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The transparent life

18 October, 2007

A little while ago Wired magazine reported on Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-American suspected of being a terrorist. He devised an apparently ingenious method of keeping himself “out of Guantanamo”: he would embark on a project of almost complete self surveillance using digital technology. He takes hundreds of photos of himself every day and sends them to his website so that if the FBI want to find out what he’s doing they only have to look there. Like a human sonar, he constantly sends out “pings” to locate himself, a method reminiscent of Twitter. The article discusses his rationale:

“I’ve discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away,” he says, grinning as he sips his venti Black Eye. Elahi relishes upending the received wisdom about surveillance. The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong. You can monitor yourself much more accurately. Plus, no ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there’s a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho. “It’s economics,” he says. “I flood the market.”

Although Elahi seems pretty cheerful about this I wonder if his strategy is a novel method of pre-empting the surveillance of the state, or a model for self-servitude? In some ways it seems to be a very literal application of Foucault’s theory of self-subjectification, except instead of internalising surveillance and control Elahi “externalises” it by making it available the authorities as an ongoing alibi. He has also perfected the surveillance by outdoing the authorities, suggesting that it’s not the presence of the state’s control that is the problem, rather its lacks and lacunae.

To me, Elahi’s approach to his “problem” suggests he is in a state of being always-already guilty. Rather than assuming he is innocent, his energy must go into a constant struggle against that state. The onus is on him to prove that he is not guilty of something rather than on the state to prove that he is. It’s Kafka-esque in a way. Like the protagonist of The Trial he is guilty of a crime but doesn’t know what it is. His life then becomes devoted to proving that he innocent, which is of course can never be achieved.

Anyway, this is a thought-provoking application of ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, in a post-911 world. It raises the question of whether, as we become ever more connected, the onus will increasingly fall on us to prove our “innocence” in various ways just because we can. I see an echo in a more trivial domain: the reduced tolerance for ambiguity that comes from possessing a mobile phone. Now that it is a technical possibility I find we tend to check up more on each other. For example, if I am slightly late for a meeting with friends I will inevitably get a call asking where I am. Likewise, I’m held to account for not letting my friends know I’m going to be late. It is also a common experience to find that the mobile, Blackberry or whatever blurs the lines between work and leisure, so that the freedome the phone provides means that we are even more thoroughly chained to the demands of the job. In each of these cases the domain of plausible deniability has shrunk and therefore we are forced to self-surveil and contantly “prove our innocence”.

Of course this is not just a product of technology. Even if we are all guilty some people are more guilty than others. An example is Muslim men in the contemporary USA, or Australia for that matter, as the case of Mohamed Haneef more than amply demonstrates.

The Visible Man: An FBI Target Puts His Whole Life Online

One Comment leave one →
  1. 26 October, 2007 1:04 pm

    Another example of someone who was by default more guilty than others can also be found here.

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