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Dark Side of the Sky: How the Age of Surveillance Makes Us All Targets

Algorithms of surveillance and analysis are not passive: they are core components within a ‘black box society’ of invisible infrastructures and opaque operations. We might only notice their presence when our number comes up, writes Mitch Goodwin.

The drone is humanity’s most iconic and horrific manifestation, an apex predator, a tool of terror and illumination. An extension of the network, it operates at the extremities of modern life: the battle space, the disaster zone, and the edges of our public and private domains. 

You know the buzz. You’ve seen the cinematic sweeps along postcard vistas and the dexterity of their pivot above vertiginous cityscapes. The bird’s eye view of calamitous ruin whether by nature’s wrath in Fukushima or the scars of urban warfare in Aleppo and Bakhmut. 

There are junk bots in the skies over Ukraine. Cheap and efficient hacking of domestic assemblages, similar to the DIY drones seen in Syria or in the skirmishes with ISIS in the Middle East. Hardware remixes of consumer technology: engines from lawn mowers and scooters based on smuggled schematics, loaded up with grenades and conventional warheads. Bargain automata for the battlespace.

Conventional military drones — like the Reaper, the Shadow and the Sentinel — are, in essence, machines of latent energy. They hang in the sky, sometimes for days at a time, watching, cataloguing, transmitting — and in the case of the weaponised variant, exercising deadly force. 

For many communities under the gaze of American shadow forces — Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen — drones constitute a frightening legacy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, upwards of 1,700 innocent lives have been lost in CIA drone attacks. The victims are referred to as ‘bugsplats’, a term that recalls Starship Troopers or Alien, but is in fact derived from a piece of software developed in 2003 for the second Iraq War which evaluated the potential collateral damage from remote missile strikes.  

These hybrid machines have become a persistent dehumanising force across these regions, a violent haunting in the network that is felt most keenly by those on the ground. Any seemingly peaceful afternoon beneath a blue expanse of sky can be a prelude to terror. For this is the preferred hunting condition for killer robots.  

The distinct insectile buzz is a warning that a surveilling presence is nearby. In conflict zones like North Waziristan, children are afraid of the sky: 

I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear. – Abad-Santos

In a country like Pakistan, where motifs of drones are now woven into the traditional fabric of war rugs, the sky has been falling for two decades now.  

The Political And Cultural Touchpoints That Led Us Here

The contemporary digital gothic moment is part of a recurring pattern of generational techno-cultural alarm, each one deeper and more visceral than the one before. There have been numerous intensifications along the way, marked by political and cultural touchpoints and technological disruptions.

In the early 1980s, society openly questioned the relationship between technological violence afforded by emergent digital systems and virtual worlds. Tron and Bladerunner (1982), The Terminator, The Twilight Zone, Videodrome, Brainstorm and even the saccharine Electric Dreams (1983) all examine our early digital dalliances with tales of cyberspace, rogue software, brain/computer interfaces and 24/7 saturation of the mediated image. 

The Nineties was the next technological inflection point; a site of viral infection and virtuality. Hollywood hijacked computer code and the luminous promise of virtual reality and twisted them into the shadow play of hacker culture. This spoke to the ambiguity of cyberspace and the techno-goblins within the circuits of the network, an anxiety that was explored intensely in films like Disclosure (1994), Johnny Mnemonic, The Net, Hackers, Strange Days, Virtuosity and Ghost in the Shell (all 1995).  

Cyberspace was alive and the technological ecologies of its making were intoxicating. Networked virtuality was its most addictive drug. Today, the techno-cultural narrative remains analogous to a viral infection — it touches all of us through both proximity and subterfuge, as mediated by the black mirror of device culture and the creeping ubiquity of machine learning and automation. 

It’s also fast becoming a site of virtuality. This time however, the graphics are more convincing, and the ‘real world’ a horror worth escaping.

For science fiction writer and speculative design critic Bruce Sterling, our present trajectory is an involuntary episode characterised by an overwhelming sense of falling from a precarious height — through the millennia, back towards a dying Earth. Of the early decades of the 21st Century, he observed:  

… things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realised you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward Earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realise there’s no Earth there. That’s a dark euphoria feeling. It’s the cultural temperament of the coming decade.  

