“Ultimately, the big choices must be made by citizens, who will either defend their freedom or surrender it, as others did in the past.” David Brin (1998), The Transparent Society.
The conception of the word uberveillance came about during question time at the conclusion of a class I was guest lecturing on the “Consequences of Innovation” in May of 2006 at the University of Wollongong. In that enthusiastic group of young men and women were a number of my former students. One of these, who was at the time completing his honors research project with Katina Michael, asked the key question: “So then, where is all this [surveillance] heading?” I pondered for a moment searching for a word or term which would summarize what I was ‘seeing’ in my mind’s eye and what I had been reflecting upon for a long time: a coming together of Big Brother, dataveillance, microchip implants, RFID, GPS, A-LBS, Apocalypse (Rev 13), and Übermensch. There was nothing I could think of that would capture all of these indispensable components and hybrid architectures of the trajectory of electronic surveillance and information gathering, including the wider implications of the “technological society” as I had understood it from my study of Jacques Ellul and his analysis of “technique” (Ellul 1967). If technique is that component of technology which has maximum efficiency, that is, “the totality of methods” as its primary goal, then uberveillance can be understood in similar terms insofar as surveillance is concerned.
So here is something of the background that led to the birth of Uberveillance and a summary of the fundamental components of the term.
During my preparation for the class which would also include readings from Martin Heidegger (1982) The Question Concerning Technology, Paul Feyerabend (1978) Against Method, Everett M. Rogers (1995) Diffusion of Innovations, and Richard S. Rosenberg (2004) The Social Impact of Computers, I came across one of Franz Kafka’s fascinating letters to Milena Jesenská on “intercourse with ghosts”. A powerful albeit little critique on the underlying structures of industrial technology and the resulting consequences on communication, “[t]he ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish” (Kafka 1999). Fyodor Dostoevsky another of the great students on the conditions of bureaucracy and isolation, held similar reservations and concerns with a designed utopia, represented at the time by his experience of Saint Petersburg. Notes from Underground, still has much to say to ‘Technological Man’ in pursuit of the “golden dream” (Dostoevsky 1992). Writers with these sorts of sensibilities and philosophical intelligence, such as Kafka and Dostoevsky, have fascinated me since my undergraduate days when I first stumbled upon them after reading Nietzsche with Paul Crittenden (2008) at Sydney University, more than thirty years ago. This genre of writing, roughly categorized "existentialist", awakened in me deep-seated sensitivities to do with abuses in bureaucracy and in the practices of the ruling elite.
I had also spent time thinking on Ray Kurzweil’s (2005) “singularity” and the connection of exponential growth on the future prospects of surveillance. Later, having arrived in this ‘place’ after the convergence of a number of interrelated subjects, I would continue to discover many more intuitive and forward thinking authors in the emerging fields of privacy advocacy and surveillance studies. Authors, who would both inform and challenge me with their cutting-edge work. This is a long and imposing list from which I have had the privilege in a number of instances to have together presented at conferences, to have co-authored with, or to have published papers as an editor. One of the key texts that I would discover from that time was the seminal publication of David Lyon’s The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (1994).
Two other important works which have not dated on account of their continuing significance and which I turned to in the earlier years before the great and imposing flood of later surveillance and privacy literature are Simon Davies’ (1992) Big Brother: Australia’s Growing Web of Surveillance, and Anne Wells Branscomb’s (1994) Who Owns Information? I would go back to these books, better still testimonies, when I feared that I might be reading too much into what I was finding or had been overly reliant on my intuition. The ultimate questions which Davies and Branscomb pose to do with the gathering, storing, and distribution of information, not only remain paramount but are even more momentous today.
The week before I delivered that guest lecture, and for reasons not necessarily connected to my presentation, I also revisited Anton Chekhov’s discerning short story, The Bet (1999). Once more, I was drawn to the concluding paragraphs of this story. And in one place which will be patently obvious, I allowed for my imagination to go on a flight of fancy. I considered that Chekhov had also outside his penetrating critique of unfettered materialism and greed, by “accident” looked ahead to genetic engineering gone awry. And not unimportantly, we should remember, Anton Chekhov was also a physician:
And I despise your books. I despise all the blessings of this world, all its wisdom. Everything is worthless, transient, illusory and as deceptive as a mirage. You may be proud, wise and handsome, but death will wipe you from the face of the earth, together with the mice under the floorboards. And your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will freeze or be reduced to ashes, along with the terrestrial globe. You’ve lost all reason and are on the wrong path. You mistake lies for the truth and ugliness for beauty. You’d be surprised if apple and orange trees suddenly started producing frogs and lizards instead of fruit, or if roses smelt of sweaty horses. I’m amazed at people who have exchanged heaven for earth. I just don’t want to understand you.
