Brian Holmes on Wed, 19 May 2004 11:48:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Eyes in the Skies/Democracy in the Streets

[The latest from Old Vienna: texts, pictures, movies on the site, and don't
miss Marko Peljhan on Austrian TV! - BH] 
Eyebrows will rise at the sight of an ultramodern communications tower pointing
up from historic Karlsplatz like an extended middle finger. But what better way
to say, the real issues are above your heads? Already with the intensification
of civil dissent throughout the Western democracies in the 1990s, the Cold War
surveillance system began a process of involution, miniaturizing and
proliferating into our daily lives. The security panic after the events of
S&M-11 has done the rest. Advanced videographic and biometric equipment,
transported on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), can now be used against
peaceful demonstrators in the homeland cities. Every cloud may not have a
silver lining - but it is likely to conceal an agent of the police. Protests
such as those that occurred in Vienna on February 4, 2000, may already be
obsolete. Faced with the electromagnetic specter of the unknown, human-rights
groups have decided to seize extraordinary market opportunities, and equip
thems elves with the latest in airborne imaging devices, radio communications
vectors and geographic information systems (GIS), to locate and track the
adversaries (our public-service administrations) even as they are locating and
tracking _you_. The result is the System-77 Civilian Counter Reconnaissance
initiative: Eyes in the skies, for democracy in the streets.

Just look at the precision of the computerized city plans, the high-resolution
detail of the surging crowds, the instantaneous breadth of perspective and
control afforded by the drone's eye view. And imagine the exhilarating sense of
mission on the morning of the big demo, when _you_ get to be the mobile
operator of a 1.8 meter-long AeroVironment Pointer - "a production-ready
electric UAV designed for reconnaissance, surveillance and remote monitoring"
( Purchased right
off the Internet just like the Interior Ministry procurement services do, this
elegant, ultra-light, glider-like drone can be hand-launched like an ancient
Greek hurling a javelin into the azurean blue. Of course the classical
philosophers had never heard of airborne transmitter-equipped video cameras the
size of a penny, let alone thermal imaging systems for infrared night-view. But
the fundamental issues remain the same: democracy, citizenship and f reedom.
With one or several UAVs controlled by real-time synthetic vision, feeding
video captures and GIS map-readouts to a portable, radio-linked computer, civil
society at last obtains the information advantage enjoyed by the secret
services, the army or the police. Top-down surveillance for grassroots
initiatives! Wireless Internet connections allow for distributed access to
locational data on officer concentrations, suspicious van movements or
impending water-cannon deployment; while cell-phone trees plus SMS texting do
the rest, transforming an easily immobilized and frustrated crowd into a
fast-moving, polymorphous swarm of intelligent agents, with at least a running
chance to exercise their right to free speech.

  Sometimes it's hard to believe that we ever did without these machines. But
of course, those were the days before government became a mirror of enterprise,
and before the private security companies began training public officials in
how to keep the peace. Now in advanced countries like the USA, obstructing
traffic on the sidewalk is illegal! Under such conditions, pragmatic idealists
use every tool that progress makes available. And technology moves fast today.
Path-breaking projects like MIT's "Government Information Awareness" already
seem almost passť ( Why know the dirt on your
elected fascist representatives, if you can't avoid a squad of precision-guided
officers on your way to a public demonstration? And who will watch the
watchdogs, as the Roman writer Juvenal used to say?

Underadvised citizens might be disturbed by seeming parallels between
legitimate counter-reconnaissance work and the aerial tactics of groups like
Al-Qaeda ("The Base"). Of course we could note that civilian reconnaissance
planes have an impressive safety record, and are rarely known to explode. Yet
recent third-level democracy studies give some credence to citizens'
spontaneous intuition, though at a higher of order of abstraction, as they say.
Because the little-known fact is that military surveillance technologies have
not only been spun off into the private security industry, but also into the
commercial arena. Glued into the familiar Universal Product Code on the goods
you buy, there is now a radio frequency identification tag (RFID) which serves
among other things to record your purchasing habits and your movements through
the store. Combined with credit- and loyalty-card statistics garnered at the
checkout desk, plus a host of personal details purchased on the open inf
o-markets (loans and insurance figures, medical records, employment history,
travel and viewing preferences), in-store surveillance helps to flesh out your
databody, to track your most intimate desires, so that a full-fledged consumer
world can be tailored to fit. And why not conceal those RFID tags inside the
products, so further user-profiles can be gleaned in every situation?

