Cara Rose DeFabio’s Virtual Girlfriend in the Age of Techno-Romance

Or, why we need more “Feminist Rants” about technology and surveillance.

Cara Rose DeFabio performing “Virtual Girlfriend, Beta” Z Space in San Francisco, 3/09/2017. Photo by Dustin Mabry

I’ve recently experienced a performance by Cara Rose DeFabio at Z Space in San Francisco titled “Virtual Girlfriend Beta.” The sometimes-funny and sometimes-sad work got the people in a dark, cold, theater laughing and crying over a piece exploring our unfortunate new in-ability to ask out strangers and instead opt for a (really) fake love life. The piece is part of a long line of work from Cara, spanning topics on technologies, embodiment, feminism, and emojis (see the Pervert’s Guide to emojis).

Her new show, Virtual Girlfriend, builds on this trove in that it engages the ways in which products of technology intermingle with relationships, bodies, selves, and politics, or “Feminism, sexuality, and technology.”

Among other features, such as a performance of tumblr-GIF pornography which “actually doesn’t stop doing that thing,” she brings a cultural history of the “900 number.” This old tele-communication phenomenon engaged people’s vulnerabilities: a semi-anonymous medium for desire, pain, and fear. She weaves this together with contemporary critique of a Mechanical-Turk-virtual-girlfriend-world, wherein isolated people get all the reassurance they may need, so long as they are willing to forget that it’s actually fake.

Eventually, the audience finds her a date premised on two crucial questions: “What’s your favorite song” and “Which one is bigger, the Sun or the Earth?”

Cara Rose DeFabio performing “Virtual Girlfriend, Beta” Z Space in San Francisco, 3/09/2017. Photo by Dustin Mabry

What I, a PhD student in Sociology who has dipped a toe in Science and Technology Studies, found especially intriguing about her work was its engagement with the cultural meaning(s) of technology and history. She frames our experience with technologies within a take-and-give format: When people engage new technologies they enter a bargain pitting privacy against convenience (or even connection). This, I assume, is not a social contract shit-show assuming equal access to the table, and its construction in the first place. It is, more so, a way to think about how we think about it. People seem to be up for a trade-off. Like me, they write blogs, talk on smart phones, knowing all the while that entities such as the CIA or NSA or some secret thing can and does listen, map, and predict.

Her work got me wondering about my own relationship to surveillance and technology. I asked myself: How much am I willing to ditch in order to gain? I feel this is a crucial question of our time.

Surveillance for Whom?

A recent trove of C.I.A. documents released by Wikileaks offers an account of the the tools and processes the agency harnesses to try their best to spy on everyone. Coming off of the revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden, The Economist holds the recent document leak as a moment which “once again highlight(s) the trade-offs underlying espionage in the digital age.” This “trade off” is, of course, not one of equal information. These documents were “leaked,” after all, and people really have to sift through some mess in order to see how their TV’s, Phones, and Refrigerators may be used by their government as new-age spying devices.

Another “trade off” which is important to consider in re-orients our perspective taking thus far — from the consumer to the producer. Just who has the gall to manage those who know how to do all of this stuff, and aren’t some (some) of the people making these technologies people who feel ethical strain as they work to create an infrastructure of surveillance? The Economist follows suit, highlighting “the tension between employing hackers with the skills and cunning to design cyber-weapons, and the trickiness of enforcing discipline among workers who may not share the CIA’s culture.” Just what “culture” is that of the CIA and how does it seek to discipline (and punish) those who hold counter-cultural patterns and ideas?

Cara Rose DeFabio performing “Virtual Girlfriend, Beta” Z Space in San Francisco, 3/09/2017. Photo by Dustin Mabry

One way to think about this is, gratefully, through the eyes of those who study it. Mark Monmonier is a Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University who has written MANY books which variously deal with surveillance, technology, and their relation to politics, maps, and the rest.