Like most things passed off as “new”, surveillance itself is not new. Its antecedents are as old as our earliest creation accounts when the gods gazed out onto the cosmos they had created and “saw everything” (Gen 1:31). It is ironic that surveillance via low earth orbiting satellites is back up in the “heavens” scanning the entirety of the earth in an astonishing 90 minutes. And so in response to our student’s above-noted question, I was about to give up and settle for the stock response: ‘Big Brother on a microchip’ when at the last moment I came out with “uberveillance”. This coining of the word at that particular moment is the least complicated part of the larger story of how the term itself emerged. The trajectory of surveillance technologies together with the underlying technological, social, and religious implications and impacts has been an ongoing interest of mine for the better part of my adult life. At least since the early 1980s when I first started to look for and collect materials of a diverse provenance connected to the idea of a centralized or distributed surveillance and of the technologies propagating these innovations. Therefore, it is enormously important to stress that the term itself was certainly not without an informed context or without a rich bibliography of previous research spanning from my initial tertiary studies in 1981 to the present times.
I have written two dissertations on the Book of Revelation- one of these examining the infamous “666” conundrum- and that cannot but be an influence when I look into some of the more unwelcome trajectories of mass surveillance and political terrorization. I am glad, however, to have been in a position to introduce the apocalyptic genre (with its mixed bag of eschatological anxieties and apprehensions) as a credible “sociological” resource in the ICT bibliography outside its more commonly held fundamentalist ascriptions (Michael 1999; 2000). Using the historical-critical method for my studies in ancient history, I brought with me significant lessons that were to prove very useful in computing studies (Michael 1998; 2002; 2010). I should add that a perceptive interviewer once quipped that “uberveillance” not only suggests sinister overtones, but that the word itself gives resonance to them. He was close to the mark. It is enough to read Primo Levi (1919-1987) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), for instance, to get a realistic idea of what murderous regimes can do with surveillance and identity management systems (Levi 1989; Solzhenitsyn 2003).
As all good students do, they invite questions toward clarification, and so our very keen undergraduate went on to subsequently ask: “What is this uberveillance?” I remember replying something along the lines of it being a “super surveillance” technology which comprised of all that we had come to expect of George Orwell’s big brother in 1984 (1949); Roger Clarke’s dataveillance (1988); computer technology in terms of both unprecedented processing power (e.g. predictive analytics) and rapid miniaturization; Kevin Warwick’s (2002) microchip implant experiments in 1998 (Cyborg 1.0) and 2002 (Cyborg 2.0); and the fact that apocalyptic scenarios were now no longer the exclusive domain of “fundamentalist” interpretations.
Later on when I looked further into the inventive research and writings of Steve Mann (2001), particularly to do with “wearables”, sousveillance came into the equation. In fact, one of our doctoral candidates at UOW, Alexander Hayes (2012; 2013), has been studying the union of surveillance, dataveillance and sousveillance, and has used the triquetra to depict the underlying intersection into uberveillance. The three-looped triquetra with its ü intersection is a good summary of the interaction between the fundamental components when considered in the context of embedded surveillance devices (ESDs).
Uberveillance was, at least as I had originally understood it and presented it on that day, the disturbing technological scenario of putting all of this hybrid architecture on a microchip, and beyond just wearing it, having it implanted beneath the skin. In layman terms, uberveillance is a kind of CCTV on the “inside” looking out rather than on the “outside” looking down: an “above and beyond”, an exaggerated 24/7 surveillance embedded inside the human body. Locating, tracking, and real-time monitoring without any cease, that is, constant and unending. This condition not only begged the question of “the death of privacy” and of autonomous action but that of data integrity as well (misinformation, misinterpretation, and information manipulation). In addition, my contention that 24/7 surveillance would give rise to a new class of functional mental disorders and exacerbate already existing ones, is now commonly considered a legitimate concern and a subject of funded research (Michael & Michael 2011).
