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Free the Cameras

By Annalee Newitz

ON A GLOOMY DAY in Seattle, I'm sitting in a hipster cafe with free WiFi and a view of the Space Needle. My ears are plugged into an iPod, my hands are interfacing with a keyboard and my computer's antenna is sucking data out of the air. I just spent four days hanging out at a conference devoted to civil liberties and computers. It was full of lawyers, geeks and more lawyers. They were all very earnest and ardent. But the only person I really wanted to talk to with some urgency was Steve Mann.

If you haven't heard of this guy by name, you've probably heard of him by reputation. He's the mad scientist from Canada who pioneered the field of wearable computing by turning himself into a cyborg.

I saw him lurking around the edges of the conference the first day I was there—a slight man with one big brown eye and one visual-enhancement device strapped to his head and attached to a fat bundle of wires that snaked under his bulky vest.

That vest contained a computer that records everything he sees. At various points, he has fed information about his brainwaves and heartbeat into that computer, too.

I immediately felt a weird sense of kinship with this guy who had chosen to devote his life to becoming something that doesn't really exist yet. He started integrating his body with technology when he was in high school—the other kids called him "Computer Steve"—and insists that it helps him deal with a visual memory problem that impairs his ability to remember what he sees.

That may be true, but over the years his body has mutated into something else. Mann isn't just a cyborg. He identifies as a surveillance device. In a disturbing speech at the conference, Mann described what it feels like to be an electrical monitoring system with a conscience. The hardest part is when he comes into contact with other members of his kind.

At airports, for example, Mann often requires an attorney to escort him through security because his body is covered in equipment that records the ways he's being recorded.

Even more troubling are his trips to the mall, where he tries to talk to the humans about the cameras they've imprisoned in the ceiling. Sometimes, the humans have actually forgotten the cameras are there, or they lie about their existence.

In a speech at the conference, Mann showed a recording of what he saw in a Sears whose ceilings were covered in shiny black domes masking surveillance cameras. "Aren't people uncomfortable knowing those cameras are there?" he asks a security guard. After a brief but bizarre exchange, the guard finally admits that although the Macy's slogan is "the store you can trust," it doesn't trust its own customers.

Although the film seemed designed to elicit disgust for ubiquitous surveillance, I saw another meaning. I think Mann wanted to liberate those security cameras and turn them into conscious beings like himself—creatures who cannot stop recording, whose intentions are simultaneously innocent and disturbing. It turns out, by the way, that surveillance cameras who come to life are vicious satirists. How can they not be? Their dominant mode of expression is to copy what they see in the world and recontextualize it as something sinister, even cruel.

Many people who agitate for digital liberty and privacy hate Mann for the same reasons they hate surveillance cameras. He records everything. He's always taking pictures with a giant camera that constantly hangs around his neck and covers his chest like armor. Mann embodies the very problem he wants to solve—a situation he describes as existential and Kafka-esque.

But I didn't want to talk to Steve Mann because I appreciate his anti-activist efforts to seek out and liberate his covert brethren, lashed to the ceilings and walls of every public space. I wanted to talk to him because I know what it feels like to identify as a machine and to do socially unacceptable things with your body because they feel right.

Finally, I got up the nerve to ask him something very personal about life as a cyborg. It turns out that surveillance cameras, eager to peek into every aspect of your private lives, are cagey about revealing what happens in their own. I should have known.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose cybernetic properties are not visible to the naked eye.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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