©Mari Bastashevski, 2019

DEMILITARIZING THE ALGORITHM

2018

A version of this text first appeared in a book Making Another World Possible.

From artworks based on the leaks of Edward Snowden’s NSA archive to frameworks for methodical paranoia, theories of creative camouflage, and widespread advocacy for permanent, on-principle encryption, the conversation that arose about surveillance is stalled in the very militarised subjectivity it aims to oppose. 

 

The tired argument that in gaining access to the military machines of counter-surveillance a civilian can undermine necro-corporate-state power neglects to take into account that technology, too, is capable of subverting the civilian, eroding the (illusory) border between enemy and ally, civilian and government, and corporation and state.

 

In Andrew Niccol’s dystopian drama Anon (2018), set in a future where every civilian wears an internal video recorder (not dissimilar to those in Deathwatch (1980)), a woman, identified only as “The Girl” and played by Amanda Seyfried, makes a career of replacing memories — harvested directly from the human cortex — in the state’s surveillance database. With an extensive arsenal of hacking skills at her disposal, she patches up personal identities just in time to get her clients off the hook. She works and lives in luxurious solitude. She is a prominent example of a paranoid hero, a political artist, a lone wolf in an asymmetrical struggle against algorithmic surveillance.
 

 

After dedicating her life to an obsessive struggle against surveillance, however, it would seem that The Girl can only desire her arch-nemesis, The Policeman. The affection is, of course, mutual, but that’s little solace for anyone unable, or unwilling, to desire the policeman, or for anyone refusing to mimic the militant methodology under any pretext. More importantly, their union teaches us nothing new about the state of the surveillance apparatus.

 

What little temporary respite the protectionist mindset provides from the very paralysis it induces is far surpassed by the dangerous idea it perpetuates in replicating the image of the other as a sovereign-with-a-human-face. In the case of Anon, this is represented by the detective character, Sal Frieland, played by Clive Owen. 

 

To the algorithm, the film only exacerbates the built-in paranoid logic of the surveillance state by reiterating that anything with a face is a potential target for somebody. 

 

Unlike in the grid-futurism scenario of an all-seeing state in Anon, neither “real-life” governments, nor the thousands of companies and users engaged in perpetual co-surveillance control any fraction of the global and transactional surveillance database which is connected across political spectra and power. This network sprawls across previously disconnected hubs of states, markets, individual communities, and private search histories. In capturing the subject constantly (the algorithms are not programmed to stop), the network exceeds the political influence of any particular despotic state or a single corporation. It, thus, designates its own sovereignty and usurps the role of the human as proprietor of the surveillance machine.  

 

Yet it is not the capture of a subject, but rather the subject’s continued and involuntary self-obfuscation — the perpetual production of indiscernibility and difference in what is understood to be a controlled and transparent environment  — that both prevents those who employ this data from recognising themselves as equally viable targets and allows for the continued justification of more surveillance.

 

Behind the fear of totalitarian control rests perhaps a deeper fear of the uncontrollable. The algorithmic chaos that does not adhere to the vertical hierarchies of power governed by the identitarian principles is reliant on stark distinctions between individual curated identities. As an exercise in relieving the imagination from paranoid paralysis let’s imagine this collapse has already occurred.

 

The discussion in surveillance today is no longer about who regulates and controls the data, but what sorts of ecosystems and demilitarised logic are necessary to imagine “algorithmic” operations existing without being directed at a specific target, an algorithm intelligent enough to negotiate the relationship between itself, humans, and the unhinged surveilling apparatus set in motion by off-screen Sal Frieland.

 

1. Anon, Dir. Andrew Niccol. Perf. Amanda Seyfried, Clive Owen. Netflix, 2018. Netflix. Web. 8 Oct 2018.
2. Deathwatch, Dir. Bertrand Tavernier. Perf. Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow. Quartet Films. 1982. All media. 8 Oct 2018.
3. Sal Friedland, the detective played by Clive Owen in Anon.
4. Parisi, Luciana. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013. 
in particular, the book, Contagious Architecture.
5. The urgency to consider the production of paranoia arose sometime during a protracted debate turned correspondence with the curator Lesia Prokopenko.