It was only after I discussed this interesting exchange during the guest lecture with my fellow collaborator, Katina Michael, that I became convinced after listening to her technical references, that the word might indeed have legs and that we needed to explore the implications of this neologism further. By this time, Katina and I had been collaborating in one way or another for the greater part of 10 years, the culmination of some heavy-duty cross-disciplinary activities formalized in 2006 with a special issue which we were invited to guest edit on the social implications of national security in Prometheus (Michael & Michael 2006). And also the launch of a long term workshop series on the Social Implications of National Security now in its eighth year, which was funded by the Australian Research Council’s Research Network for a Secure Australia, (RNSA), between 2006-2013. I co-edited the proceedings of the first three volumes, the second of which in 2007 was entitled: “From Dataveillance to Uberveillance and the Realpolitik of the Transparent Society” (Michael & Michael 2007). It was during the course of this workshop that Roger Clarke delivered the keynote address: “What ‘uberveillance’ is and what to do about it” (Clarke 2007).
In 2009, around three years from its conception and after a great deal of hard work, many presentations, and open scrutiny, “uberveillance” was entered into the Macquarie Dictionary after having been earlier nominated for “Word of the Year” in 2008. The Macquarie Dictionary entry reads as follows: “an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body” (Butler 2009). Another significant milestone was the inclusion of the term in the Australian Law Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. Mann and Blunden (2012) define uberveillance as: “ubiquitous or pervasive electronic surveillance that is not only 'always on' but 'always with you', ultimately in the form of bodily invasive surveillance”.
Überveillance is a compound word, conjoining the German über meaning over or above with the French veillance. On the question of the umlaut, it was decided early on to omit the u-mutation principally for the purposes of search engine retrievals.
The concept is very much linked to Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision of the Übermensch, who is a man with powers beyond those of an ordinary human being, like a super-man with amplified abilities. For example, heart, pulse, and temperature sensor readings emanating from the body in binary bits wirelessly, or even through amplified eyes such as contact “glass” that might provide visual display and access to the Internet or social networking applications. It has been said that uberveillance centralizes all the forms of watching (from above, from below, by collectives, by individuals) because the sensor devices carried or embedded in the body are the lowest common denominator in tracking elements- the individual. The network infrastructure underlies the ability to collect data direct from the sensor devices worn by the individual and big data analytics ensures an interpretation of the unique behavioral traits of the individual implying more than just predicted movement, but intent and thought. Uberveillance as having “to do with the fundamental who (ID), where (location), and when (time) questions in an attempt to derive why (motivation), what (result), and even how (method/plan/thought)” (Michael & Michael 2010).
ON THE FLUIDITY OF UBERVEILLANCE IN COMPETING NARRATIVES
After the word had entered academic discourse, a number of researchers suggested the term “uber surveillance” as a more precise alternative to "uberveillance". Uber surveillance, I believe, would have been redundant in a “dictionary” which already included the “synonyms” of mass-surveillance, wholesale surveillance, or total surveillance. At the same time Bentham’s famous “all-seeing” panopticon certainly captures the chief elements of our collective efforts to describe newer forms of surveillance. Uber surveillance, then, if I can put it this way, is one of the results of uberveillance. They are not the same thing. A good illustration of this is the translation of uberveillance into supervigilancia by some South American writers. This does not carry over the deeper content and underlying narrative of the word, for instance the Nietzschean, Orwellian and Apocalyptic components of uberveillance, but rather it endeavors to translate “uber surveillance” instead. By the way, I do not think that “supervigilancia” entirely expresses the idea of “uber surveillance” either, but it does tease out other significant implications such as supervision and control.
One of the things we now look forward to doing is to continue to demonstrate and to dig deeper into how the term has been used, and continues to be used, by other researchers worldwide towards scientific work across various disciplines including- health, business, ethics, management and military. And to also document its increasing reference in blogs, the media and popular culture. We remain passionate on questions dealing with the applied ethics in relation to surveillance, especially in places where the application of uberveillance would violate the body, that is to say, the “sacred space” or where surveillance in general would impact upon our abilities to act as free agents outside any “visible” or “invisible” coercion. My own personal interest has also been wound up by multi-national and corporate involvement (chiefly in the area of consumption analysis) in the creation of demand, supply, and merchandizing of “spy wear” and the inter-play of these global entities with governments.
Ultimately, it is not the word as such which matters, that is neither here nor there, but I consider its value and its usefulness by the broad impact it has had and the global discussion that it has ignited. For some readers tutored in social semiotics, “uberveillance” might largely function as a ‘sign’, something in the vein of Sartre’s “nausea”. I never set out to ‘pre-emptively’ create a word and though I could argue for its etymological credentials, it would under the circumstances be a redundant exercise. Given my original training in the humanities, which also included the study of linguistics under the legendary Michael (Mak) Halliday (2013), I have a great love and respect for words and a good understanding of their power, especially as to their heuristic and representational function in language. At the same time we know that new realities – “new” but still very much informed and illuminated by history- borne from fresh contexts and innovative applications, need to be defined and described in original vocabulary. And often enough this will mean ‘breaking’ the rules. The fundamental thing is that words are not meaningless. This is ultimately determined, not even by linguists, but by common usage and popular consent.
