“The Locative Dystopia” by Drew Hemment (2004)

During 2004 a number of international events will be looking at the emerging field of locative media, commencing with MobiloTopia at Transmediale.(1) One issue to be explored is the relationship between the interventions of geo hackers or artists and mechanisms of surveillance and control. 2004 opened with the cancellation of a number of commercial airline flights at the bequest of the US administration. This serves as a reminder of the mundane and arbitrary operation of power (“Its got to the point where if there’s anybody called Mohammed aboard, your flight’s got a problem” – senior airline source, quoted Guardian, 3 January 2004), and also of the renewed focus on surveillance and the ability to accurately locate potential suspects.

This is an obsession shared by locative media, albeit in another name. Locative media uses portable, networked, location aware computing devices for user-led mapping and artistic interventions in which geographical space becomes its canvas. The rhetoric of locative media gestures to a utopian near-future in which the digital domain and geographical space converge, and the course it plots towards this future demands not only that data be made geographically specific but also that the user – if not defined by their location – at least offers up their location as a condition of entering the game. In this respect, not to mention its choice of tools, locative media operates upon the same plane as military tracking, State and commercial surveillance, its concern for pinpointing and positioning shared with coercive forms of social control, forcing a consideration of how locative media might challenge, or be complicit with such forms of social control, and of the point at which the locative utopia rubs up against the dystopian fantasy of total control.

Much focus has been placed on new legislation introduced following September 11 and its impact on civil liberties. But as organisations such as Statewatch have commented, much of this legislation had been proposed long in advance. And the question is not just how powers of surveillance or political control have been extended, but of how the nature of surveillance and control have changed. Deleuze has argued that the disciplinary society of factories and prisons has given way to the control society, where mechanisms of domination are less evident but far more pervasive and operate through codes and passwords. If the renewed focus on pinpointing and locating is legitimised rather than caused by geopolitical instability, might it be a general function of control societies, in a way that is distinct from the place of the Panoptic gaze within disciplinary societies? The increasing centrality of surveillance systems to the commercial sector suggests a new role for surveillance, that of not controlling deviancy, crime or terrorism but of managing consumption, producing not docile subjects so much as better consumers, the imperative of efficiency applied not just within commercial enterprises themselves, but throughout the cultural domain. Following this logic further, then – in parallel with the rise of coercive forms of State surveillance, and accompanying the huge proliferation of new surveillance technologies, from biometrics to RFID tags – we might expect to see surveillance become a cultural entity in its own right, and the locative capacity itself embraced and consumed like any other product, as a form of culture or leisure activity.

To take the example of mobile phones, their rapid uptake, both in the West and increasingly in the global South, has created an unprecedented capacity for tracking and monitoring individuals.(3) The mobile phone in many ways encapsulates the new relationship of power better than any other technology, in a similar way that the Panopticon did for the last. (Indeed, Bentham’s famous design for the Panopticon, an ideal prison in which the inmates can be observed at all times without knowing when the observation takes place, so that they internalise the gaze and ultimately police themselves, envisaged tin listening tubes connecting the control tower to each cell, in an uncanny forward to the mobile phone.) The mobile phone is carried on the body, and so connects the individual directly to ever proliferating databases, operating simultaneously as identifier and electronic tagging device: it is a wearable technology that places the Panoptic eye in your pocket and the body within the circuits of dataveillance. The mobile also highlights the arrival of lateral or ‘synaptic’ surveillance, in which the top-down model of State-sponsored surveillance is displaced by a situation in which contents are generated within and circulate across horizontal networks, and it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the subjects of surveillance from its agents – as in the use of picture phones and the rise of ‘cellphone vigilantes’ (Mitchell). Perhaps of more significance still is the way that with mobile phones surveillance mechanisms are marketed as consumer products in the form of Location-Based Services, such as the service introduced in Finland enabling parents to track the movements of their children 24 hours per day, without consent if the child is under 15 (requiring new legislation in Finland with the rest of the EU expected to follow).

