Sunday, March 05, 2006

Virtual Police State

[Image: I like to watch / CopVision] Surveillance technology is becoming more and more sophisticated almost by the minute, it seems. Or, perhaps, I should say, up-to-the-minute.

With the commodification of surveillance comes a new spatial regime for social control. While video recording and listening systems have become more accurate at recognizing voices, facial and walking patterns, analyzing crowd behaviors, capable now of distinguishing between the acoustic properties of a gun shot and a backfiring automobile, part of the new frontier of panoptic innovation seems to be in two places: 1) in the realm of 3D, and 2) in the form of commonplace technologies we all carry and use on a daily basis as part of our normal lives. On one hand, a parallel surveillance universe is emerging served by an increasingly automated artificial intelligence system that reluctantly handles more of the analytic workload for us. While, on the other, there's this 'collective apparatus' now enabled by peer-to-peer recording devices that allow each of us to spy and evidence one another -- anyone, anywhere, anytime -- caught in the moment, on the spot. This domestication of surveillance stirs a geotagging frenzy of social monitoring through handheld technology, which can then be used to feed this automated global system, and vice versa.

[Image: HAL 9000]

We've written about the military applications of virtualized space before, even speculated on a spooky form of interactive surveillance game space -- or, panoptic urbanism in the form of video game -- which could use the cloak of entertainment to circumvent the ethical questions and privacy issues that need to remain scrutinized in a hyper-surveillance society. But, the combination of an interactive space and the locative tools for a "participatory panopticon" together constitutes a new pop cultural medium for a ubiquitous 'virtual police state' where the definitions between real and virtual are increasingly blurred and mutated, and the boundaries of 'community policing' vs. invasive spying are shrouded in ambiguity. Here, the gaze of surveillance becomes more pornographic, while possibly, the act of surveillance itself is converted into a favorite pastime activity, via the media consoles and conducive behaviors which are already largely in place.

It's the panopticon as gentrifier of urban cyberspace. Big Brother infecting communities through the viral spread of surveillance gaming.

[Image: NullPointer: 'In CCEX a level from 'Counter Strike' (a popular counter-terrorism mod) is re-mapped to offer the user an warped experience of covert surveillance.']

From a purely scientific standpoint, there are many advantages to virtualized space. For example, during the Super Bowl, security officials used a kind of holographic display which modeled "suspicious looking individuals" in 3D. Unlimited by a flat 2D image, specific nuances of head shape and facial contours could be generated to help determine a more precise and reliable cranial recognition model. The University of Iowa has a project, Virtual Soldier Research, which uses algorithms and complex motion-capture data to simulate highly realistic virtual humans as guinea pigs for all sorts of experiments. New equipment, or dangerous prototypes, f.e., could first be tested by this virtual soldier to determine the human impact in several scenarios: such as, if the carrying weight is appropriate for his shoulders, or whether the suit armor is designed comfortably enough. A weapon's use could almost be fully tested before ever reaching human hands. This technology has incredible implications for other industries, too, like medical research, or first aid disaster response, where an overwhelming amount of unpredictable human factors come into play.

[Image: The Virtual Human]

The realism of these sim people functioning in a surveillance space could also help bring greater accuracy to the task of virtual identification, or perhaps they would have us believe. An example, would be the "Social Puppet" system, which is being developed to help soldiers read and translate unfamiliar body language exhibited by other cultures. A designer at USC has adapted a game engine to showcase unique character models and their many nuanced encrypted body messages. But, as virtuality gains a more refined resemblance to humanism, our desires to prioritize sim-space over actual space as the place to conduct surveillance becomes more real and perhaps more tempting. Where scientific strides are made in better analyzing data, the entire approach also becomes more anonymous, delocalized, institutional. And we are left relying on a callous machine that is willing to accept mistakes as a result.

The Italian government has taken this all a slight step further by creating a virtual police station online, where citizens can navigate a lobby with different waiting lines and complaint booths, and enter offices for private meetings with station personnel to give or acquire information that will help solve crime. It's really rudimentary right now, but you can see how sophisticated something like this could eventually become (virtual police line-ups?), perhaps idealized one day as a fully interactive MMORPG created to further enhance community/police relations in Italy. Kind of like moonlighting as a security guard in Second Life. It's not as far fetched as you think. Actually, many intelligence agencies already have programs geared towards rearing spies starting at a very early age, like Cryptokids, f.e., the NSA's virtual training grounds online for pre-teens.

With cell phones becoming a more and more popular platform for gaming, and with the ever improving development of the portable gamepad, all this talk about surveillance space and gaming as ubiquitous cultural mediums could very well find a collaborative apotheosis distilled in the palm of everyone's hand. Soon many among us will be busy text-messaging Hal with tattle-tales through a My Space-like portal feeding a freaky paranoid community of online surveillance junkies. Readers beware, you could become the star of your neighbor's next voyeurist obsession.

Also see: The Virtual Human Project

(Thanks to Archinect and WMMNA for many of the goods.)


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