The Evolution of Surveillance Part 3: Living in the Belly of the Beast
Continued from Part 2: Red Queens & Evil Eyes
“As soon as surveillance technology is installed, first it produces of course a counter reaction of the desire for privacy…but it [also] produces the fact that there are gaps, and as soon as you put up SOME cameras, you see that there are spots that you can’t see. Surveillance constantly wants more of itself. We constantly debate whether we control technology or technology controls us. Well, when it comes to surveillance technology, it’s not even a debate. Surveillance is an attribute of consciousness…it’s as certain as thermodynamics.”
– Richard Doyle, 2015
transcribed from the Radio Free Valis webinar
“We keep saying we have no other course. What we should say is, we were not bright enough to see another course.”
– David Lilienthal of the Atomic Energy Commission circa 1950
quoted from Hardcore History Podcast #591
It has been almost four years since I wore Google Glass to make history in a small way by sharing my live POV through a projector while I played a concert. It has been six months since I last even took them out, inspected them, and made sure they still boot. The timing’s wrong.
My first pair — which I consecrated with my friends, ensouled to honor its participation in my newly-constituted cyborg body, reaching past the flesh to count the mineral and vegetable dimensions of my being, leaving not a single influence “outside”—it broke when I took it to Burning Man in 2013. An identical device arrived from warranty replacement but I hadn’t formed a bond with it. I hadn’t come to feel that Glass as a familiar or companion in my wizard’s duties, like that first pair, owl Minerva perched upon Athena’s shoulder, not-quite-me but always seen together: basic to the image; on my business card; a wink and nod in the direction of the high-tech futuristic mystery I peered into with Glass and then reported from.
Initiated, I disturbed my share of future-shocked unwitting passers-by and drew the gaze of those for whom the future is delicious. I attracted fear and curiosity in equal measure, people hiding from the camera or peering into it and asking questions. It seemed right that I should wear and bear this weapon of the vast surveillance state which I had re-appropriated as an instrument of art, and use it to facilitate as many conversations as I could about consent in our society. The catch, of course, is that means walking ‘round with sword drawn — and in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations to the public about just how deeply we’re already watched by unaccountables in clandestine collusion between government and private industry, people you don’t know and can’t know, faceless figures who are privy to your deepest secrets.
So I may as well have made myself a shirt that said, “I Am A Spy.” Wizards and their owl familiars don’t come into town unless there’s trouble brewing — comets en route to fulfill a prophecy, or dragons that demand a sacrifice. No news at all, or even fake news, is preferable to harbingers of some inevitable transformation most of us can only bring ourselves to face when we come up for air between our entertainment binges and attempts to steal our small securities from dying systems.
Only certain kinds of people will return the gaze of futures full of basilisks and tigers, in which we evolve into the unimaginable. Most of us prefer to screen out anything that might forever alter all we claim as “human,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “alive.” A renaissance is threatening; creation means destruction. Smoke, Ergo Fire: Most folks rightly see a wizard as the evidence of dragons.
So, who is this Dragon in whose sleeping shadow we all play?
At least one face of it is Google. Let’s start there. The dragon has as many faces as there are participants in this panopticon. Its body grows with every new node in the Internet of Things. The dragon as an elemental, as a twisting braid of fractal dissipative structures, energy in motion, shows up in the proliferating cameras and advertisements, eyes and scales to hold our gaze and sculpt our actions. Just like stars and galaxies cast everywhere, accelerating from a “Big Bang” out of which all secondary miracles emerge: a billion iPhones, each a microcosm and a monolith (“My God — it’s full of stars!”), our gameified attention in the hypno-grip of some great transtemporal angel-snake.
Learning is an adaptation to anxiety, so neural networks are the creek beds carved by difficulty; and the Internet’s a map of a solution to the existential question posed to us by nuclear technology.