Other services are based on models of entertainment and leisure, fitting neatly with a social and psychological shift identified in a number of contributions to ZKM’s CTRL[SPACE] catalogue: whereas Orwell’s 1984 expressed and embodied a fear of the future as a place in which all people and all things would be observed at all times, we now live in a present, it is claimed, characterised by “scopophilia”, a mix of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and an ontological need to be observed. While this perspective may have its limits beyond the still-exceptional cases of web-cams and reality TV, with the mundane and everyday use of mobile phones surveillance is being dispersed and also transformed, a technical capacity to locate becoming a tool to help us consume better and a new form of entertainment. The complex of control and communication in mobile telephony is not imposed but embraced for both business and pleasure, a system of power spread through marketing and accessed through subscription services.

To the extent that locative media simple celebrates the ability to locate all things at all times, it could almost be described as little more than a marketing wing for this branch of the control society, locatives style leaders as much as early adopters. Equally, in competing with the corporates in the race to produce a locative operating system, a location-aware internet or geo-repository it risks being just another player in the Location-Based Services market. And yet where the focus is placed upon the social before the spatial, either in the creation of open tools or in user-end applications, it becomes something fundamentally different. Like surveillance, locative media is a social project, but the grass-roots, social networks it advocates offer a critical distance to the system of domination of the control society. Locative media exults in the pleasure of locating and being located, and finds in this the basis for an emergent sociality – driven not by marketing but by networks of reciprocity and trust – as well as new ways of representing, relating to and moving in the world.

Just as it contests the top down approach of conventional cartography to open up a manifold of different ways in which geographical space can be encountered and drawn, so in appropriating and refunctioning positioning or tracking technologies, locative media indicates how they may be used not for pinning down but for opening up.(4) In dispersing interventions and applications outside the State- and corporate-led technology push, it transforms a system of domination into a participatory milieu. And in bringing location and the coordinate system into the foreground, by examining location-aware experience or perception and its relationship to the dominant logics of representation, it creates distortions or moments of ambiguity by which mechanisms of domination become both apparent and less certain. This does not yet allow a simple opposition to be made between locative media and surveillance or control. Locative media remains upon the same plane as new forms of pervasive surveillance, and this is a plane upon which emancipation and domination intertwine. It is not a simple question of emancipation _or_ domination, but of both at once. In many ways the locative utopia _is_ the dystopia of total control. After Systems Theory we might say that this presents a paradox that is not there to be resolved, but which is productive of the conditions of emergence for a location-aware society. Perhaps another term is needed, that speaks neither of utopia or dystopia, and which holds this paradox open. One possibility might be _embedded media_, which comes close to ambient technologies or augmented reality, without the Californian gloss. The term highlights the way media technologies pervade every aspect of the social domain, while its origin, referring to the placing of journalists in military columns during the war in Iraq, serves to highlight an inherent complicity in the operation of power. As a descriptive term it would highlight the way in which locative media is embedded not only in geographical space but political and cultural space as well. And as a metaphor it might be reclaimed as a rhetorical strategy for inhabiting this ambiguous and conflictual space, for intervening in the membranes of the multifarious datastreams (of military surveillance, criminal databases, immigration authorities, financial transactions, etc) that constitute the invisible threads of an emerging social fabric. To stretch the metaphor yet further, we might ask where the pockets-of-resistance to this form of embedded media might lie, the moments of disturbance or sites of interruption not of the telos of technological war, but of social control.(5) In its focus on the user-led and collaborative, on community projects and social software, on the creation of open tools, locative media offers a similar political moment to the open software movement. But a politics that is distinct to locative media – a politics of location – is not immediately apparent. Locative media proposes a form of dissent that is “collectively constructive rather than oppositional” (headmap). In radical times it is legitimate to ask whether a more radical or oppositional stance is called for. But equally in place of seeking a conventional, oppositional politics within locative media, we might ask what kind of politics is already there. The emergence of surveillance as entertainment suggests a whole new ecology of observation and control, forcing a reassessment of the conceptual frameworks through which surveillance has been understood. The discourse of privacy breaks down – compounded by the way that dataveillance renders personal boundary inconsequential – and traditional campaigning and advocacy become necessary but no longer sufficient ways of contesting the spread and application of technologies of political control. If drawing back the curtain of privacy is no longer an option, then perhaps we might “glimpse the outlines of future forms of resistance” to “the widespread progressive introduction of a new system of domination” (Postscript on Control Societies, Deleuze) precisely where the mechanisms of domination are encountered head on. Locative media’s political moment might not be despite its complicity in mechanisms of domination but because of it, residing in the acceptance of the paradox and occupying the ambiguous space it creates, creating a site of resistance by working from the inside. While locative media rarely interrogates its own embeddedness and complicity, even its utopianism is in many ways the most radical gesture, highlighting how positioning technologies can be enabling, and providing an alternative to voices critical of surveillance which risk spreading paranoia and so acquiescence. This does not preclude the development of a more overt politics of locative media (I must confess, this is _my_ obsession), one that explores its relationship to surveillance, and that seeks to intervene in the operation of technologies of political control by developing countermeasures or disrupting their affect. Locative media does not seek to intervene directly in the spread of pervasive tracking and surveillance technologies, nor does it examine their role in the large scale devastation that has been enacted on the world stage over the past two years. But in holding open this ambiguity, and in its constructive collectivism, locative media marks both the power and the limit of new forms of surveillance, deconstructing the operation of technologies of political control by introducing moments of distortion or uncertainty at that limit, and in building open platforms offers the chance to reverse, multiply and diffract the gaze, suggesting the arrival of the locative dystopia might be interrupted my the emergence of its other from the spaces inbetween.

