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Tech by VICE

Panopticon In Reverse: Steve Mann Is Fighting for Your Cyborg Rights

Last month, Dr. Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been living as a cyborg for his entire adult life, was attacked by employees at a Parisian McDonald’s.

by Claire L. Evans
Sep 11 2012, 4:42pm

“The computer [is] the most extraordinary of man’s technological clothing; it is an extension of our central nervous system. Beside it the wheel is a mere hula-hoop.”

— Marshall McLuhan, from War and Peace in the Global Village

Last month, Dr. Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been living as a cyborg for his entire adult life, was attacked by employees at a Parisian McDonald’s.

He’d gone into the restaurant to use the bathroom — McDonald’s in France tend to have single-occupancy, “cyborg friendly,” bathrooms — and grab some food with his family. The management, however, objected to his head-mounted camera glasses, a system called “EyeTap” that captures images at 120 frames per second in 1080 × 1920-pixel resolution. Even after they had been shown a doctor’s note explaining the device and the impossibility of removing it without special surgical tools, the McDonald’s employees allegedly roughhoused Dr. Mann, ripped up his note, and kicked him out of the restaurant onto the street. After Dr. Mann made his story public online, McDonald’s corporate responded with an assurance that nothing of the sort had happened.

Then he released the images. Taken with the very glasses his aggressors objected to, the pictures show the perpetrators in flagranti, surrounding the cyborg at eye-level and swiping at his head.

This story is already canonical online. Of course, a robo-man defending his identity in a corporate hamburger joint is a seductive narrative. A uniquely 21st-century conflict, redolent with french fry grease and a just unreal enough to propagate virally, it already reads like a harbinger of imminent conflicts in our technological future. Which is exactly how it’s been presented by the press: the event – which led TechCrunch to call for a McDonald’s boycott – has been tagged as an “attack on a cyborg” by countless news outlets. The tech and science-fiction blog io9 even called it, “the world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”

But the story is far more complicated. To understand this altercation (#McDoGate) as the unwarranted bullying of a humble cyborg trying to enjoy his Ranch Wrap™ in peace is to miss the germane elements of what actually happened. For one, this is not the world’s first cybernetic hate crime. If you walk around with a computer on your head all the time, you’re bound to run into trouble, and Mann has been walking around with a computer on his head for over thirty years. He’s been harassed before, particularly in airports: In 2002, he was held at the St. John’s International Airport in Newfoundland for three days, strip-searched, and injured by security personnel, causing $50,000 worth of damage to his equipment.

Secondly, the press surrounding the McDonald’s incident has framed Mann as a brilliant engineer, computer scientist, and the “father of wearable computing,” which he is. What’s been largely excluded from coverage, however, is that Mann is also an artist. And as an artist, he has made a career on acts of technologically-assisted subversion. The axis of his work revolves around a fundamental distrust for top-down surveillance and for the engines of worldwide bureaucracy, particularly as it’s manifested in corporate environments. His wearable computer, which he calls “WearComp,” is more than just one man’s techno-futurist fantasy: it’s a chrysalis that has turned a single person into a living, breathing provocation of the panopticon.

Mann doesn’t use computers to make art. He’s not a photographer. He is the computer and the camera.

That chrysalis has changed over the years; the evolution of hardware has lightened his load from a preposterously bulky rig in the late 1970s to a pseudo-innocuous pair of glasses today. In 1994, he was streaming live video from his system to the web, allowing viewers to peer into and annotate his life by “scribbling” on his retina. He still does this, uploading images to glogger, a social site that emphasizes continuous capture from wearable cameras. By several accounts, Mann is now something of an invalid without his WearComp. Without the glasses screwed into his skull, after three decades of mediated reality, he can’t see normally. He bumps into things. For all intents and purposes, it’s hard to tell where Mann ends and his apparatus begins. He refers to this complete hybridity as “Humanistic Intelligence,” a way of using computers as prostheses, enhancing the individual, rather than allowing artificial intelligence to replace us — famously, he’s called himself a cyborg Luddite, who believes that while some technologies liberate, others oppress.

In a 2003 article for the science and art journal Leonardo, Mann writes, “My performances and in(ter)ventions attempt to reflect the technological hypocrisies of large bureaucratic organizations on a moralistic (or humanistic) level by way of firsthand encounters with low-level ‘clerks.’” 

This essay, which won Mann the prestigious Leonardo Award for Excellence, details a litany of projects that pose direct questions about privacy and surveillance: a seat whose spikes retract only when its user swipes a credit card to procure a “Seating License™,” a film in which Mann, bearing a camera, attempts to follow the chain of responsibility upwards from a department store clerk, a bra made of surveillance domes that reverses the male gaze, and a helmet that only allows permitted individuals to converse with the artist. In 1996, he designed the “MaybeCam,” a sweatshirt that ominously announces its wearer might be toting a camera that transmits and records at remote locations. To be worn, of course, in places where surveillance is used but photography is restricted.