In an interview (2002) with Jeremy Crampton, Monmonier explores surveillance technologies in relation to concerns around freedom, the state, and social values. He specifically takes on the issue of technology’s “inherent” position in relation to good and evil. In discussing whether or not global surveillance technologies are inherently bad, Monmonier offers an argument of neutrality, stating, “I fully believe that geospatial technology in general is value neutral” (639). He follows this by acknowledging the position otherwise, and offers “If one wants to look for technologies that are bad, look at handguns.” He further suggests:

“Such a critique seems trivial insofar as it’s the situation that makes a technology good or bad. Plumbing is good when it solves an otherwise messy public health problem, for instance, and bad when it facilitates Nazi gas chambers. Of course, we need to critique the use of geospatial technologies. And we also need to critique the critique of geospatial technology.”

The “situation” is key. The position (as I understand it), with focus on the nature of situations rather than that which is implicated within them, is one taken by many hoping to explain-away potential dangers of techno-scientific products. In the handgun argument we here “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I will argue latter that this is a ludicrous position, in that there is no such thing as technologies outside of “situations.”

Monmonier’s work is concerned with, among other things, maps. In some important ways, the production and collection of surveillance information is a process of map-making. Police license plate readers map-out people’s daily routines in cities, social network maps highlight nodes and ties of friendship circles, and google maps just maps everything. Surveillance maps chart courses and they are moments wherein knowledge and space are made. In terms of action, maps may promote or prevent activity and knowledge in that they can demarcate arenas of things (mountains here), do’s (walk here) no-things (wasteland here) and don’ts (no fly zone here).

I appreciate the notion of surveillance and the map, particularly in its capacity to produce and constrain knowledge and action. On the neutrality, though, I don’t buy Monmonier’s argument. Instead, I agree with the position which holds products of technology as never neutral. For starters, people seem to believe that technologies are at least beneficial. They’re packaged this way and it seems realistic to believe that those who make them see themselves to be doing something important.

I understand this within a broader backdrop of approaches to knowledge and human nature which argue that everything humans perceive and understand is laden with meaning. There is no technology without a situation.

Cara Rose DeFabio is on top of this, tweeting on March 7th, “facts are not subjective, but context is everything.”

Surveillance technologies, like any technologies broadly speaking, don’t act upon their own but are designed, built, and distributed by people who have, and will always have, concerns, desires, and interests. Surveillance maps chart and create knowledge used by actual people doing actual things, whether these things are bombing towns across the world or writing blogs about our relationship to products of technology :).

As a quick example of those “using” surveillance technologies to promote a better world, there are folks fighting for social/environmental/racial justice who employ surveillance technologies in their campaigns. For social movements nerds, one of the key moments sparking the arrival of social media and cellular phone technologies for direct action came in 1999 with the “Battle of Seattle” protests to shut down that year’s World Trade Organization meeting. Today, there is a continuing “use” of technologies, such as the employment of drone videography throughout efforts to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the use of satellite imagery to illustrate the complications (and utter absurdity) of Trump’s “wall.” Of course, Cara Rose DeFabio’s work fits this bill as well.

Cara Rose DeFabio performing “Virtual Girlfriend, Beta” Z Space in San Francisco, 3/09/2017. Photo by Dustin Mabry

These thoughts, and more, are what I see Cara Rose DeFabio dealing with in some important ways. This idea of the trade-off is pretty useful in that it allows for a multiplicity of meaning and experience in relation to products of technology as they come and go. We make sense of them and use them within our lives in contradictory, messy, romantic, and important ways.

Ongoing productions by artists and cultural workers surrounding technology, in light of revelations of CIA surveillance and the great trade-off of control and freedom, prompt discussion around the nature of life in the techno-surveillance world. For better, and for much worse, the spies are everywhere, and we all know it. How we choose to feel about it, and how we choose to find our dates, is not so much a matrix of choice unless we seek to control the conditions which produce the options in the first place.

I’m happy that their are people in the world with their eyes of the eyes which watch us, and even more thrilled to experience the “feminist rant” seeking to make sense of it all.