Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WS: The Cell Phone and the Comfort of Tracking

In the opening lines of Agre’s text, “Surveillance and Capture,” Agre makes clear the historical specificity and development of ideas concerning surveillance:

“Ideas about privacy are, among other things, cultural phenomena. They are shaped through historical experience, they condition perceptions of newly arising phenomena, and they are reproduced or transformed in all of the same complicated ways as other elements of culture” (Agre 740).

Issues and reservations concerning privacy has continued to be a contentious topic for many people. With such measures taken by the state like the legitimated use wire-tapping, access to information, consumer spending tracking, and other tracking technologies, anxiety is always awakened in these discussions, as references are immediately made to “Big Brother” or the “Panopticon”. However, there has been a simultaneous boom with other forms of tracking such as GPS technologies, tracking packages, and social networking sites that function as a means of self-surveillance. I would like to focus on the literal tracking through space that Agre discusses in his text, with particular attention to GPS technologies.

Global Positioning System technologies, when compared to other modes of tracking, perform all of the necessary computation at the location of the object of tracking, versus a series of snapshots that capture one’s location at a given moment through the video image from the camera. This distinction, although seemingly insignificant, is key to the distinction between surveillance and capture that Agre makes.

What I would like to turn to now are two examples of tracking. 

Example 1: iPhone commercial


In this advertisement, the iPhone provides a means for users to not track their friends, but rather to see where they're at and meet up with them. This real-time GPS feature makes tracking appealing instead of unsettling.  What is so interesting about these media phenomena are the ways in which they are being promoted and even heralded as protective, as is the case in the Family Locator cell-phone capability.

Example 2: Verizon's Family Locator plan


Verizon’s description of the Family Locator plan (via Verizon website)

“Peace of mind is right at your fingertips. Securely locate your family members' locations from your Verizon Wireless Device or the web. The locate feature provides you with the information you need to stay aware and stay in touch.”


The advertised device’s use of GPS technology seem to make the distinction between technologies of capture and technologies of surveillance harder to define. Here privacy and security seem to loosen their grip on each other in the public imaginary. In fact, it would seem that these technologies of surveillance and self-surveillance becomes a comfort, a means of tracking and capture using real-time locations. Why are these technologies, many of which are GPS based seen as alluring, whereas visual-based surveillance, like those from cameras, instill fear and mistrust? 

Going further, and turning the synoptic eye back to a discussion of panopticism, in what ways can we see panopticism as almost a comfort? How can the somewhat perverted allure of panopticism become a means of coping with the crisis of modernity and the death of God? The eye in the sky has now been replaced with the eye of the machine or tracking system. In what ways, if any, can we see this as being pleasurable, in those spirals of pleasure and power, which were mentioned earlier in the semester? If visuality is no longer fundamental for technologies of control and capture, but rather one’s actions, then how can we see the obsession with visual surveillance as a symptom of such a loss?

(late post) - Monica

1 comment:

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