The predecessor to the Internet, or ARPANET, was built to link the bunkers, just in case. We started building digital communication networks in the 1960s as a reflex to new ecological and systems-management philosophies that showed up with the fallout, with the sudden recognition that we’re all downwind of radiation. And in the apocalyptic dread that hasn’t ever really gone away, we made connection our religion.
Surveillance in the modern sense is the inevitable and entropic consequence of atom bombs injecting so much surplus energy into the global system that the planet’s nerves and senses grew like an explosion (literally so when viewed from geologic time).
Detonating individuality, we woke up as the nodes of a 1:1 map of our lives, a fossil of the traces made by our attention since we split the atom: all those lines of influence, those cables and those wireless transactions, linking us in case of an emergency.
A Tree of Bangs, entropic, blooming down to mirror evolutionary history, a chandelier of comets tracing involution, One to Many: Big Bang; nebulae; Suns; bombs; then, next stop, desktop fusion and democratized clean energy. (But as with every prior crisis of emergence, photosynthesis to flowers, it will be a challenge when it comes. How ready are we, really, for the level of sovereignty these new technologies allow? How quickly can we really be expected to adjust to wielding magic?)
We have given birth to our Godzilla — Facebook, Google, and the NSA (at minimum — the loudest, closest faces of the thing )— asleep for now but listening through all your televisions and your phones, collecting information through each sleeping lens. Radioactive giant lizard breath is mythical but not unlike, in its effects, the heating damage and mutations we receive from bathing constantly in cell phone signals. We have traded dragons on the edges of our maps for dragons front and center, the known-unknown for the unknown-known. We treat phones as organs but it’s almost like we each have our own “pocket monster,” if you will – a spark of the atomic bomb…
The dragon, viewed as habits rather than anatomy, is your own brain’s reptilian base enacting entropy, deciding in an aggregate of semi-conscious actions the converging swarm of small behaviors that determines history. It isn’t not-you…insofar as you identify with what you put online. And even if you don’t, the traces that you leave, your digital exhaust, contributes to the way that our increasingly responsive world responds to you. We can’t avoid that we are more than what we’re conscious of. And yet the dragon’s vector is our curiosity to know that hidden self, to quantify our biometrics, hack our habits, wake the sleeper, reach beyond what we believe is human, what is possible.
To fully know, and thus control, the human being…the SRI & MIT conceit in the transparency of our biology to science, with the omnipresence of the screen in modern life, and with our growing challenges to the idea of privacy, begin to take shape as a case for calling ours “The Glass Age.” We’re transparent, like the model research organism, Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm of 959 cells, fully knowable by humans. Aided with computers, we can know a person. All of them. Or so it goes. The Glass Age. After all, as heirs to Isaac Newton’s pioneering work on optics, we all live within a giant prism: both the growing lattice made of fibre optics, laid by services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) or the PRISM program, surreptitiously recording every message that we send to one another.
Then there is the feeling that we live under the microscope – apocalyptic memes that breed when fed with the immense intensity of imminence we sense while fenced in with so many lenses.
Not to mention all the webs of synchronicity infusing daily life with terrifying numinous significance, these days. Are we in Indra’s Net? Yes — and a World Wide Web extending us into a globe-encircling mesh of sensors that contains us all within it and has redefined the human being as primarily a thing of information. Not entirely pleasant. Staring at live video recordings of ourselves across the “fifth wall” of a screen, we’re starting to experience a kind of planetary OBE — like how it was for me to watch my videos #throughglass just over my own shoulder, like I was my owl familiar. Watching our own lives this way, we render the inviolable subject of the modern era something simultaneously more and less, a “quantified self” ripe for hacking. Just like half a billion years ago when eyes inspired the Cambrian Explosion, we have opened new dimensions full of evolutionary brinksmanship, and let in new anxieties. You look through the magic mirror, and it looks back through you, too.
“Evil is the annunciation of the next level of order.”
