus is placed upon the social before the spatial,
   either in the creation of open tools or in user-end applications, it
   becomes something fundamentally different. Like surveillance, locative
   media is a social project, but the grass-roots, social networks it
   advocates offer a critical distance to the system of domination of the
   control society. Locative media exults in the pleasure of locating and
   being located, and finds in this the basis for an emergent sociality -
   driven not by marketing but by networks of reciprocity and trust - as
   well as new ways of representing, relating to and moving in the world.
   Just as it contests the top down approach of conventional cartography
   to open up a manifold of different ways in which geographical space
   can be encountered and drawn, so in appropriating and refunctioning
   positioning or tracking technologies, locative media indicates how
   they may be used not for pinning down but for opening up.(4) In
   dispersing interventions and applications outside the State- and
   corporate-led technology push, it transforms a system of domination
   into a participatory milieu. And in bringing location and the
   coordinate system into the foreground, by examining location-aware
   experience or perception and its relationship to the dominant logics
   of representation, it creates distortions or moments of ambiguity by
   which mechanisms of domination become both apparent and less certain.
   This does not yet allow a simple opposition to be made between
   locative media and surveillance or control. Locative media remains
   upon the same plane as new forms of pervasive surveillance, and this
   is a plane upon which emancipation and domination intertwine. It is
   not a simple question of emancipation _or_ domination, but of both at
   once. In many ways the locative utopia _is_ the dystopia of total
   control. After Systems Theory we might say that this presents a
   paradox that is not there to be resolved, but which is productive of
   the conditions of emergence for a location-aware society. Perhaps
   another term is needed, that speaks neither of utopia or dystopia, and
   which holds this paradox open. One possibility might be _embedded
   media_, which comes close to ambient technologies or augmented
   reality, without the Californian gloss. The term highlights the way
   media technologies pervade every aspect of the social domain, while
   its origin, referring to the placing of journalists in military
   columns during the war in Iraq, serves to highlight an inherent
   complicity in the operation of power. As a descriptive term it would
   highlight the way in which locative media is embedded not only in
   geographical space but political and cultural space as well. And as a
   metaphor it might be reclaimed as a rhetorical strategy for inhabiting
   this ambiguous and conflictual space, for intervening in the membranes
   of the multifarious datastreams (of military surveillance, criminal
   databases, immigration authorities, financial transactions, etc) that
   constitute the invisible threads of an emerging social fabric. To
   stretch the metaphor yet further, we might ask where the
   pockets-of-resistance to this form of embedded media might lie, the
   moments of disturbance or sites of interruption not of the telos of
   technological war, but of social control.(5)
   In its focus on the user-led and collaborative, on community projects
   and social software, on the creation of open tools, locative media
   offers a similar political moment to the open software movement. But a
   politics that is distinct to locative media - a politics of location -
   is not immediately apparent. Locative media proposes a form of dissent
   that is "collectively constructive rather than oppositional"
   (headmap). In radical times it is legitimate to ask whether a more
   radical or oppositional stance is called for. But equally in place of
   seeking a conventional, oppositional politics within locative media,
   we might ask what kind of politics is already there. The emergence of
   surveillance as entertainment suggests a whole new ecology of
   observation and control, forcing a reassessment of the conceptual
   frameworks through which surveillance has been understood. The
   discourse of privacy breaks down - compounded by the way that
   dataveillance renders personal boundary inconsequential - and
   traditional campaigning and advocacy become necessary but no longer
   sufficient ways of contesting the spread and application of
   technologies of political control. If drawing back the curtain of
   privacy is no longer an option, then perhaps we might "glimpse the
   outlines of future forms of resistance" to "the widespread progressive
   introduction of a new system of domination" (Postscript on Control
   Societies, Deleuze) precisely where the mechanisms of domination are
   encountered head on. Locative media's political moment might not be
   despite its complicity in mechanisms of domination but because of it,
   residing in the acceptance of the paradox and occupying the ambiguous
