Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Panoptic Arcade

Jamais Cascio has written and spoken numerous times about an emerging "participatory panopticon" and the cultural shift when consumers themselves assume the reins of societal surveillance through the ubiquity of cell phones, pocket-cams, municipal free wi-fi networks, and the proliferation of mobile communications networks across the urban grid. Well, that vision may be taking one step closer in the UK.

As part of Tony Blair's new "Respect" (pdf) program to try and legislate "proper social behavior" (a strategy even willing to evict people from their homes), residents of Shoreditch will become the first in Britain to receive “Asbo TV” — television beamed live to their homes from CCTV cameras on the surrounding streets. Billed as a community TV security project, viewers "will also be able to compare characters they see behaving suspiciously with an on-screen “rogues’ gallery” of local recipients of anti-social behavior orders (Asbos)," the Sunday Times reports. They will then be able to use "an anonymous e-mail tip-off system to report to the police anyone they see breaching an Asbo or committing a crime." Enter the Prime Time television era of couch-potato crime-solving. In one of the poorest areas in the country, residents will have to pay £3.50 a week for the full package, after installing a little box offering 55 channels of good old fashioned surveillatopia-surfing fun.

[Image: Alex Jones & Paul Joseph Watson, The Panopticon: A Mass Surveillance Prison For Humanity,, January 11 2006]

But, in the psychovideographic age of "panoptic urbanism", with millions of CCTV cameras streaming an ongoing meta-history of all our lives together across an incomprehensibly fragmented screen of cinematic terrestrial optometry, I, too, wonder, would you rather be watched by computers, or people? Can we rely on future detection systems to make accurate judgments in all their algorithmic pattern-gazing automatonist wizardry? Can we really trust a billion people to watch this omniscient film and make the right call over and over again, while not coming back to use our recorded lives against us or completely hijack our rights to privacy in the process? How exciting will this Asbo TV be, anyway? Do they really expect people to just sit around and watch abandoned streets and parked cars all night? Are they just trying to make proletarian hall monitors out of everyone for a New World Prison? Well, there certainly are plenty of TV-heads out there more than qualified for that job.

But, what if this surveillance epic weren't merely spectacular, and went beyond the participation of people simply using their cell phone cams to take pictures of criminality in action? If they truly wanted to make home-viewer tele-surveillance popular, perhaps they should start with the largest demographic of TV-watchers already assembled: I'm talking, the empire of gamers.

[Image: VisionStation, by elumens]

They could bill this thing as the biggest online console game of all times. Spark a manufacturer war like never seen before: XBOX meets Tivo meets CCTV meets Comcast meets Asbo meets your Sony PSP. Welcome to the art of surveillance gaming. I bet Sony would be the first to develop a revolutionary Mobile Panoptic Gaming Pad for this new boom in recreational urban surveillance, too.

[Image: CCTV video mixes maps and images, BBC, 12 August 2005]

With the software already in place to render real-time 3-D maps of city terrain as it is recorded by street mounted CCTV cams, all you need to do now is overlay a few funky avatars and basic action plots for a backdrop, and you've got yourself a full-on award-winning interactive panoptic gaming blockbuster to keep those couch potatoes glued to the tube and from ever turning the channel.
Let them play the next GTA and surveillance the real world at the same time. What kid wouldn't want to play that game?
13 year old kids, unsurprisingly, would soon become Big Brother's most coveted NSA field experts, game design curriculums sponsored by the CIA would engineer superhuman hand-and-eye coordinated gamer-spies, cropped from the highest profile gaming fests around the world, recruited by LucasArts, hired by the government and private companies who would pay them hefty sums to do what all young teenaged boys do best, sit around and play video games all day, mercenary style. All the while, they'd be combing the virtual streets constantly rerendering themselves in real-time watching over all those petty criminals and hardened anti-social combatants who like to go around terrorizing trashcans in empty streets at night. With an ad infinitum of channels, or 'terrain maps' to eventually chose from, cross-platform multiplayer options, your character on a skateboard could cruise seamlessly from channel-to-channel like some cartoon hero from a Neal Stephenson novel, innocently fondling your gamepad to secure those rough and dangerous suburban streets -- patrolling game space to do your part for your country, all without having to go to war, or without having to leave the comforts of your own bedroom. Mommies would develop a brand new respect for video games. And kids, from all over the world, would congregate in phantom gamer possies to skate beats on streets they've never actually seen before. Kids would sign up in droves, the U.S. Army Recruiters Office would go into a rage with jealousy.

[Image: Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix (PlayStation 2), GameSpy]

Witness the rise of trans-border videogeographic neighborhood-watch gamer gangs. Or the perverted notion of patriotic gaming. "Play It or Leave It", they'll say.
Little would that poor serial homeless gas-siphoner know that this hyperactive 11 year old Playstation-junky just happened to be bustin' a fat olley off that same car when he got spotted and the kid, in some remote living room the other side of the world, rounded up the cops on his PSP gamepad after clunking him over the head with his deck a few times first, just 'cause he could without actually hurting him. Are adolescent finger-twitchy game boys the future of the world's security system operator force?

Behold the truly dismal proto-authoritarian gamespace of Subtopia's future Panoptic Arcade.

Additional Coverage:
we-make-money-not-art: "Spot the ASBO suspect" TV channel
BLDGBLOG: Stranger TV and the World of Cinemapolis
Bruce Schneier: Now Everyone Gets to Watch the Cameras

For the ultimate coverage on gaming, check out the V part series from the ultimate resource: GAME as CRITIC as ART. 2.0. (wmmna)


Blogger Bryan Finoki said...

Yes it is, Welles/Huxley/Bradburyian. I think I'd probably freak out if a product like this were actually going mainstream. Or who knows, I might be the first to find a few crash bugs. I hope to propose such proposterous ideas as to ultimatley draw their laughter and deflect them from a seriousness about developing such things.

Thanks for reading!

2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Bryan, I won't be surprised if a product like this went main stream. Just like cell phones in the seventies, they seemed an impossibility.

12:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home