The primary image he conjured was of a generation “afraid of the sky”, a state of endless freefall, between the duality of shiny techno-futurism and its dark gothic underbelly. This is technology as giftware, reality as vapourware, design as addiction, architecture as persuasion, Earth as network device, pixels of nothing. 

The sensation of the fall is an internalised and repressed anxiety, a symptom of the digital gothic that we will do anything to avoid. So instead, to preserve the status quo, we commit to the loop. 

When we are not freaking out about artificial intelligence or the climate crisis, we are being served up the wonders of virtual reality — the ‘metaverse’ as they are cleverly calling it over at Meta, Facebook’s newly minted parent company. 

“The ascent of the digital,” writes critic Cédric Durand in Techno-féodalisme, is based on a certain culture of predation and dispossession. Growing unchecked, it has permitted platforms to monetise and extract knowledge, because “the control of information and knowledge, that is, intellectual monopolisation, has become the most powerful means of capturing value.”  

Each day we are joined by billions of other particles in the virtual panning dish, as the platform gods (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and the rest) datafy our lives into the server-farms of hyper-modernity.  

Our search histories, phone-back-ups, intimate photos, concert clips, meeting notes, the draft of a novel, a class presentation, every receipt for every purchase, every step of every day. A data repository of life, labour and love, of sharing and remembrance, of commercial intent and failsafe securities — all coalesced into a trust matrix of an assured future built on the virtual footprints of the past. 

We know this place as the cloud

It is ruled by elite techno-feudal overlords that Yanis Varoufakis calls the Cloudalists. A new ruling class that extracts unearned income by colonising, categorising, and exploiting our behavioural data. Thus, turning our private interactions into a form of unpaid labour. This labour, combined with algorithmic surveillance, generates vast amounts of nuanced information that can be deployed to super-charge our news feeds and search results with agreeable content to encourage even further engagement — and therefore more diligent labour.

Evgeny Morozov is critical of the assertion that a form of techno-feudalism (whether it be neo, dark, informational or some other ‘ism) has usurped late capitalism entirely. The truth may be far more nuanced than that. However, he describes the phenomena in darkly gothic terms: 

Today’s capitalists simply establish control over intellectual property rights, while trying to limit what the unruly multitude can do with its newfound communicative freedoms. These are not the innovation-obsessed capitalists of the Fordist era; these are lazy rentiers, entirely parasitic on the creativity of the masses.  

It’s a predictable pseudo-evolution of the capitalist model in the time of automation when corporate algorithms can quietly and opaquely turn leisure, communication, and attention into an accumulative source of wealth and, I would hasten to add, control.

Back in the Noughties, Bruce Sterling had another term for this mob. He had singled out a bunch of them. Borg-like characters with network reach and a propensity for fabrication. They were big-tech cheerleaders, the hype merchants of the early 2000s. Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Nicholas Zarkozy were typical of this crowd. In the Twenties we could add names like Peter Thiele (Palantir), Elon Musk (SpaceX), Sam Altman (Open AI), Mark Zuckerberg (Meta) and even Jensen Haung (Nvidia). 

They have deep pockets with deep mining interests and glossy high-viz tendencies. They are hooked on virtuality and opaque technologies of prediction and persuasion. Reality is something to be either suspended temporarily or transported elsewhere.  

They are not necessarily undesirable types. They are at best revolutionaries, at worst confidence men. They have unpredictable and sometimes contradictory personalities: a little bit meta, a touch of sociopathy, and a whole lot of bro. 

Each is pushing the world towards extreme notions of technological determinism in which exploitation can sometimes become a necessary form of collateral damage. Like bug splats from a drone strike — but in this domain we’re all targets, each with our own comprehensive pattern-of-life analysis. 

Like the capitalist industrialists’ before them they’re riddled with colonialism, petrochemicals, DARPA, the tyranny of despots, and the splitting of atoms. Whether it be motherboards or space capsules, cryogenic baths or AI chat bots, it’s dark and it’s gothic and it’s only just getting started.

Does The Age Of Surveillance Further Marginalise Vulnerable Members Of Society?

Algorithms of surveillance and analysis are not passive: they are core components within a ‘black box society’ of invisible infrastructures and opaque operations. We might only notice their presence when our number comes up.

