Still from The Conversation (1974)
Upon hearing the phrase, we may not know exactly what a “cephalic sniffer” is, nor whether it is a real piece of technology. However, as to what such a nefarious device might be able to do, we could surely begin to imagine from the name alone. And as for whether it is technological reality (it is not, being invented by Philip K. Dick in his story Clans of the Alphane Moon), from its “sci-fi” sounding alliteration we might guess correctly that it is purely fantasy.
At least it was fantasy when PKD invented it in 1964. Today, advances in biometric identification mean that while a device that can search out an individual by his or her brainwaves is not yet on the market (at least publicly), searching out a person by face or speech pattern is decidedly real. Furthermore, brain-computer interface devices (BCI) have been commercially available since at least 1999. So how far are we from the technological reality of a biometric tracking system hacking BCIs and tracking individuals? If we change the name to “brainwave keylogger”, it suddenly is less fantastic, and frighteningly plausible.
Submitted for your consideration: an entire list of surveillance concepts, proposed by science-fiction stories. Note the technologically real items: Augmented Reality, ubiquitous surveillance, drones, eavesdropping rays, and tracking systems. These are all things that we might call “cutting edge tech”, but indeed, certainly real tech. Surprise, shock, uncanniness, paranoia— yes, it is repeated enough to be cliche--the future is here.
But what is truly uncanny about our present “not-so-distant future”, is that we continue to refer to it as the future. There is no need to speculate. We have a fully evolved culture of surveillance technology in the United States. Here is another list: this time of non-fictional surveillance concepts. They range from the slightly-troubling to the fully-horrifying, but they all are now employed by the government of the United States for the purposes of so-called “National Security”:
Palantir, No-Fly List, Full Body Scanners, “If you see something, say something”, Border Searches are Exempt from the 4th Amendment, Stop and Frisk, NYPD spying on Muslims,TSA harassment of children, the elderly, DHS spying on activists, That DHS exists, FBI terrorism entrapment, Domestic Drone Surveillance, Private Prisons, Over 1% of US Citizens in Jail, National Security Letters, FISC Courts, Immigration Policy, Abu-Ghraib Prison Abuse, Guantanamo Prison Camp, Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, Codifying Indefinite Detention, FBI seeking backdoors in electronic communications, ICE raids on websites, Iris scans of civil disobedience protesters, Warrantless Wiretaps, Recorded Future, The Domestic Communications Assistance Center
Nevertheless, the primary means by which we engage with surveillance culture outside of the news media is still speculative art and fiction. Speculation allows us, as both creators and readers, to play design-fiction with reality. It is rapid prototyping in emerging psychological patterns. But these thought experiments do not exist in a vacuum.
A weird commotion outside wakes you up. You peer out the window to see the source of the music and revelry. A group of college kids from the engineering school are smashing all of their furniture in the street. The next day while walking the dog, you see them again. They’re sweeping up the pieces of broken housewares, and shoveling it into bags. The next day, it looks like they’re moving in again as they carry brand new designer furniture into their house. They do this every month or so.
You are shopping in Ikea, looking for a new end table, and perhaps a rug. Suddenly, uniformed security guards appear, and surround a young woman. She is escorted from the store, uneventfully. “Pocket scanner”, you hear an employee tell an inquiring couple.
With delighted expectation, your son unwraps his birthday gift. Awe is quickly replaced by disappointment. “Isn’t that the one you wanted?” you ask confused, certain that it was the new action figure, ordered directly from the TV show web site. “Yeah, it’s the one,” he says cautiously, not looking you in the eyes. “I just forgot that all the accessories would be un-modded on the store version.”
3D printed objects, or “physibles” are an incredible example of the mundane aspects of future-weird. They are glitchy-as-fuck, but their shapeshifting effect on our cultural space will inhabit the same metaphysics of street graffiti--appreciated by only a few, truly understood by even less.
A physible is simple. Download a file with information about the shape of an object, or components parts of an object. Use a 3D printing machine that squirts molten plastic, metal or other material to pour you that object, without needing a mold. Or, send the file to a company who will do that for you. These machines simplify the process of fabbing an object, by using a single machine to create parts of nearly anything. Previously, specific injection molds had to be created for each piece, or a welder had to attach pieces by reading a diagram. Now the machine can build the entire piece in one run, with basically zero set-up investment. The investment to produce a single object is nearly nothing--all it takes is the design, and one of these universal printing machines.
This technical evolution is interesting, but the real revolution will be in the changing distribution of fabrication shops that this production shift will create. Fabrication has been sourced wherever the set-up requirements are cheapest, with the run production runs made as large as possible. But the technology behind physibles will make short-run fabrication, anywhere, much more preferable. It will eventually be cheaper for a person to fab one object at home, than to buy one of five hundred thousand made in one place and shipped across the world. Physibles will decentralize the Pearl River, and bring China home.
But the technology of physibles doesn’t mean much to the consumer. Not any more than the encoding of a MP3 file, or the precise stitch pattern of a handbag. It means something to the person who actually fabs the object, but as a consumer, you’ll get your things wherever is cheapest and easiest, just like always. You’ll still order things online. Rather than coming from China, perhaps a Chinese company will outsource the design to a fab shop down the street that will hand deliver it to your door. The means of production continue to mean nothing to the end-user: commodity cost is king. Most people want their stuff to just be stuff, and don’t care about how it works. Consider the frustration people experience trying to get a PDF to print correctly on a flat sheet of paper. These folks will be filling their cabinets, entertaining their children, and brushing their teeth with physibles every day of their lives without knowing how the object came into existence, or what that means for global distribution networks.