One of the vital positions of our research into uberveillance has been the conscious and ongoing effort to reach out to prominent researchers who have invested decades of their lives whether in the critique of new technologies or to their development and advancement. The contributors to this volume are wholly demonstrable of this ethos. Perhaps the more visible case in point here is the contribution of Katherine Albrecht (2006) and Kevin Warwick (2002). Both Albrecht and Warwick, who are not rarely set up as polar opposites on their respective position on RFID implantables and often enough ‘demonized’ by their criticizers, are long-time friends of the present editors and significant collaborators on other projects. Albrecht’s documented concerns are considerable and unquestionably real and Warwick’s pioneering research into implantables has brought (and will bring) healing to sufferers of severe and debilitating disease. Yet, he too understands the multitude of dangers to the abuse of his work and has not kept his apprehensions secret, even hiring an ethics expert to challenge his trajectories.
Certainly, the subject of technotherapeutics raises a new chapter of weighty questions and serious apprehensions to do with power and authority. It would be a great mistake in the current debate to marginalize such knowledgeable voices which shift our comfort zones and challenge our perspectives. One of the open-ended problems that we have faced and will continue to face is what Haggerty and Samatas (2010) point to in a marvelous essay, that generalizations particularly when it comes to surveillance are fraught with problems “given the dynamics and normative implications of different surveillance practices.” The irony would be that in fighting ‘big brother’ we inadvertently give rise to privacy groups and organizations which become a ‘law and state’ unto themselves. And this remains one of my great anxieties and fears; only beneath my trepidation for fully blown uberveillance. We need to be highly discerning to what lies behind the electrified glass tubes which flash WYSIATI “what you see is all there is” (Kahneman 2011). It is just not true above all when it comes to embedded surveillance devices (ESDs) and we will suffer the awful consequences if we do not ask for “more information”.
Competing narratives and criticisms of the research underpinning Uberveillance are more than welcome. This is a complex and controversial field and we need to update and inform each other whether this has to do with new technologies, amendments to legislation, or simple and plain correction. Those of us who are genuinely concerned with the quickening erosion of our right to privacy as a fundamental component of our natural rights on which John Locke (2003) and the social contract thinkers had some momentous things to say, will achieve little if anything- at least in the long term- if we go about it alone or side-line and downgrade colleagues who might approach the debate a little differently or inform it from another perspective.
The question remains, why do researchers who believe that trajectories mapped out by engineers given the principle of exponential growth will invariably be realized in ubiquitous surveillance, continue to spend time and resources on the subject? The answer need not be intricate. It is because a large group of these researchers believe that ultimately whatever the cost individuals will still possess the freedom to decide to what extent they integrate themselves into the electronic grid. Additionally, philosophers who have contemplated on the question of technology and its impact on society such as Martin Heidegger, Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, and those from the Frankfurt School, have argued that technology must be vigorously critiqued for the worst of all possible outcomes would be the de-humanization of the individual and the loss of dignity resulting in a “standardized subject of brute self-preservation.” One of the fundamental elements of such literature is the profound comprehension that technology has not only to do with building but that it is also a social process. Charlie Chaplin’s “culturally significant” Modern Times (1936) is an unmatched visual accompaniment, the classic scene of the iconic Little Tramp caught up into the cogs of the giant machine, of the unintended consequences of the efficiencies of modern industrialization. A decade earlier Fritz Lang’s futuristic Metropolis (1926) the story of a mechanized underground city set in a dystopian society, would likewise leave its indelible mark. It was a prescient summary of what was to follow, the troubling link between teleology and technology.
It is fitting to conclude with a recent citation from authors Lisa Shay et al. (2012) of the Cyber Research Center of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, which points to the maturation of the term uberveillance and to the realization of its potential consequences:
“Roger Clarke’s concept of dataveillance and M.G. Michael and Katina Michael’s more recent uberveillance serve as important milestones in awareness of the growing threat of our instrumented world."
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Clarke, R. (2012). The Regulation of Point-of-View Surveillance in Point of View Technologies in Law Enforcement, The Sixth Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security. Sydney: Wollongong University, 22 February. http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/PoVSR.html
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ADDITIONAL REFERENCES TO UBERVEILLANCE
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