Machine learning tools and automated systems are increasingly deployed across a range of industry sectors to evaluate risk, pre-empt crime, monitor workers and make moral judgements. This is particularly true in the United States, where algorithms help determine sentencing arrangements, predict fraudulent activities, and calculate eligibility for financing and health insurance.  

Law enforcement use predictive crime methods, akin to the elite ‘precrime’ unit in Minority Report (2005), to police neighbourhoods. State governments ponder the economic cost of physical internment facilities against virtualised community detention by smart-ankle bracelets. Effectively turning domestic spaces — and potentially whole communities — into a network of state-sanctioned virtual prisons.  

All these methods have been criticised for further marginalising the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, and negatively profiling communities along racial and cultural lines. Virginia Eubanks has argued in her important book, Automating Inequality: How High-tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor, that we must resist by exploiting these same technologies to tell our own stories, advocate for the poor and the marginalised, and lift the lid on opaque and unethical practices.

Data capitalism is now permanently intertwined with commercialisation of identity, movement, and desire. This so-called pattern-of-life analysis was a practice once associated with the development of targeted ‘kill lists’ in the Pentagon, but now has become a commercial goal of the domestic surveillance apparatus. 

Amazon is an apex platform in this regard, not only providing the server farms to support online web services that also seek to insert, extract and infect, it also has a 360-degree footprint in the domestic home. We can use Alexa to search, enquire, play music, and set our calendars. We can watch Amazon Prime programming through an interface that can track what we watch on other platforms, and we can purchase from third-party vendors on the Amazon store. 

We can install Ring surveillance cameras in our homes and camera equipped doorbells to keep watch on the neighbourhood outside — creating new territories of surveillance and corporate penetration in and around the home. In the US, Amazon Ring has partnered with local police departments — some 400 at last count — promoting Ring technologies and the crime watch app Neighbors. In return police are given access to the footage collected by the motion-detection devices and the chatter on the Neighbors app. 

While these devices do function as intended by monitoring for theft or property damage, they also capture the unexpected sidewalk vignettes: an intimate moment, a private conversation, an individual in distress, or vulnerable victims of violent crime. Further, users are uploading footage and images of people that their devices have captured because they ‘look suspicious’, or in the mistaken belief that they are guilty of a crime.  

Similarly, the app Citizen, which is active in nineteen cities across the US, is a map-based threat detection service which alerts users to in-progress crimes, assaults and other active emergencies like wildfires and major traffic disruptions. Public safety is the apps’ main goal. It sources information from police and emergency service scanners to provide live geolocational data. Pin drops of horror on the Citizen map, which is permanently set to dark mode.  

It also encourages the public to report incidents and provide live stream coverage wherever possible: a police pursuit, an active shooting, a house fire, a street protest, or a car accident. However, like the docile Ring doorbell, users also unwittingly capture images of victims in the aftermath of tragic events like suicide or sexual assault. 

The Citizen app has been accused of encouraging vigilante behaviour and mob surveillance of targeted individuals wrongly associated with a crime. As reported by Vice in 2021, during an LA wildfire a suspected arsonist was pursued on the Citizen app via a new livestream feature called OnAir. Rallying his employees in a Slack room (set up to manage the influx of data and video feeds) Citizen CEO Andrew Frame offered a $10,000 reward for the arsonist’s capture. Telling his employees via the chat function: “FIND THIS FUCK … this guy is the devil. get him … by midnight!@#! we hate this guy. GET HIM.”

This is the cloud absorbing the lived experience, reality as judicial architecture. Neighbours, citizens, and families become distributors of fear in the service of surveillance capitalism by assuming the role of digital voyeur, police snoop, or as active participants in mob vigilantism. Extreme personal securitisation of public and private space.  

Doorbells become a window to an outside world that is unwelcome, not to be trusted. A world that resists unwanted interactions, racially and culturally profiling innocent passers-by and publicly amplifying their likeness to the world if the viewer feels threatened (or less). The home as a mediated fortress. This is America, and this could be you too.

In the West, it is the middle classes who feed the algorithms. In the Global South it is people of colour and people of difference who feed the data flows of profiling tools and control mechanisms. 