Most people. On the other hand, there will be a new set of object hackers, who will be spending all their free time online, discussing the precise interior dimension ratios of the new set of Target glassware ....
I examine bar codes, wondering what it would be like to have only laser sight. I stare at handwriting until the loops and whorls stop being words, syllables, and even letters, and become no more than manic pulses brain wave transformed into muscle twitch, traced in the seismograph of our ink-hemorrhaging prosthetic appendages. I gaze at my city streets, running my eyes over the scars on its knees, feeling a refracted rainbow of urban skin interring a personal history of human frailty. I have a polymorphously perverted sense of physical praxis with objects. It’s not that I’m more object-curious or infrastructurally dirty-minded than most; it’s just that once you start to think about what things are wearing underneath their exterior semiotic reality, it’s pretty hard to calm down. Thankfully, the city invites my oddly tactile greeting, smiling and warming to my touch. Scars are so much sexier than tattoos.
This street, this entire block, this city —its beautifully exposed skin now appears in my imagination as a square of white and black squares, each structure and topological feature raising or lowering itself against a field of contrasting color. This city is a QR code. A QR code may not be a sex symbol to you, but stretching anywhere from 21 units by 21 units in dimension to a maximum of 177 by 177, (define these imagined units as you like) my metropolis is a pixelated, hemaphroditic Vitruvian pin-up drawing, a mandala of Kama Sutra-esque data positions. I walk down the street and I decode a pattern esoteric enough to be invented by gods, ancient shamans, or extraterrestrials. Invented by us. Within these folds and plateaus we have embedded the sort of information that arouses our attentions--the kind of public-knowledge secrets we think about just behind the ...
Trevor Paglan, The Other Night Sky
Suppose you wanted to build your own drone—well, hold on a minute—why do you want to build your own drone?
But suppose you just wanted to find out some of the latest info on the US government's top secret drone projects. Don't even ask me why, it should be obvious. You'd want to do like artist Trevor Paglen , and travel to remote testing locations to snap photographs of strange shapes taking off from military bases, along with the planespotters. Either that, or travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and now Somalia with a good pair of binoculars.
And then if you want a little bit a speculation about drones, you pick up the paranoid defense blogging of Danger Room or the design-fiction of sousveillance and cyborg specialists like Tim Maly . And then you—
Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your '55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.
I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I'm turning a new critical perspective that I'm calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.
All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone.
Epistemological change in inevitable, but there is more going on here than a revolution in research tools. There is a feeling I can only describe as the presence of “The Swarm”, a fundamental aesthetic of the drone-mythos. It's an unexpected mythological evolution that has come about along with the technological evolution. There's nothing groundbreaking about myths accompanying new technology. But this mythos is different. The industrial revolution didn't see a burgeoning number of DIY textile mills. This is more along the lines of the birth of the automobile—a seemingly simple invention that not only revolutionized its particular task, but also changed society.
Bitcoin. You may have heard of it: a so-called virtual peer-to-peer currency system. It’s been billed alternately as the savior of the world from the hands of the banking system, the scourge of world governments, a monumental waste of energy resources, a privacy nightmare, and just plain dumb. But what the hell is it? Nobody knows. Let’s get started.
You have to admit there’s something exciting about a virtual currency system, but at the same time, that something just might be hype. There’s something vaguely “of Anonymous” to the whole deal—it might be revolutionary, but also could be a joke. It could be teenagers pretending they’re anarchist comic book heroes. The trouble is, it’s tough to tell for sure.
And yet, this is what we were promised from cyberspace, wasn’t it? This is the reality of Neuromancer and Snowcrash. Virtual currencies to spend in virtual shadow worlds, run by cryptopunks, comprising off-the-grid hacker economies. If you have a single sci-fi bone in your body, you are irresistibly turned-on by the idea of a fluctuating exchange rate between Second Life’s Liden Dollars and Bitcoin. Watching the numbers rise and fall on www.bitcoincharts.com is better than a Matrix screensaver, because it is somehow, possibly, maybe, happening in real life. This is the sort of radical stuff that is The Future we fantasized about, rather than oil shortages and housing surpluses.
Virtual technologies are becoming decidedly real. From cell phone augmented reality, to the broad range of Kinect motion-sensor hacks, to location-aware tech, it’s hard to tell what is virtual, what is real, and what is just made up. The virtual is real... but still, a different sort of real. As Gilles Deleuze wrote, “The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual.” We have more reality than ever, only some of it is virtual reality, and other elements are actual reality.
“Extreme virtual reality” seems to describe Bitcoin. Setting aside the functional import of a virtual currency for a moment, Bitcoin is quite real, and impressively so. The value of all Bitcoins in existence is around 105 million USD. Over 24.5 million USD in transactions take place every 24 hours. (My stats are as of June 13, 2011. For real-time statistics of all kinds, see the excellent site http://bitcoinwatch.com.) It is difficult to estimate the total computing power of the distributed Bitcoin network, but some vague guesses place it greater than the power of the world’s top 500 supercomputers... combined. This virtual reality might not mean a thing to most of us in our daily life of tweets and emails, blogs and new media. But it certainly is not nothing...