Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, July 16, 2012

Performance Artist and Sousveillance Activist Steve Mann Assaulted in Paris McDonalds

Mann's account of the attack is available here.

I find Mann's exposure of and resistance to ubiquitous elite surveillance practices useful and interesting -- enough so that I've taught some of his writings in media courses -- but I disapprove (mostly for the very same reasons I approve of what I just described) of his recourse to faux-neutral characterizations of some prosthetic mediation as "enhancement" or "augmediation" or, even, simply "helping people see better."

One might say that Mann's Eye-Glass, in addition to constituting a vital ongoing performance/ activist art intervention into the prevailing neoliberal articulation of the "information age" as well as an interesting contribution to the prosthetic different-enablement of perception, is also an early form of more recent splashy so-called "augmented vision" eyeglass systems from Google and the like streaming information overlays onto the perceptual field, presaging perhaps a bid to form a corporate-military McConsciousness that makes the site of Mann's assault especially evocative.

I think it is crucial to remember that all culture is prosthetic, that all language-users in multiculture are cyborgs, and that all mediation makes apprehension different, but that experiencing such differences as "better" or "worse" or "enhanced" or "disabling" will depend on who one is and what one values and in the service of what ends and at what costs and with what stakes these differences are constituted. It is rarely right to pretend that disputes over these key questions are in fact settled and it is to police these disputes into quiescence, usually to the preferential benefit of incumbent elite interests first of all, that one indulges in these pretenses to neutrality.

Those who are proposing that this assault might represent a "first" instance of anti-cyborg bigotry are doubly wrong -- first, and most obviously, because this isn't even the first instance in which Mann himself has been assaulted for his prostheses (recall the ordeal to which he was subjected by airport security near the height of the Bush phase of GWOT in 2002, for a reminder of which read this), but, second and more interesting to me, because I think a de-naturalization that spotlights the inherently prosthetic character of all culture is so central to so much bigotry, as witness violent assaults on transgender folks or prejudice based on sartorial signals of ethnicity or bullying of the differently enabled.

These are awfully important discussions to be having right about now, in this era of panoptic surveillance, targeted marketing profiling, and experimental subjection in bioremedial networks, and Mann is helping us have these discussions... indeed this seems to me to be the vital substance of his work at its best. Certainly, I wouldn't want my raising of questions about Mann's particular inflection of these discourses to be taken as a trivialization of the violation he has suffered but as the provision of more of the context in which this violation seems especially fraught. It's just that I would like this terrible attack to be an occasion for critical attention rather than just another occasion for a heady bit of gossip scrolling down the twitter feed.

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