These issues will be explored at the MobiloTopia session at Transmediale proposed jointly by futuresonic/ loca and the Locative Media Lab, and as a part of Mobile Connections, the main programming strand of the futuresonic04 festival.

Drew Hemment
7 January 04




(1) The MobiloTopia session at Transmediale asks if utopia is a non-place, what might a locative utopia be?

(2) Here this takes the form of data-matching between watchlists and airline passenger lists accessed worldwide, something predicted by Statewatch many months in advance, as was the application of anti-terrorism legislation against protesters and activists, first seen during the protests and peace camp at Fairford RAF airbase in the build-up to the Iraq War.

(3) Location data from mobile phones is routinely used in court cases in the UK and by the intelligence services, and was used by the Russian security services in the assassination of Chechnya’s rebel leader Dudayev (reportedly with NSA support). Mobile phones routinely generate location data so that calls can be routed, data which is recorded by the Operators. This is cell based and simply records the closest mast to the handset against time. Triangulation data is far more precise, calculating location to within 25m from the time delay in signals received by different masts, and mobile phones also increasingly incorporate GPS technology. Even pay-as-you-go phones, for which details of owners are not recorded, offer no respite, as the level of encryption on mobiles is so low that they can be easily hacked to obtain their unique EMEI number, and as mobiles and PDAs merge it will not be just location and phone logs that can be accessed, but diaries, contacts, et al. Yet more forms of surveillance are in development that exploit the flood of microwave radiation created by the global coverage of GSM, such as the radar-like Celldar(TM) system, developed by a UK subsidiary of Seimens for anti-terrorism defence, security and road traffic management, which offers the capability to see in real-time through walls or view moving objects hundreds of miles away by measuring deviations in mobile phone radiation patterns.

(4) While the focus here is on the relation to surveillance, similar issues arise in locative media’s relationship with cartography: drawing maps has always been political, and what is at stake therefore is not just the contours of cartography, but also contours of control. (5) In a similar vein we might ask whether after the political farce of embedded journalists in Iraq, might there emerge a critical space for embedded or reality gaming. Sony dropped Shock and Awe, but in an age when the waging of war comes ever closer to a video arcade – which led to Baudrillard’s claim that Gulf I never happened – a tactical approach to game zones that occupy urban spaces and are intertwined with the fabric of everyday life could offer a critical space to contest the military-entertainment complex and highlight the fact that the War on Terror is already right here.



# distributed via nettime

Also see Exhibiting Locative Media: (CRUMB discussion postings) by Beryl Graham:

In cultural circles, the ‘locative media’ media meme seems this year to have reached its zenith. After a summer camp in Latvia focused on the phenomenon last year, and conferences far and wide featured snippets in their programmes, this year the ISEA2004 and Futuresonic festivals have pushed wireless worlds centre stage. Faced with as much uncritical gadgetphilia as abject info-paranoia – courtesy both, it sometimes seems, of these technologies’ military roots – how are curators to sensitively engage with the field? During April 2004, the email list of CRUMB, the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss discussed just this. Beryl Graham compiled the results >>

Jan 26, 17:26
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