Posts tagged “surveillance”

People Watching 3.0

In a previous post I wrote about Losing All Hope Was Freedom, a series of social experiments on video, where the “performer” takes the hands of strangers.

Now comes Surveillance Camera Man, who does nothing more than take video in places where you don’t expect to be recorded. Perhaps part of his point is that we are semi-surreptitiously recorded in all of those same places but we ignore it, and when it’s made explicit by a dude standing in front of you with a device, then it becomes wrong.

But there’s some other things happening here besides social commentary/activism. Michael Moore and Borat have created familiar entertainment forms around the unwanted and uncomfortable intruder. Watch the video below (which is at times almost anthropological, exploring context after context – including one heartbreaking example) and see if you don’t start to root for the cameraman. We become co-opted into voyeurism, curiously wondering who those people are or what’s in that room. I’m sure there’s some film theory bit that would explain why the POV shot is so easy to empathize with, regardless of how we would feel if we were in the viewfinder ourselves.

Updated: videos now here

ChittahChattah Quickies

Vergangenheitsbewältigung: coming to terms with the past

Wired writes about the attempts to reintegrate 600 million scraps of paper from surveillance notes and dossiers torn up by the East German secret police as the wall fell. Some of the article deals with the enormity of the challenge and how technology is playing a role, but the best part deals with the powerful personal and cultural meaning of this part of German history represents to the people it affected so strongly.

G?ºnter Bormann, the BStU’s senior legal expert, says there’s an overwhelming public demand for the catharsis people find in their files. “When we started in 1992, I thought we’d need five years and then close the office,” Bormann says. Instead, the Records Office was flooded with half a million requests in the first year alone. Even in cases where files hadn’t been destroyed, waiting times stretched to three years. In the past 15 years, 1.7 million people have asked to see what the Stasi knew about them.

Requests dipped in the late 1990s but…The Lives of Others, about a Stasi agent who monitors a dissident playwright, seems to have prompted a surge of new applications; 2007 marked a five-year high. “Every month, 6,000 to 8,000 people decide to read their files for the first time,” Bormann says. [T]he Stasi Records Office spends $175 million a year and employs 2,000 people.

The files hold the tantalizing possibility of an explanation for the strangeness that pervaded preunification Germany. Even back then, Poppe wondered if the Stasi had information that would explain it all. “I always used to wish that some Stasi agent would defect and call me up to say, Here, I brought your file with me,'” Poppe says.

She was able to match codenames like Carlos, Heinz, and Rita to friends, coworkers, and even colleagues in the peace movement. She even tracked down the Stasi officer who managed her case, and after she set up a sort of ambush for him at a bar – he thought he was there for a job interview – they continued to get together. Over the course of half a dozen meetings, they talked about what she found in her files, why the Stasi was watching her, what they thought she was doing. For months, it turned out, an agent was assigned to steal her baby stroller and covertly let the air out of her bicycle tires when she went grocery shopping with her two toddlers. “If I had told anyone at the time that the Stasi was giving me flat tires, they would have laughed at me,” she says. “It was a way to discredit people, make them seem crazy. I doubted my own sanity sometimes.” Eventually, the officer broke off contact, but continued to telephone Poppe – often drunk, often late at night, sometimes complaining about his failing marriage. He eventually committed suicide.

Poppe is looking forward to finding out what was in that last, reconstructed 5 percent. “The files were really important to see,” she says, taking a drag on her cigarette and leaning forward across the coffee table. “They explained everything that happened – the letters we never got, the friends who pulled away from us. We understood where the Stasi influenced our lives, where they arranged for something to happen, and where it was simply our fault.”

future of the interactive city?

I attended the interactive city summit earlier this week (held in SF as part of ISEA2006: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge.)

It was an unusual event for me to attend, since the bulk of the people seemed to be strongly into the issues around new urbanism, planning, technology of the future civic life, if-you-can-dream-it interactivity, etc. I admit I hadn’t thought about this stuff in great depth and so it was a lot of new thinking; although many of the examples shown were things that go through the design and technology sections of the blogosphere I frequent.

