I consider Cyborg Unplug to be a positive, tactical response to a growing and widely felt social issue, one born from the technologically-enabled abuse of mutual, human respect.
Julian Oliver in Blinders For Google Glass
Cyborg Unplug, the anti-surveillance device by artist Julian Oliver has been widely written about over the last days. Mainstream press mainly reports on it as privacy tech that can block Google Glass. That’s a shame because it’s less and more. On the other side of the ring you got progressive techies that damn Cyborg Unplug for stepping on their rights and infringing their freedom. In his connected blog Tante compares it to pre-crime policing and writes:
This is the digital equivalent to a paramilitary group running through town and harassing people they don’t like. …
If you don’t want to share your wireless, that’s fine. Forcing your ideology on other people isn’t. And don’t hide behind “privacy” or “self-defense” when you mean “I want to be an asshole because fuck you and what you want.”
I find this a disturbingly aggressive “public’s public” take on a device that does hardly more than a technical version of asking you to stop. Let’s look a tad closer at what got this anger boiling: Cyborg Unplug is a router that is able to disrupt the connection to your wifi for not only Glass but also similar devices that can be abused for unwanted surveillance. It does not block the actual filming. If someone has recorded something they can simply connect to a different wifi and upload it. In my eyes that makes Cyborg Unplug neither the effective Glass blocker the Glass haters report on nor the evil pre-crime tool that tante tries to portray it as. Both opinions show how the tech realms often are not the best place to review smart devices that pose social questions. After all the average white tech guy’s horizon for that seems to end at making it an issue of social acceptance of his latest smart tech toy and loudly protecting its unlimited use against the issues of those who are socially more vulnerable by material that gets filmed or gathered and/or published without their consent.
When I first read about Cyborg Unplug I thought: I would. I host a little queer club night which is exactly the kind of semi-public space you wouldn’t want someone to Glass-film without asking and make it public on some social network. To give you just one obvious reason: There might be people who have not come out yet. Another is the “dance like no one is filming” part: It’s supposed to be a safe party space in which people can let go and letting go acquires a kind of unspoken mutual agreement in a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” style. One of the reasons why I love small underground club nights of the left is that most of the time that consensus automatically is in place and people party hard but are respectful about whom and what they snap and publish pictures of. A tool like Glass is a game-changer though, even in such places. After all it takes away the inhibition of being seen while filming someone – that makes for one social acceptance border less to cross. It makes filming without consent so much easier.
And looming larger than any app or platform is Google Glass, a technology that fully embraces and instantiates the street-photographer ethic, prioritizing the wearers entitled right to see. “The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them,” Mark Hurst, CEO of the consultancy Creative Good, wrote a year ago. Glass wants to place the wearer behind a portable two-way mirror: On one side, the viewer sees all without being seen, while the objects of Glass’s gaze can’t tell how their image is being processed. More than just a new way of seeing, Glass also enforces a new way of being seen.”
Nathan Jurgenson, Permission Slips
A tool like Cyborg Unplug puts up a permeable substitute border for the one Google Glass broke down. It’s not exactly like smashing someone’s Glasses, it’s polite. It’s not technophobic but a tech lover’s reminder of respect of privacy, and privacy is about consent. The makers of devices like Google Glass don’t mind privacy, else they could have long gotten active about this. They could have integrated a pop up that, whenever your camera lense face-detects that you are about to film a person, asks: “Do you have their consent?” It’s not that they don’t know how to place annoying pop up reminders wherever it is good for them.
With our digital devices becoming more and more mobile the ethics of respecting someone’s privacy have long gone past being a question that can be answered geographically, like “at home is private, everywhere else is public”. As the digital network surrounds us with every step we take “at home” can be public (e.g. if you do a video blog from there) while a geographically public space can be a digitally private space (e.g. if you share intimate texts with someone while standing in the middle of a crowd). Privacy ethics have become a nomadic question, an omnipresent issue so complicated that most of us just shrug it off. Social implications often only get tested by pushing the social limits of a new gadget. The discussion of possible effects always lags behind. Many people don’t realize what it means that anything you do can be taken out of the frame of a certain time and place and be published anywhere and archived and dragged out forever. This potential decontextualisation still often is met with the standard victim-blaming “simply don’t do anything in public, that you don’t want to be seen doing” or with the post-Snowden data apathy. Not to mention the luddist “smart tech depraves our youth and steals our jobs!” credo. Me, especially as I love so much about the possibilities digitally enriched life has brought I can not and will not ignore its often negative implications, especially for those living outside the norm. That’s why I am happy about little tripping stone tools like Julian Oliver’s router.
May Cyborg Unplug hit right in the face of the privacy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯s the NSA leaks have summoned.
P.S.: <3 cyborgs, hate borgs.