  Accelerated progress in the micromanagement of individual "stimufaction"
(stimulation/satisfaction as a near-perfect coincidence) means that reality is
no longer an obstacle to the advertising teams, and an entire civilizational
spectacle based on exploited immigrant labor and imported Middle-Eastern oil
can be promoted as the only imaginable future. With or without further American
improvements in electronic voting machines (, electoral
outcomes on the Old Continent are guaranteed: nothing will be done to change
the imperialist economy, even when extremely unequal exchange gives rise to
proliferating terror. The imposition of biometric technologies (retinal scans,
digital fingerprints, vocal recognition, human odor signatures), first required
at international borders, then at cash machines, public buildings, workplace
turnstiles, and finally at your own apartment door, swerves to cement the
feeling of no escape - so why not enjoy the simulacrum? Unde r such conditions,
the turn to hi-tech interactive civil disobedience becomes the only possible
continuation of democracy. Albeit by radically different means. 

The security system faces a few small problems nonetheless. For one,
conventional censorship and media manipulation from above are clearly obsolete
- as proved by the recent Spanish sequence, where voters refused, not only
their country's participation in the Iraq war, but above all their leader's
attempt to grossly misrepresent reality by directly muzzling the watchdogs of a
once-free press. But Western intelligence hardly awaited smart-mob
demonstrations on the eve of the Spanish elections to conclude that hypermobile
swarming was the wave of the future. Thus the struggle for UAV dominance
already intensifies, even before it has really begun. Third-level democracy
consultants quiver before the prospect of massive launches, by both civilians
and police, of Miniature Aerial Vehicles (MAVs), such as the infamous
AeroVironment Black Widow (
Weighing only 50 grams, but camera-equipped and fully interactive, the Widow
weaves an intelligent net of evasive surveillance when launched in a swarm,
whether by officers or demonstrators. In combination with clouds of RFID
"motes," reduced to microscopic size and dispersed into the clothing or hair of
the rival teams, widow-like MAVs knit an electronic fabric of surveillant
struggle beyond the wildest dreams of the late 1990s - even if that period was
obsessed with the subject.

  The obvious question - where will it all end? - becomes increasingly
difficult to ask, in a market-driven environment where each new conflict
acquires an aura of obsolescence before even properly commencing. But if we
accept the third-level analysts' central tenet - namely, that the productive
machinery of the former Cold War has involuted to a highly profitable Virtual
Civil Repression (VCR), pressed forward under the urgently real pretext of
terror - then there may be some wisdom to be scavenged from the dustbin of
East-West history. It is well known that both sides in the Cold War conflict
achieved matching levels of Mutually Assured Destruction, rendering the further
extension of their atomic arsenals reciprocally insane (MAD). Less well known
is the degree to which double-spies, moles, worms and other intelligence
paradoxes gradually rendered the comprehensibility of everyday affairs almost
nil, resulting in the collapse of the Cold War paradigm. Is it too much to supp
ose that the opposing logics of networked reconnaissance and counter
reconnaissance - or "swarm versus swarm," to update an older expression -
should soon or perhaps already have rendered contemporary urban conflicts
entirely senseless? How much simulated posturing is required, before the
contemporary surveillance game reaches the critical threshold of Mutually
Assured Deception? Is there any preemptive chance to PERCEIVE THE WORLD
SITUATION, before embarking on a new and even more intensive round of planetary
shadow-boxing which can only profit the military-entertainment complex - that
is to say, a few well-placed politician-generals, and a considerably larger
number of rapacious corporations?

Brian Holmes, Ph.D.
Third-Level Democracy Consultant /

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