Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The smart city is moving beyond cameras and microphones to stranger surveillance tools.

From The Atlantic, Feb 23, 2018:

The City That Remembers Everything
The most impressive technical feat of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is that it manages to record nearly every detail from a day in the life of the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and to elevate those events to the status of literature. Mythology, even. Readers track Bloom’s journey step by step, as he navigates the labyrinthine streets, pubs, and offices of Dublin, yet Bloom’s errands bear the symbolic weight of The Odyssey. Ulysses battled his way from island to island, fighting witches and monsters, but Ulysses suggests that modern, urban lives might be just as significant.

Recording stray thoughts, private conversations, newspaper headlines, and even an amorous act in the bedroom, Ulysses functions as a super-catalog of the mundane. Joyce’s approach—a persistent surveillance of events in Dublin on the date of June 16—implies that a larger story remains hidden in a plain sight, an explanation that might finally make sense of the world, lurking in the data of everyday life. We just need to capture and record that data.

Joyce allegedly had larger ambitions than merely crafting a novel. According to his friend, the writer and artist Frank Budgen, Joyce wanted Ulysses to be so exhaustively detailed that it might operate as a kind of literary hologram. In his own words, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” It is literature as 3-D point cloud: a total model of the metropolis and an infinite archive of everything that takes place inside of it.

There are other ways to capture a city. In 2009, the U.S. military revealed the use of a new surveillance tool called Gorgon Stare. It was named after creatures from Greek mythology that could turn anyone who made eye contact with them to stone. In practice, Gorgon Stare was a sphere of nine surveillance cameras mounted on an aerial drone that could stay aloft for hours, recording everything in sight. As an Air Force major general explained to The Washington Post at the time, “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”
If a car bomb were to detonate in an outdoor market, for example, the accumulated footage Gorgon Stare had captured from that day could be rewound to track the vehicle to its point of origin. Perhaps it could even follow the car backward in time, over several days. This could reveal not only the vehicle’s driver but also the buildings the car might have visited in the hours or days leading up to the attack. It is instant-replay technology applied to an entire metropolis instead of a football field—a comparison made unnervingly literal by the fact that the same company that supplied instant replays for the National Football League began consulting with the Pentagon to bring their technology to the battlefield.

Unsurprisingly, militarized replay technologies such as Gorgon Stare caught the eye of domestic U.S. law enforcement who saw it as an unprecedented opportunity to identify, track, and capture even the pettiest of criminals—or, more ominously, to follow every attendee of a political rally or public demonstration.

The larger promise of Gorgon Stare, however, was a narrative one: Its capacity for total documentation implied that every event in the city could not just be reconstructed but fully and completely explained. Indeed, James Joyce and the U.S. military would seem to agree that the best way to make sense of the modern metropolis is to document even the most inconsequential details. Urban events as minor as a Dubliner out for an afternoon stroll—let alone something as catastrophic as a terrorist attack—can be rewound, studied, and rationally annotated. Gorgon Stare is Ulysses reimagined as a police operation: a complete, time-coded, searchable archive of a person’s every act. The police can go back days, weeks, or months; if they have enough server space, years. Should they wish, they could produce the most complex, novelistic explanations imaginable simply because their data pool has become so rich.
This sort of persistent surveillance no longer requires drones, however, or even dedicated cameras; instead, people have willfully embedded these technologies into their daily lives. The rise of the so-called smart city is more accurately described as the rise of a loose group of multisensory tracking technologies. Gorgon Stare, we might say, is the metropolis now....MORE