I think like so many events, this one struggled a bit with the identity. They repeated the notion of a summit several times, and one possible output was a document that could be sent to a city planner or a design planner or any number of agencies. But an event with a goal like that – a goal of producing a collective output – needs to really structure and facilitate the discussion and creation of output. The emphasis here was on invited presentations (and some good freewheeling discussion), and on quickie presentations from attendees. I don’t see how that sort of content can accomplish the stated goal. And that’s okay, I think the format wasn’t bad. We had the usual problems with acoustics and presenters with tiny type, presentations that ramble without a clear thesis to support, heavily accented presenters, etc. but I think for the most part it was a pretty good event.

Matt Jones gave a stimulating hyperlinked talk (while the laptop-enabled in the audience checked out links and videos concurrently). He showed us this amazing video of the Sultan’s Elephant – an artistic spectacle that you must check out.

There was a great presentation from Rebar, who did the widely blogged PARK(ing) project, where they created small parks in parking spaces; putting down sod, a bench and a plant in a parking space and feeding the meter for a couple of hours.

Troika spent a lot of their time defending themselves (needlessly?) from their work in the commercial domain, under the rhetoric of art vs. design. I didn’t fully understand their stance. They showed the widely blogged SMS Guerilla Projector; a handheld device that takes a text message from a phone and projects it at great distances. In some experiments they shone messages into people’s apartments, and they bemusedly described people calling the police. Ha ha? Their next slide was about empathy, which they seemed to have none of; creating technology experiences that surprise and sometimes frighten people, so they can study their reactions? They need to take a look at an ethics committee guidelines for human subjects! (NB: I was reminded of the disturbing potential for this stuff when I saw Rob Walker’s post about a popular (among cynical edgy youth, no doubt) text message in Iraq: “Your call cannot be completed because the subscriber has been bombed or kidnapped.”

In an excellent lunchtime discussion we brainstormed on the key issues where technology impacts urban life, and it seemed to me that most of the issues fell into three piles: preserving old stuff, ensuring we don’t fuck up the old stuff (those are different), and enabling new stuff. Of course, today I see this post about the closing of an historic neighborhood store. The post is not significantly high-tech (it uses pictures, and it has a broader reach since it’s on the Internet), and is not significantly unique, but I enjoyed mmediately stumbling across an example of a model that we were just refining.

I took public transit in from Montara both days, trying BART on the first day and MUNI the second day. Thinking I was pretty smart, I drove up to Stonestown Galleria on 19th, parked my car, and took the MUNI right to the front of the place. When I came back after lunch, my brand new car was gone. Towed. The conference was free (including food) but this stupid mistake cost me nearly $300 in fees and taxi! Not to mention stress and wasted time. And somewhat ironic, given the conversations we had been engaging in around surveillance, technology, privacy, and the like. How did they know that I wasn’t a customer at the mall and I wasn’t shopping while my car was there? I parked around 9:35, and the towing receipt read 10:30. What time did they call the towing company in order for them to be writing the thing up at 10:30? Couldn’t have been much after I parked. Did a security guard simply observe me walking away from my car and onto the transit platform? If I had gone into McDonald’s and then come out again, would they have figured it out? Were they monitoring me, or the car in the lot?

I’m not defending my choice, or their response, but it certainly raises some questions about how the heck they knew. Liz Goodman had just mentioned the highway signs that tell you your speed and if you are over, and she commented on the different emotional impact and social perception of a technology that monitors you for your information and a technology that monitors you for someone else’s usage. The highway sign, in her example, doesn’t write you a ticket, or tell the cops, it simply tells you about your behavior, presumably to warn or shame you into driving normally (or to reinforce your choice of compliance). I certainly wondered about whatever technology was used to identify my misdeed.


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