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<nettime> A Veillance Ansatz
William Waites on Sun, 6 Dec 2015 18:51:42 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A Veillance Ansatz

This short article is to try to put discussion about surveillance into
theoretical framework.  It is far from rigorous and is more a guide to
a certain way of thinking about the topic.

The word  `sousveillance', coined  in the  late 90s  by Steve  Mann in
analogy with `surveillance'  was meant to invert  the prevailing power
dynamic.  The  canonical  example  being the  hypothesis  that  giving
cameras to homeless  people would make it less likely  that they would
be beaten by police. The `veillance'  or watching was in the direction
from less to greater power.

Locally, at any point in space, we can write the veillance equation:

			       E = VÂâP

This is a compact way of saying that supposing we can assign a `social
power'  to every  point  in  space, we  can  then  find, with  certain
technical assumptions, the direction and magnitude of greatest change,
âP. This is  the power gradient. It  points up the hill  from the less
powerful to the more powerful.

Equally,  following Mann  [1] we  can form  the `sight'  or `veillance
intensity' vector V at that point. This is the direction and intensity
of watching emanating from there. It is  the sum of all the gazes that
pass through that  point. The  symbol means inner  product which is a
way of multiplying vectors such that  the result is a single number, a
scalar, that says how well aligned V and âP are.

The result,  E, is the amount  of `veillance' happening at  that point
scaled  according to  the disparity  in power  at that  place. We  can
further take  the integral over a  region in space, âEdv,  to find out
the aggregate amount, and nature of veillance in that region.

The sign of  E is instructive. If  it is positive, the  total gaze and
the  power   gradient  are   aligned.  In   this  situation   we  have
`sousveillance', the  weak watching the  powerful. If it  is negative,
the direction is reversed, with  the powerful watching the weak, which
is `surveillance'  as the word is  normally used. If it  is zero, then
the gaze  is among peers  with no disparity  in power. Making  a short
film of a birthday party perhaps. This is `isoveillance'.

The magnitude of E has an  interesting interpretation. It can be small
or zero in three circumstances: when  the power gradient is zero, when
there  is nobody  watching, or  when watching  is only  directed among
equals.  In other  words this  might happen  in either  or both  of an
egalitarian   society   or   a   society  without   either   sur-   or

On the other  hand if E is  some non-zero value, the  larger the power
gradient, the  smaller the  amount of watching  necessary to  get that
particular value and  vice-versa. If E is interpreted as  some sort of
measure of  the effect  on society of  veillance, then  taken together
with its sign, if there are great power disparities, a small amount of
surveillance has  a large negative  effect, whereas a small  amount of
sousveillance has a  large positive effect. In  less unequal societies
it takes more veillance activity to achieve the same thing.

This theory  of veillance  does not take  into account  the following,
important, phenomenon. Suppose  Alex takes a video of  Larry at dinner
one night to  remember a pleasant evening by. On  the surface we could
imagine that this is simply isoveillance. A harmless activity. However
Alex is in the habit of using  a server owned by Gerald to store these
video-memories. Gerald is in a position  of privilege and power and if
he looks  at the  video, he  is committing  surveillance on  Larry and
using Alex as an unwitting accomplice.

Similar indirect or hidden surveillance -- implying that E should be a
large  negative  number   --  is  possible  in  a   variety  of  other
circumstances  as well.  For  example  even if  Alex  did not  entrust
video-memories  to Gerald  for  safe-keeping, a  state could  covertly
steal them or force Alex to hand them over.

This indirection, veillance happening through several hops, means that
the in calculating V  it is necessary to sum up  the indirect gazes as
well.  Indeed  it  is  necessary   to  know  all  possible  paths  for
information  to  pass  from  Larry  to  Gerald,  together  with  their
bandwidth,  in  order  to  find  out the  amount  of  veillance  being
committed by Gerald on Larry. This issn't so obvious at first glance.

It is also  not obvious that it  is well-defined to speak  of a `power
field' with a value at every point in space. Certainly it is plausible
that we could associate a number representing some notion of power for
every person, and for every pair  of people a difference between these
numbers, but to  arrive at something like a gradient  we need a notion
of distance between  them. Two candidates are  physical distance which
has the  advantage of  being continuous, or  distance across  a social
graph which would take more work.  People, of course are discrete, not
continuous entities, so we might  speak of their `sphere of influence'
when adding up their contribution to the `power field'.

Making this rigorous would take some work, but in the continuous limit
we    should    arrive    at     something    like    the    veillance
equation. Nevertheless  it is helpful  to have this framework  in mind
when thinking  about the social  and economic dynamics  of information
flow on the Internet and elsewhere.

December, 2015

[1] http://www.eyetap.org/docs/Veillametrics_JanzenMann2014.pdf

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