For example, a fast food restaurant.

Mann hasn’t explicitly stated that he intended to provoke an altercation with McDonald’s management over his device, and it’s likely that he didn’t. But he has spent his career staging deliberate interventions to achieve exactly the kind of results that this very public scuffle should engender: if not a frank reassessment of our participation in a video world, then at least the start of a conversation. Mann is a radical performance artist who has turned his body into a laboratory for a world that we haven’t yet reached. He is, in a sense, trying to prepare us, a task to which he is extremely committed; he lives day-to-day as a critical project, expressly designed to stimulate discourse. He doesn’t use computers to make art, and he’s not a photographer. He is the computer and the camera.

Without the glasses screwed into his skull, after three decades of mediated reality, he can’t see normally. He bumps into things.

On his own blog, Steve Mann’s responses to McDoGate haven’t been calls to arms for the cybernetic minority, but rather thoughtful meditations on the nature of surveillance. He argues that the personal imaging system he totes 24/7 is far less of a privacy violation than the ubiquitous cameras planted in most public and private spaces, McDonald’s included. His arguments are sharply articulated; he writes with the ease of someone who has been refining his ideas for many years. He even makes up a word, sousveillance, to refer to the global transparency of a society galvanized by the prevalence of pocket-sized recording devices.

After all, Mann’s just building on what we’ve all got. A human eye is a camera. A human brain is a recording device. The major difference between Steve Mann, who perpetually takes photographs as visual aids, and someone recalling a scene from memory, is storage capacity. And the only difference between the surveillance cameras that dot our world and the cameras we all carry in our pockets is the authority of the people behind them. But why, when we have the ability to document everything ourselves, should we rely on outside authorities to film us for “security” reasons? Why does McDonald’s get to film us when we can’t film inside of a McDonald’s? And when is a camera not just a camera?

These are questions we, as a society, are only just beginning to ask ourselves. Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist who studies the way humans and technology interact and evolve together, explains that Mann’s tiff with McDonald’s has caused a frisson because it “cites a future where all of us might have our rights undermined by also potentially getting ‘attacked.’” The technology is paving the way: before Google Glass entered popular consciousness, no one could imagine themselves in Mann’s contraptions. Now, Case says, “people fear for rights when wearing objects they didn’t even know existed before, in future scenarios they’ve never seen themselves in.” She goes on further,

The fact that [Mann] ever got abused before? Well, he sure deserves it, because he is weird. When we’re all weird (wired) then suddenly it’s not so strange anymore, now is it?

By turning his head into a (weird, wired) camera, Mann demonstrates the invisible boundaries all around us – those layers of abstraction between the individual and bureaucracy, the individual and government, the strange and maddening opacity that seems to be a consequence of a globally-connected world. Mann has referred to this technique in variable terms – as a “surveillance situationist” approach, as an aspect of “Existential Technology” – but its ethos is always the same. In his 2001 book, Cyborg, he speculates that cybernetic systems such as his will challenge technology’s tendency to homogenize us, writing that wearable technologies could restore our individuality, even as we discover new ways to enjoy one another. Mann himself, with his provocations and accidents along the way, is equal parts ground-breaker and canary in the coal mine. “For our future as individuals to be assured,” he writes, “we must explore the contradiction that my life as a cyborg embodies.”

The central contradiction of Mann’s work — that he passionately decries the lack of individual autonomy in our society, all while being utterly tethered to a computer – is not a fatal flaw in its logic. We just have to reframe the conflict: we can mistrust social machinery while finding transcendence in the thoughtful use of a literal one. In the near future, we can and will mold our computers to ourselves in profoundly personal ways, and this will, in turn, mold and color the very fabric of our individual realities. This won’t make us less human, or slave us to our hardware. Instead, it will free us, allowing technology to be used against the systems that would employ it to alienate us all.

And while most of us aren’t walking around with machines strapped to our faces — not yet, at least — the questions that Mann raises when he steps into a McDonald’s and gets kicked out for being an obnoxious cyborg are questions that bear upon all of us “regular” cyborgs. In a world of smart phones, smart lights, smart rooms, and smart cities, Mann, the man-machine, celebrates the smarter human.

See a Motherboard Sound Builders episode about Steve and his other project: water instruments.

Photos courtesy of Steve Mann. McDonalds ad by Journal de bord, photo of Diane von Furstenberg in Google Glass by Purse Blog.
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