Article magazine # 133


Editor’s: Panoptes in the City

Text: Cosmin Caciuc
Photo: Ștefan Tuchilă

Google Glass has been stirring up the media. However, it didn’t have the expected commercial success from a social and psychological reason: the fear of being watched when you don’t want to, plus the embarrassing moments when you ask your interlocutor with the cyborg device on his face: “Is that thing recording right now?” And we’ll just let slide the glasshole nickname attributed in urban dictionaries to these gadget carriers.

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I think, however, that Google Glass, in particular for the the recording of images, remains an exciting artistic experiment with social, cultural and urban implications. On the other hand I have my doubts about seeing it involved in the popular frenzy of collective entertainment. It belongs to the same category as drones maneuvered by mobile phones, on board video cameras that operate non‑stop (serious chapter on youtube) and especially smartphones that can quickly become recorders, video cameras and transmitters in social media. And there’s another aspect: these are all within hand reach, some of them accessible at very low prices. There is even talk about a democratization of surveillance which doubles the administrative supervision by public video systems. In addition, there are the bizarre or funny snapshots captured on Google Streetview, spontaneously discovered by users, then redistributed virally on social networks; there is also the age of the great geographical discoveries on Google Earth, with brave sailors in their armchairs who see every terrestrial oddity through the eyes of the satellites… Panoptes, the mythical giant with countless eyes, is even more vigilant than we think.

The freedom of communication has made society transparent, but not surprisingly, brought along a dash of robotics. But what is its significance beyond technology? How humane is communication anyway? What do we have to gain from intense mutual supervision? Will we become more aware of each other? Will common sense prevail, or tolerance, or caring for others? Will we have a safer, more desirable public space? Will we be more creative? Accountable to what we think, speak and do? Or, in an era of excesses, we’ll be fully benumbed by the torrent of communication, making us more insensitive, more cynical and more disconnected? Would it be a problem that we’re only talking about surfaces, skins, looks and appearances? Or that we are talking to robots more than people? That only “gut feelings” matter? And that we do not really question our status as high‑tech consumers?

I don’t know if we are ready to assimilate the latest consequences of this techno‑transparent society and especially the shift of the traditional limits between private and public space. It is clear that we are developing a range of increasingly nuanced space between the two categories, mediated by technology supervision, by huge interest in architecture and urbanism. But at the same time, beyond the promises of artistic creativity, there are uncomfortable ethical issues: how far can the eye see?

Our colleague, Ştefan Tuchilă, has a photo project, Top floor, which is some kind of photographic supervision of the city, from above, away from the people, but this great collection of images has its fair share of critical commitment. It is an archive ready to interpret the city differently, with civic motivations and practical judgment, things which (at the risk of sounding naive) I expect from any form visual surveillance.

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