Golan Levin and Collaborators

Flong Blog + News

Sight and Insight

28 May 2014 / reflection

Written for the inaugural issue of HOLO magazine, August 2013.

Somewhere in an airport, a machine vends a free cup of coffee when it sees someone yawn. Two hundred astonished people get a hot drink! – and a quarter million more watch the perky video online. I suppose I’m a little surprised at their surprise. It’s advertising, but it could be a lot of other things, too. A debug screen flashing at 1’04” reveals the telltale wireframe of a familiar éminence grise: Jason Saraghi’s military-grade face tracker – the intelligence behind a thousand art-school projects, and (we might reasonably surmise) a piece of the FBI’s new NGI “Next Generation Identification” database as well. Use it to collect some portraits, and it might just get your laptop confiscated by the Secret Service, as happened to artist Kyle McDonald.

It is the summer of 2013 and my Umwelt is now reeling from the Snowden Effect. For many, this cascade of dystopic revelations about our privacy (and lack thereof) has instilled a vexing mixture of rage, disbelief and nonchalance. Hey, you remember that whacked-out, paranoiac conspiracy theory we scoffed at? – well, *cough* obviously, we always knew that stuff was true all along. Maybe. To make sense of our situation, we ascribe to the NSA and kindred organizations the metaphors of a sensate body: it “slurps and burps” our emails and Skype calls; it sniffs our communication packets like a “Carnivore” (an NSA surveillance system). It even gets some “backdoor action” (although the big companies, blushingly, deny it). But the overweening preoccupation of the surveillance state, predictably, is its sense of sight. The NSA is looking at us. It’s been revealed that it uses a “PRISM”, and a “Magic Lantern”, and has (we are told) a “Fairview”. So what is the nature of this gaze?

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes how, in the evolution from the medieval era to the Enlightenment, observation became co-extensive with control. This was epitomized in Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 Panopticon, a (prison) architecture optimized for the one-way surveillance of its occupants. Well, the panopticon is here again, and it’s a family affair. Big Brother is hovering at 18000 feet, in an ARGUS-IS drone that records 1.8-gigapixel video at 12 frames per second (that’s all?), and can tell what I’m eating. Little Sister is lurking just behind my iPhone camera, peer-pressuring me to gossip about annotate our junk shots and selfies and Instagrams and… well, she knows what we just ate, too. If Edward Snowden revealed anything genuinely new, it was that these nosy siblings are sharing their observations behind our backs.

Snowden refreshed an old lesson as well, one that has never been truer than in our current era of asymmetrical conflict: the power of a single individual to change the world. Like Saraghi’s ubiquitous face tracker, the same tools available to governments and corporations are now in the hands of individuals as well. Those with courage can conduct remarkably effective redress with surprisingly economical means.

As artists and designers, we know something about the language and idioms of seeing. Now, because of networked systems and ubiquitous capture, perception and representation are changing faster than ever before. For the artists, designers, and culture operators who work with technology – especially imaging and information technologies – our job, or jobs, are clear.

We may work to predict the cultural consequences of new technologies, warning us of dangerous futures, or speculating about interesting ones.

We may author whimsical, provocative and illogical tools that liberate minds, connect hearts, creatively invert authority, and empower skeptical thought.

Using artistic techniques like defamiliarization, we may awaken others from their slumber to see common things in an unfamiliar way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

Using the artistic techniques of visualization, we can delineate the unseen forces that shape our lives, in order to reveal the invisible.

Above all, we are obliged to take a “seat at the table” to help set – and not simply be victim to – technological agendas.

We will go crazy if we dwell, without relief, on injustice and impending disaster. As artists have always done, they also concoct poetry and magic, transport us to different realms of experience and imagination, remind us about what is really worth living for, and, perhaps, just a little, relieve our suffering.


  1. Microsoft Denies Windows 7 Has NSA Backdoor
  2. Douwe Egberts, “Bye Bye Red Eye
  3. Spy Drone Can See What You are Wearing From 17,500 Feet
  4. When Art, Apple and the Secret Service Collide: ‘People Staring at Computers’

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