As Cori Crider notes at The Register, “it’s become popular to say that the crisis we failed to see coming wasn’t Orwell’s 1984; it was Huxley’s Brave New World.” Yet the world is uneven, the attention economy is in fact a privilege. “While you and I bicker on Twitter, buy crap on impulse, or do any of the things that figure in these TED-talk dystopias, Orwell is out there: for the poor, the remote, the non-white.” 

The Transition From The Age Of Surveillance To An Era Of Synthetics And Prediction

Technologies of virtuality are challenging our sense of reality as our daily lives are dictated by screen interfaces. The slightest anomaly or corruption could adversely impact a decision we make or influence how we comprehend events. Or even what we believe. There is a growing uncertainty about the solidity of things, what is knowable seems impressionistic, designed by calculation yet lacking form.

Artificially intelligent image-making tools are popping up in the feeds at the moment. From debates about whether it constitutes art, to whether it’s coming for our jobs or snatching awards at county fairs. It’s a thrilling time to be a media artist, especially if you have followed the long tail of experimentation and false starts along the way. When innovative tech strikes you unawares, fully formed and otherworldly, it sets off the good squirts. To engage with something so imbued with the convergence of creativity, technology, and genuine futurist tendencies is a rare thing. We are living through that time right now — another inflection point in a time of social, economic and global crisis.

This battle skirmish between human artisans and machine algorithms is bubbling over into the mainstream. This is a good thing, we need to debate neural networks and machine learning platforms. AI art services like MidJourney and DALL-E permit the public to interact with algorithms and also be involved in the debate of their efficacy and usefulness. 

This battle skirmish between human artisans and machine algorithms is bubbling over into the mainstream. This is a good thing, we need to debate neural networks and machine learning platforms.

This is because we have crossed a threshold of fidelity. We now see wonder where previously there was only symbolic meaning. Until recently, AI images had a certain surrealist charm, lacking definition and perspective, like the face on Mars or the puffs of dust on 9/11. They were suggestive images, laced with paranoia and conspiracy, observed at a distance construed by the limitations of image capture and rendering. 

In Art as Information Ecology, Jason Hoelscher writes that “art’s difference is sustained over time and reveals itself differently with each encounter, because art is information’s free play of difference.” AI art algorithms are exploring this notion of free play; there might be rules and parameters, but each interaction is different, each outcome unique.

The text-to-image process also has a distinctly nostalgic feel to it. This figurative dance recalls the notes I read recently for Bill Callahan’s new album, Reality. An interaction with an AI image service is like the circling back of a song lyric, the algorithm “pitting dreams of dreams against dreams of reality.” The future jacked-up on the past in a recursive cyber-coil.

Machine learning algorithms diligently seek out corollary information from a model’s training data. In the case of Midjourney, it was trained on a data set known as LAION-5B, made up of some five billion images of human visual culture scraped from the web. The futurist architectural composition was therefore communicating to me what it had learnt from the data — in this instance a historical compilation of urban planning, brutalist form, zonal securitisation, and the consequences of climate change and rampant industrialisation. 

There will always be inequality, it appeared to be saying. Winners and losers, algorithms and keystrokes, the Cloudalists above and the Earth hardened data clones toiling away in the sun below.

AI text-to-image services therefore represent a major shift in the techno-futurist tendencies of digital media. They are retrograde by design. They look exclusively and mindlessly backward into the past from which they calculate their dark melancholic scenarios. 

What this process proves of course is that the darkness is embedded in our past storytelling and documents of observation: from epic biblical tales of destruction to the horrific photographs of the holocaust, from movie stills of slasher films to the paintings by Goya and Etienne Sandorfi and the illustrations of HR Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński, from photojournalism of falling towers and gruesome mechanical wreckages to video game screenshots of marauding zombie hordes. The algorithms of Midjourney and DALL-E are merely appropriating what is already there, dutifully recycling the dark uncanny landscapes of the human mind.

The logical extension of this new level of uncertainty and ambiguity beneath the screen is the potential for mass hallucination and mob-induced panic from synthetic media. Designed to mislead, corrupt, or panic viewers. 

