Bottom line: are humans sensors or things to be sensed?

A magesterial longread from Hans de Zwart of the Netherlands' Bits of Freedom steps carefully through all the ways in which the modern technological landscape focuses on ubiquitous surveillance for the purposes of social control and increased profitability for corporations.

The interesting thing here is the distinction between myware and spyware -- that is, between technology that helps you understand and navigate your environment better, and technology that treats you as part of the environment. In a human world, human beings are sensors -- things that identify, understand and synthesize their worlds -- not things to be sensed. Instead of using our machines to augment our cognition and power -- to do the boring parts like counting and remembering things while we do the exciting bits of understanding and enjoying things -- the machines are increasingly bossing us around, from the CCTV cameras that boss around the public (and the people tasked with watching them) to devices like game consoles and Iphones whose mission is to ensure that you only install "authorized" software to the jobware that shouts instructions at ecommerce warehouse workers as they race around to fill our orders.

Human beings are not inconveniently unreliable robots. We're not the gut flora of transhuman corporations. Any political or economic system that reduces us to either of these states is illegitimate and should be discarded.

This scene shows how being responsible for watching somebody isn’t a pleasant job at all. The young boys that had to guard Ai Weiwei in his cell had to stand completely still, weren’t allowed to talk and couldn’t even blink their eyes. According to Ai Weiwei their bones made cracking noises when they were finally allowed to move again at the end of their shift. This obviously is an inhumane practice and I wasn’t surprised to learn that these boys, even though there were cameras everywhere, still found a way to communicate with Ai Weiwei and regain some of their humanity. During the few moments that there was some movement in the cell, like when walking to the shower, they asked him questions with their lips tightly closed. Just like ventriloquists.

The people watching are, in some ways, imprisoned too. Gavin John Douglas Smith, in an article titled “Empowered watchers or disempowered workers”, convincingly shows how powerless most CCTV-operators feel. They are forced to look at situations without any way of influencing them, whenever something important happens they are pushed aside by somebody higher in rank, and they have zero freedom as they have to strictly follow procedure. They are actually being used as a small piece of human cognitive processing inside a giant automated surveillance system. They have to do the pattern recognition that computers aren’t capable of yet. We’ll get back to this theme later on.


Ai Weiwei is Living in Our Future