   space it creates, creating a site of resistance by working from the
   inside. While locative media rarely interrogates its own embeddedness
   and complicity, even its utopianism is in many ways the most radical
   gesture, highlighting how positioning technologies can be enabling,
   and providing an alternative to voices critical of surveillance which
   risk spreading paranoia and so acquiescence. This does not preclude
   the development of a more overt politics of locative media (I must
   confess, this is _my_ obsession), one that explores its relationship
   to surveillance, and that seeks to intervene in the operation of
   technologies of political control by developing countermeasures or
   disrupting their affect. Locative media does not seek to intervene
   directly in the spread of pervasive tracking and surveillance
   technologies, nor does it examine their role in the large scale
   devastation that has been enacted on the world stage over the past two
   years. But in holding open this ambiguity, and in its constructive
   collectivism, locative media marks both the power and the limit of new
   forms of surveillance, deconstructing the operation of technologies of
   political control by introducing moments of distortion or uncertainty
   at that limit, and in building open platforms offers the chance to
   reverse, multiply and diffract the gaze, suggesting the arrival of the
   locative dystopia might be interrupted my the emergence of its other
   from the spaces inbetween.
   These issues will be explored at the MobiloTopia session at
   Transmediale proposed jointly by futuresonic/loca and the Locative
   Media Lab, and as a part of Mobile Connections, the main programming
   strand of the futuresonic04 festival.
   Drew Hemment
   7 January 04
   //links
   [1]www.futuresonic.com
   [2]www.mobileconnections.org
   [3]www.loca.org.uk
   [4]www.locative.org
   [5]www.headmap.org
   [6]www.transmediale.de
   //notes
   (1) The MobiloTopia session at Transmediale asks if utopia is a
   non-place, what might a locative utopia be?
   (2) Here this takes the form of data-matching between watchlists and
   airline passenger lists accessed worldwide, something predicted by
   Statewatch many months in advance, as was the application of
   anti-terrorism legislation against protesters and activists, first
   seen during the protests and peace camp at Fairford RAF airbase in the
   build-up to the Iraq War.
   (3) Location data from mobile phones is routinely used in court cases
   in the UK and by the intelligence services, and was used by the
   Russian security services in the assassination of Chechnya's rebel
   leader Dudayev (reportedly with NSA support). Mobile phones routinely
   generate location data so that calls can be routed, data which is
   recorded by the Operators. This is cell based and simply records the
   closest mast to the handset against time. Triangulation data is far
   more precise, calculating location to within 25m from the time delay
   in signals received by different masts, and mobile phones also
   increasingly incorporate GPS technology. Even pay-as-you-go phones,
   for which details of owners are not recorded, offer no respite, as the
   level of encryption on mobiles is so low that they can be easily
   hacked to obtain their unique EMEI number, and as mobiles and PDAs
   merge it will not be just location and phone logs that can be
   accessed, but diaries, contacts, et al. Yet more forms of surveillance
   are in development that exploit the flood of microwave radiation
   created by the global coverage of GSM, such as the radar-like
   Celldar(TM) system, developed by a UK subsidiary of Seimens for
   anti-terrorism defence, security and road traffic management, which
   offers the capability to see in real-time through walls or view moving
   objects hundreds of miles away by measuring deviations in mobile phone
   radiation patterns.
   (4) While the focus here is on the relation to surveillance, similar
   issues arise in locative media's relationship with cartography:
   drawing maps has always been political, and what is at stake therefore
   is not just the contours of cartography, but also contours of control.
   (5) In a similar vein we might ask whether after the political farce
   of embedded journalists in Iraq, might there emerge a critical space
   for embedded or reality gaming. Sony dropped Shock and Awe, but in an
   age when the waging of war comes ever closer to a video arcade - which
   led to Baudrillard's claim that Gulf I never happened - a tactical
   approach to game zones that occupy urban spaces and are intertwined
   with the fabric of everyday life could offer a critical space to
   contest the military-entertainment complex and highlight the fact that
   the War on Terror is already right here.

References

   1. http://www.futuresonic.com/
   2. http://www.mobileconnections.org/
   3. http://www.loca.org.uk/
   4. http://www.locative.org/
   5. http://www.headmap.org/
   6. http://www.transmediale.de/

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