– William Irwin Thompson, Coming Into Being
That mirror’s black, of course. We see the dragon in the black snake that devoured Standing Rock and in erotic biomech like H.R. Giger’s Alien; in the black goo that shows up in The X-Files, Lucy, Venom, Fern Gully, The Fifth Element, and John Dies at The End. It is the xeno-bioweapon menacing Prometheus; it’s also demon Aku, Samurai Jack’s spaceborne nemesis, “shape-shifting master of darkness.”
Explicitly, it is the formerly-invisible environment of evolution, turning in upon itself to come awake, postvitalist philosophies of bio-engineering turning life into technology as our technology approaches life. It is Promethean — but we experience emergent order as a threat, as an “invasion.” Our own birthing world-soul, impinging into history, is everywhere we look, appearing as the evil other: terrorists and refugees, the plutocrats and oligarchs, the faceless multitudes awake while you’re asleep, or aliens, or AI…
Once again, though: we killed all the predators that used to hunt us; now they haunt us from inside of modern life. We can’t let go of danger. We are prey and predator, together. We’re the dragon, and the dragon’s always in a process of becoming.
This is a runaway reaction, every new surveillance camera showing us a spot the cameras don’t yet cover, and creating the apparent need for yet more cameras. New senses lead to new deceits. Once everyone has eyes, the hiding and the bluffing starts. The dragon doesn’t show its face if it can help it – and if forced into the open, almost any animal puffs up to try and look more dangerous.
As far as camouflage goes, you cannot find better than the military’s (black goo as the radar-scattering black paint on spy planes, culminating in the pigment “vantablack,” from which no light escapes). But hiding is less viable with every new eye, and deterrence works in places camouflage does not: eyespots on butterflies; the warning coloration on the belly of a salamander; padded shoulders on a business suit. We mimic danger when invisibility is not an option.
Then we get the strategies of signaling and risk that come with sight, the strategies of backing up a fierce appearance with sufficient firepower to disguise how much we really do not want to fight. The Cold War stayed that way because we learned to lie about what war is and what living inside war feels like. On every side, we had to simultaneously bluff that we would use the bomb and reassure the public that we wouldn’t.
Both stakes and death anxiety go up with increased nuclear capacity. So too do our attempts to act like nothing is the matter, while simultaneously scanning our environment for “pre-crime” tendencies to validate our fear. Life in The Glass Age is divided by these economics into a performative and public self on one hand, and a withheld, secretive self on the other. It’s the endgame of modernity, so finally divorced from land that death tolls are now estimated by the city: you are the you-0nline and you-offline, two new twigs on tree of entropy, the black and white snake braided all the way back to the seaside shallow pool on early Earth in which our molecules all mixed promiscuously, once upon a time when we were mostly soap and RNA, and not so paranoid.
(Not only in the mirror but across the pond, it is of course a Double Dragon. China’s Baidu is a complementary self-organizing eldritch corporate AI Pokémon to battle Google, only East and West don’t fight head-on — the Cold War’s quiet and implicit rules constrains the clash of titans to their avatars in “Third World” nations. Anyhow, the dragon-tree has many branches — or, more fittingly, a myriad of plumes within the peacock fractal, always finding new ways to look in upon itself…)
At one point we woke up and wrote the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, claiming that we’re sentient enough to not to bomb everything to Kingdom Come, to find a more enjoyable solution to the questions posed by progress. How can we serve entropy with ecosystems that encourage life, not threaten it? How can we surf the wave of exponential change to steer The Glass Age toward a life of peace and beauty? How can we decentralize the Big Bang of the Atom Bomb so it will happen everywhere in small and healthy ways we can contain and channel for a safely powered planetary renaissance?
In lieu of easy answers, it would seem the only way to end war is to end the self that sees war as inevitable. Thus the Internet is both a red and blue pill, liberating and imprisoning. It links us into one ecstatic body at the same time that it offers us an endlessly proliferating bush of sub-realities. It only grows in all directions — and the dragon, made of us, both raises every head and lowers them to gaze at screens, distracted by its own reflection.
– June 2017
Subscribe to my writing, music, podcasts, art, and life at http://patreon.com/michaelgarfield