It’s already happening of course. Get online — search for deepfakes, voice synths or virtual influencers — the fakery is rampant. You don’t have to look too far to experience the disorientating effects of these facsimiles and corruptions. Imagine the kerfuffle over vaccines and government overreach during the pandemic, or the riot at the US capital on January 6 — a mere two years ago — if advanced synthetic tools like MidJourney and ChatGPT were available to stoke the fire with convincing impersonations, fake news and biased conversational tools.

The original deepfake trick was to put the face of a well-known celebrity onto a porn actress, typical low-brow pubescent internet fare. However, it was the deepfake of Obama as performed by Jordan Peele that was one of those jaw dropping proof of concept moments that rattled the established order of things. Later it would be Tom Cruise, first as performed by Bill Hader on The Late Show with David Letterman and then in 2021 a pitch-perfect performance by the Tom Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher, as manipulated by VFX artist Chris Ume, that became a sensation on TikTok. As an archetype of the form, we know now that it’s synthetic Tom doing Hollywood Tom: those teeth, that grin, that cocksure laugh and the excitable jitter of his boyish fringe. It’s still jarring in its realism. Such a well-orchestrated synthesis of character acting, digital artistry and AI demonstrates the sinister potential of the deepfake technique.

Laurence Scott, in his book The Four-Dimensional Human, notes that celebrity culture of the early 2000s lay the foundations for our use of — and our participation in — social media applications and eco-systems. The DNA of reality TV was the chaos and conflict and hyper-accessibility created by its participants, who were contracted employees performing for a panopticon of cameras and microphones. Social media brings this performance to its logical conclusion by way of the influencer.  

The Earth has become virtualised, this is planet as platform. 

The influencer is the most perverse manifestation of mediated consumerism. They are not individual or independent, they are the antithesis of such things. Manufactured by the market segment they seek to colonise. They become appendages to the products they pimp, and their career lifespans are explicitly tied to the next product update. Their currency relies on maintaining a constant presence, lacing their facile presentations with personal drama or feigned emotion. Classic reality TV shtick. Just like any old B-grade celebrity on an island, or in a Big Brother house, or on the dance floor attempting the foxtrot. Performing rats in a cage.

Their relevance is measured in views and engagements and follows and likes. We experience their experience of the world; a perverted fetishisation of consumption and manufactured glamour. We watch grown men carefully unpack a new piece of electronica — a laptop, a drone, an iPhone — in carefully measured movements, speaking in hushed reverential tones about the deft arrangement of cardboard, plastic, foam, and cable ties. 

Being a celebrity influencer doesn’t even require you to be a sentient human, digital avatars pass the test as well. Lo do Magalu (2009) and Lil Miquella (2016) are favourites (pronouns she/her, I would think). Their perfectly formed bodies are no doubt statistically pleasurable to algorithms and young fans alike, their skin airbrushed with an appealing cosmopolitan glow. They have excellent taste too, perfectly kitted out in the latest sneakers and cargo pants, hoodies and crop tops, baseball caps and eyewear. All very available with a click and a quick Face ID check. 

The future — as always — is all about selling you stuff. 

And so, we descend, to an Earth that is absent. Instead, what we have is a representation. A virtual Earth, in every way, a synthetic cyber-physical infrastructure that does not nourish, instead it oppresses, and it excludes. A product of the perception of the Earth as symbol rather than a very real thing. From Stewart Brand’s eco badges of ’68 to Apollo 8 and the pale blue dot of ’72. To the iconography of connectivity, to Google Earth, to Uber Eats, to the coordination of a drone strike. The Earth has become virtualised, this is planet as platform. 

What’s rushing up from below, of course, are dynamic texts, swarming digital objects, hyper-visual and symbolically dexterous. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan is still here, ever vigilant, lurking in the global village. He foresaw the shapes and the folds on the screen just as Shannon, and later Castells, saw the propagation of informational networks. 

However, it is another thing altogether to appreciate such complexity in free-fall — contemporary digital gothic visions at speed. This is the corruption of the symbolic order of things by instantaneity and virility and automation. Our abject horror, as philosopher Julia Kristeva would have it, sees us not so much recoiling but tumbling, involuntarily vibrating — and not in a good way.

Additional reporting by Jack Latimore

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