When old technologies were heavy

touch-of-evilThe closing scene of Touch of Evil is less famous than its extended, single-shot opening counterpart, but for people interested in ethics of surveillance, it is much more provocative. The movie (infamous both for its squirm-inducingly racist casting and its long editorial battle between the studio and director Orson Welles) closes with good cop Mike Vargas attempting surreptitiously to record a confession of corruption by bad cop Hank Quinlon. The drama of the scene stems from the clunkiness of the recording technology – not only is Vargas’ equipment heavy and awkward, it has to be in close physical proximity to the conversation he wants to record. Its weight, the audio limitations, the echoes of sound across water and under archways – these are all obstacles to Vargas’ attempt to conceal the act of surveillance.

I saw Touch of Evil this summer (at the Roxy!) and found myself envious of a socio-technical dynamic in which the physical structure of a recording device constrained the circumstances of its use. There are ethical advantages to surveillance equipment being physically heavy, where burdens of bulk and weight result in contingent restraints of how and how often they could be used. What if instead of trying to rework the legal process of securing court approvals for surveillance (or revoke them all together), we simply demanded that the technologies for capturing conversations (and their metadata) be heavy?

On a pragmatic level, such a suggestion can only be viewed as notional.  And in fact, legal guidelines are a way of making surveillance heavy and burdensome, which is why their current role as a performative rather than evaluative process is so problematic. The physical lightness of surveillance technology has an insidious counterpart in the flimsiness of the legal system that’s supposed to guarantee that decisions about technology are not undertaken lightly. Given this discouraging track record for relying on the legal system, as researchers, I think it’s worth imagining the kinds of projects that could be undertaken to interrogate the weight of surveillance as experienced by law enforcement.

It’s hard to imagine a community less receptive to action research than law enforcement, which is too bad because relationships between the police and the communities they’re charged with protecting could be drastically improved with the kinds of dialogue that can be fostered through research. (My anarchists friends would dismiss working with the police altogether, a position I understand but don’t tend to share.)  For the more fiscally minded, working with researchers in order to improve community relationships would also potentially save a lot of money. But mostly, I can’t help thinking that if we want to come up with better frameworks for thinking about the broad spectrum of surveillance technologies, from drones to bodycams, cell phone snakes to license plate readers, we cannot ignore how the use of listening technologies is experienced by law enforcement.

What could we learn, for example, by asking law enforcement officers who have worked undercover about tensions of taping conversations?  About the fear of being found out?  About the boredom of overhearing conversations that have little or nothing to do with criminal behavior? When is surveillance still experienced as heavy? Sarah Brayne and Kelly Gates have already started working in this area, but I’d love to see even more research within surveillance and media studies. Serving both activist and academic interests, this kind of research provides more holistic accounts of surveillance that opens up rather than forecloses conversations about the kinds of relationships we want to have not just with the technologies that watch us, but the people who are watching.

Jessa Lingel, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania

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