This article was written on 27 Feb 2015, and is filled under Actualities, Science / Technology.

How Not to Disappear in America: Notes on a Panel on Human Rights and Video Technology

Aerial photograph of the National Security Agency by Trevor Paglen.  CCC 1.0

Aerial photograph of the National Security Agency by Trevor Paglen. CCC 1.0


One could be excused for thinking that the panel discussion convened this Thursday in San Francisco around the future of human rights and media technology would focus on tools for evading surveillance, increasing encryption, and generally promoting resistance to an NSA logic of “capture all.”

In fact, the Future of War conference held just a day before in Washington D.C. concluded that the biggest threat to human rights in future wars will be surveillance, namely, “the mass collection of increasingly varied kinds of data by nations with the authority to kill and detain people after analyzing it.”

Instead, in a space in San Francisco’s South Park, newly occupied by Neon Labs, a panel largely addressed problems of an inadequate visibility and the need for more data collection in regions of conflict. Panelists including artist and Berkeley Professor Ken Goldberg, WITNESS program director Sam Gregory, and former White House deputy CTO Nicole Wong drew on case studies including police brutality from Brazil’s favelas to UC campuses, war crimes in Syria, and demonstrations against energy conglomerates in the Western Sahara.

From a staggering ca. 500,000 videos of apparent war crimes in Syria to the televised murder of Eric Garner, the evidentiary value of mobile phone technology is rapidly proliferating, as Sam Gregory demonstrated, yet it remains insufficiently mobilized by legal systems and inadequately serviced by the existing social media platforms that typically stand as these documents’ ephemeral archives. The human rights issue does not concern surveillance or data collection in itself, the panel concluded, but rather the technologies of power that determine who creates that data, who has access to it, and who controls the circulation of images. The urgent need to redress the immense imbalance in the relationship between the controllers of data and those whose data is being controlled was perhaps the central message that precipitated out of the diverse presentations.

The visibly engaged audience at this panel made an outsider wonder whether there isn’t a serious shortcoming by tech companies to address the implications of their products for facilitating both human rights and their potential abuses, a shortcoming which this lively panel made a small but forceful attempt to redress.


This discussion that I saw unfold reminds me of a recent dialogue over at Urbanities between Craig Epplin and Justin Read on contemporary forms of participatory cartography, ranging from government-sponsored sound maps of Mexico to the proprietary yet user-generated maps of google and yelp.

The question that Craig and Justin chew over— “whether the relation of producer-consumer and planner-occupant has really been altered by the advent of ‘participatory’ modes of technology”—posed itself at numerous junctures in this panel. The asymmetry of this relationship was exposed in Nicole Wong’s discussion of police body cameras and the ways that they perpetuate the abuses that they are thought to guard against; similarly, this asymmetry was exposed in Ken Goldberg’s 2004 project demonstrate, in which a robotic (and consumer grade) webcam was installed over Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and made accessible to anyone on the internet: the degree of controversy that it raised did not extend to the use of similar—yet unidentified and invisible—surveillance cameras by the police on the very campus.

This is a discussion that has been largely ancillary to the concerns of the major social media platforms, as evidenced by youtube’s deletion, in 2007, of the entire account of Wael Abbas, an Egyptian activitst who documents police brutality. (After a major outcry, his account was subsequently restored, though initially stripped of all videos, views, and comments.) The unforeseen (if not unforeseeable) appropriation of such social media platforms for the exposures of police brutality and other human rights abuses is precisely what Sam Gregory and Witness address through the development of alternative media platforms as well as the integration of human rights channels into existing ones.

While anyone who watched the #blacklivesmatter protests unfolding around the country knows that citizen journalism is alive and thriving, effectively maintained and livestreamed by decentralized activist networks, we still are not seeing those documents effectively leveraged for legal action, nor are they securely archived both for future mobilization and against potential political retribution.

It was inevitable, then, that the panel turned to case of Eric Garner and the failure of a grand jury to indict the police officer who was videotaped choking Garner to death. Despite the promise of the camera, this and other non-indictments challenge us, as David Joselit recent wrote in Artforum, to be “skeptical of the ideological promises of representation.” This is a turn that the panel largely did not consider until prompted by a question from the audience. The refusal of representation–not just through the use of youtube’s proprietary face blurring tool but through a more radical implosion of representation—offers a politics for the marginalized that is potentially more effective than the production of images intended for easy media consumption.

In his article, Joselit gives the example of William Pope L.’s 2000 performance of Eating the Wall Street Journal, in which pieces of the newspaper were ingested along with milk and ketchup to make it more “palatable,” and then vomited out. Joselit elaborates,

In his 2002 text Hole Theory, closely related to the procedures of ingestion and rejection performed in Eating the Wall Street Journal, Pope. L declares, “I do not picture the hole. I am the hole.” In other words, his art does not represent but rather suggests an elusive alternate space for consuming information—not the ostensibly democratic sphere of the forum, but the much more slippery, biopolitical locus, or threshold, of the hole. Indeed, a concept like “the hole” may present opportunities for those who, like Garner, cannot command presence in official forums.

Such a hole is alluring, but who gets to disappear representation—and who is merely disappeared? In an age of capture-all information capitalism, commanding absence may present significantly more tactical challenges than commanding presence. The allure of “the hole” is the allure of an outside to the spectacle, an outside to the tandem enterprises of telematics and predictive control, to the capture of life into data, to the extraction of value from virtually any and every thing, to the “systematic exploitation of nano-labor” that Justin Read defines as “social media.” For most of the subjects of human rights abuses around the planet, Joselit’s and Pope L.’s hole might come across as a sentimentalized ideal and a largely unviable alternative to achieving a politically effective form of visibility.

On the other hand, an art that would seize circulation as a technology of power, as Joselit has written about in “What to Do with Pictures” and as Ken Goldberg’s art explores, does promise empowerment on a scale not possible by (literally or figuratively) consuming images.

The comprehensive programs and forums developed by Witness are commanding presence for the marginalized and dispossessed and thus redressing local wrongs and abuses around the world, but a large-scale advancement of their mission must also work in concert with the dismantling of the structural inequality that pervades most mass media, even in Web 2.0 and so-called participatory media. And alongside the panel’s unanimous call for more professionally documented evidence to counter human rights abuses, we should perhaps recall that one of the most successful mobilizations of visual attention toward the criminally covert abuses of human rights in the U.S.—the NSA photography of Trevor Paglen—has achieved its visibility not despite but because his often intentionally blurry and distorted photographs are, as he writes, “useless as evidence.” Alongside discussions of how to achieve visibility for the victims of police raids in Rio, armed conflict in Syria, and mass kidnappings in Guerrero, we need to keep in play the conversations around how to disappear in America—and elsewhere.

[Update, April 12. Witness has a write-up of the event on their website:]

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