Thursday, December 07, 2006

Distributed Deliberation vs Distributed Surveillance

Networked technology does not operate in a discursive vacuum. The structures in place that make it possible for people to communicate globally, and for communities to integrate locally, are the same structures that also permit more stringent hierarchies, and greater tracking. As Lessig pointed out, there is nothing inherently "communitarian" or, if you like, "anarchist" in our network infrastructure; code can be changed, and routers can be controlled, such that it's perfectly possible to have a "distributed" network of tough hierarchies - in effect, everyone can sit at the top of their "domain".

This is worth bearing in mind for matters of civil discussion. Arguments over the best way to implement, and to encourage people into these debates is of limited value if the alternative, and often encapsulating contexts are ignored. Seeking to bridge some of the (intentional) divide with the Into the Machine blog, I think the interplay between what we often call "democracy" and, in this case, surveillance - monitoring - needs to be explored further.

This USA Today article (via SmartMobs) points out how issues of injustice are brought to a global attention, through the ubiquity not of networked discussion and basic awareness, but of video devices. The article calls it "cell-veillance", but the idea of "sousveillance" (viewing from below) has been around for years.

What strikes me, though, is the association made between this sousveillance and "justice". Jeffrey Cole, in the article, states that:
"Video empowers the individual against big brother"
This is, apparently, the "era of citizen journalism".

The language of "empowerment", "citizens" and "bottom-up" (as in grass-roots, not christmas drinks...) is one familiar to practitioners of more participative, deliberative democracy. At the heart of both (and revealing the source of the overlap in lingo) is a desire to hold those with power to account, to avoid mis-use of resources and misrepresentation. The difference, then, lies in the extent to which we, as individuals, relate not just to each other, but to ourselves. There is a difference between being merely a publisher - being in the right place at the right time, and pushing information out - and being a participant.

In participation there is feedback. There is understanding through debate, agreement and, most of all, disagreement. But furthermore from a policy perspective, there is also often a result. Not only (one hopes) do people come to a mutual decision or viewpoint, but also there is opportunity for a more reflective, more reflexive process wherein the nature of the debate itself can be extended and transformed.

I am, unfortunately, a cynic however. There is far less evidence of this participation being taken up than there is of surveillance - in all of its forms - being implemented, in the UK at least. For many reasons, our fixation with CCTV and other modes of panopticism is rapidly becoming embedded as a cultural value, a symbol of our isolation and dependency on technology as a solution rather than a facilitator. From a "grass-roots" perspective, this is very much "fire to fight fire".

This is not to say that electronic deliberation and distributed surveillance are, necessarily, mutually exclusive, by any means. However, the modern human is a fickle and busy creature, and the issue of personal responsibility to society (in contrast to Blair's re-definition of the "social contract") is one in which many people now seem content to avoid. Much, if not all, of the ideas surrounding the on-line reconstruction of society are centred on how to attract and keep people's attention.

Video's are being used more and more in matters of discussion - although generally for either attention grabbing or for structured input. But how should the "divide" between video as "content" and video as "surveillance" be addressed? Should there be greater integration between our surveillance systems and our debate systems (hmm, can't find a link to the town showing CCTV footage on a local public TV channel now...), such that we have the chance to discuss events with some context? Or does this risk establishing more surveillance as a "legitimate" mode of self-governance? There are, after all, still many places that rely on CCTV as only a disuasive tool rather than as "evidence". Or, indeed, that don't rely on it at all.

This post is getting quite long now, so I'll wrap it up and maybe continue some thoughts in another post. The main point, from this blog's perspective, is that while there are many efforts to engage with ordinary people in the political sphere, we should also recognise that this is not an isolated effort, and that "openness" and engagement can at the same time come from quite different (and, in many minds, more "cost-effective") tools. Rolling the more "voyeuristic" tendencies of people into discussions may not be so "ethically" grounded, but can it offer a path to increased interest in discussion?

Comments and criticism welcomed, indeed encouraged...


Amy said...

and that "openness" and engagement can at the same time come from quite different (and, in many minds, more "cost-effective") tools.

What do you have in mind? Surely not public meetings?

Very interesting read, will comment later. Oh yeah, I did have to look up one of the words you used which was thrilling.

Nice one.

Scribe said...

Hey Amy, sorry for not publishing this comment earlier - must have got lost in my mailbox :-/

Perhaps not public 'meetings' (in the formal sense) - perhaps more as 'introduction' or resources available to particular debates. For instance, should footage from CCTV/mobiles be deliberately added to on-line forums (i.e. by the forum administrators) if it will encourage more people into the debate?