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Interactive Installations : Guardian Angel (2001)
recipient of the Best Installation Award, Images Festival, Toronto (2001)

A head being tracked by "Guardian Angel"

Guardian Angel is a fictitious corporation that offers a broad range of highly personalized services in exchange for extreme personal surveillance. The installation is made up of three elements:

I have been using surveillance cameras and other monitoring systems in my work for many years. Any interactive system requires some level of surveillance. Agreeing to be surveyed is the entrance fee for any number of emerging interactive and personalized services.

Surveillance is a very tricky issue. Surveillance clearly constitutes some sort of invasion of privacy. On the other hand, many people are comforted by the thought that there is someone watching over them on city streets at night. Surveillance system becomes protective witness. The city of London (UK) has an enormous network of surveillance cameras deployed for the purposes of public security. There is much research being done in Britain to automate the analyses of these surveillance images… to detect suspicious activities algorithmically so that law-enforcement agents can get to the scene before anything happens. This requires the creation of an arbitrary definition of what constitutes suspicious activities.

Surveillance also melts comfortably into voyeurism. The current fascination with reality TV shows is entirely based on our deep pleasure in watching others, in getting that seemingly illicit peek into the lives of people we don't know. The voyeuristic gaze can be mocking, and it can also be compassionate. I can't help but be drawn to imagine the uncomfortable hybrid: automated compassion.

Joseph Weizenbaum suggests that perhaps the most important question to be asked about the presence and actions of computers in society is "What sort of decisions and judgements should we allow computers to make?". In his book "Computer Power and Human Reason" he examines this issue in the context of his experience as the creator of a simple but ingenius program called Eliza. Eliza is a computer program that mimics the behaviour of a psychotherapist, asking questions and responding in surprisingly humans ways, without possessing anything resembling intelligence. Weizenbaum was shocked by the suggestion that this program might be used to provide inexpensive psychotherapy for the poor, reducing the burden on tax-payers. The book makes the extremely important point that there is something ineffable about human compassion. He proposes that certain kinds of judgements must not be made by "entities" that have not had a full and complete experience of human life… falling down and skinning one's knee… being lost and hungry… being accepted or rejected in love.


a live processed surveillance image extracting cars and people at the corner of Richmond and Spadina in  "Guardian Angel"

The internet is an ideal surveillance system, since all the data is already conveniently in digital format. The paths we take across the hyperlinked space of the web carry an enormous amount of easily processed information about our interests and desires. Market research companies have been very quick to understand the potential of the web for targeted and very accurate market research. They are now fighting an aggressive battle to protect their access to and use of this personal information. They would like to avoid government regulation in this area, and are marketing themselves as rigorously self-regulating protectors of your privacy.

Cookies are convenient. It is strangely pleasant to be recognized on arrival at a web-site you have used before. I shop on-line. I fill in forms in exchange for free software. I use my bank's debit card for purchases (though I swore I never would!). I draw the line at Air Miles…

It is highly inconvenient not to "trust" on-line corporate entities. The benefits for sacrificing your data are real. By and large, consumers are getting comfortable with the trade-offs. "Cookie rejection on the Internet is less than one per cent." We get used to things… it is too tiring to be vigilant all the time. (Reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation's reasonably well considered EFF's Top 12 Ways to Protect Your Online Privacy left me exhausted… who has the time?)

Guardian Angel is an attempt to take one baby-step into the future… Most of the services this fictional corporation offers are already available from various disparate sources. Most major corporations have been diversifying widely, and will soon be in positions to offer the complete package (see the Guardian Angel web-site for details)

Put it all together, and you have a rich and complicated combination of extreme vulnerability and extreme convenience.  In addition, as a single corporate entity, a diverse mega-corporation does not have to share your personal data with any other entity to take full advantage of it. The Privacy Policy becomes irrelevant. Corporations take one more step closer to having governmental power, without the inconvenience of the democratic process (perhaps replacing it with the demographic process)( "Compassionate Consumerism"? ). Voting is replaced by purchasing and the Social Contract is dissolved. Government waste is replaced by Free-Market Efficiency. (Note the recent "successes" in the deregulation of power utilties.)

Am I stepping across the line into paranoia here? I don't know how to judge this. I'd say that I am just exercising my imagination, using my experiences creating interactive systems and watching people engage with them.

This is what the Direct Marketing Association has to say:
"Industry has a solid understanding of the needs of consumers and can react much faster than government to new conditions in the marketplace, and it is in industry’s interest to meet them."

And the following (a strange argument AGAINT government regulation):
"The real tension in the current privacy debate isn't between consumers and
businesses, but rather between consumers' desire for greater privacy and
their desire for the many benefits that flow from readily availablepersonal

I could not have said it better myself! (Contents)


part of "Wide" at the Images Festival, InterAccess Media Arts Centre, Toronto, Canada

"This Must be the Place", InterAccess Media Arts Centre, Toronto, Canada

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Copyright 2010 David Rokeby / very nervous systems / All rights reserved. 11/27/10