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Roger Clarke's 'Visualising Virtual Surveillance'

The Visualisation of Virtual Surveillance

How do we Extend Ourselves Beyond the Visual Metaphor?

Notes for a Panel Session discussing the video-documentary 'Stare into the lights, my pretties', at IEEE ISTAS'20, 15 November 2020

Revision of 16 November 2020

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There's a wide range of concerns about the dominance we've permitted screen-based technologies to achieve over our behaviour. My focus here is on just one such concern.

Screens have enabled images and video. Where a person's need right now is for pictures of something, that's wonderful. The first issue, however, is that the richness of video, and the compulsiveness of movement within the screen, reduce the scope for individuals to think, and to act, other than in ways affected by, and even dictated by, the dominating images and video on their screen. The second issue is that we have other needs that are not well-served by images and video. Many ideas are abstract, and so are interlinkages of ideas into analyses and arguments.

Some forms of surveillance are readily understandable through images and video, and can be explained by means of visual metaphors. Most of my work has been in fields that are far less amenable to visual representation. Whereas visual surveillance can be explained, most of the seriously threatening forms of surveillance involve trafficking in invisibles.

Expropriation and secondary use of data collected for another purpose is unseen and hence unappreciated by most people. The purposeful collection of data to support monitoring of individuals adds to the hidden pools. This includes the generation of meta-data about vast numbers of transactions including payments of all kinds, travel (on public transport, flights and toll-roads), and, possibly only during the COVID period, visits to commercial premises. Although this data is associated with our many digital personae rather than with our physical selves, the personae can be linked together with a level of confidence that's satisfactory from the viewpoint of marketers and governments alike. From those consolidated models of individuals' behaviours and interests, plausible predictions can be made, and individuals' future attitudes and behaviours can be shaped.

For society to shape dataveillance technologies rather than be shaped by them, a large enough proportion of society needs to grasp such hidden and abstract realities, appreciate their implications, and become motivated to resist and oppose them. I'm concerned about the dominance of the visual because it seriously undermines the capacity of the public to cope with the non-visual, from the various forms of dataveillance I've used above as examples; to the dominant business model in the current digital surveillance economy; to surveillance embedded in what we carry, what we wear and even what we are; and to surveillance not only of our communications, but also of what we read and view, and whose ideas we're exposed to - the new field of experience surveillance.


1. Introduction

The Producer/Director refers to his film as having "themes of addiction, privacy, surveillance, information manipulation, behaviour modification and social control", and intends it to "lay the foundations as to why we may feel like we're sleeprunning into some dystopian nightmare with the machines at the helm".

It's a great piece of work, so I don't want to tackle it head-on. Instead, I want to make some meta-comments, because I have misgivings about some things that a video-documentary may find difficult to do.

In the 21st century, the visual medium reigns supreme, and so does the visual metaphor. I'm concerned that the social construction of the surveillance notion has been seriously limited by being rooted in the visual. Hence we have been blind to the other forms of surveillance. (Yes, I appreciate that I just used a visual metaphor to criticise the use of visual metaphors. And I'll keep doing that right through these Notes. But that's part of my point: the visual is engrained in how we talk and think).

So the role I'm playing here is as a provocateur, to question the dominant, visual paradigm.

2. The Problem with Uni-Dimensional Literacy

Recent generations have become literate in the area of visual 'speech' and, probably to a lesser extent, visual appreciation. The problem is that video is reasonably easy to design to be beguiling and transfixing.

A novel is immersive in a constructive sense, as when a competent swimmer is 'thrown in the deep end'. It's possible to design screen-based experiences to be immersive in that sense (e.g. eLearning that engages the mind, some forms of game such as Myst, professional tools such as AutoCAD).

In an alternative sense of the term 'immersive', the person being thrown in the deep end is someone who can't swim. It's easy for video-designers to do this, both accidentally and intentionally. It's also attractive to do it if the designer is motivated to lock the person into the environment, as is the case with marketers and political polemicists. When a non-swimmer is immersed, their 'critical faculties' are poorly engaged because the Maslowian hierarchy of needs applies, and survival instincts dominate the person's frantic world.

Video-designers have many techniques available to them to ensure the non-swimmer stays immersed and non-judgmental. Marketers ensure that threats persist, by (to sustain the metaphor) making waves, floating flotsam past, and having a fin break the surface nearby.

Another concern is that the growth in visual capabilities has been accompanied by a decline in at least one other form of literacy. Listening and speaking might be holding up. But the writing and reading of text is suffering. In Jore's 2013 interview with Susan Greenfield, she depicts the inherent superficiality of a great deal of image- and video-usage: In a novel, a 'princess' has a back-story, feelings, hopes and a trajectory - and the reader is actively tempted by the novelist to embellish those features. In a video-game, on the other hand, the notion of 'princess' is likely limited to a mere icon to be rescued.

The reading of novels stimulates interpretive and creative activities at the emotive end of the reader's experiences. Engagement with disciplined text, such as that in technical reports and academic articles and books, demands much more of the reader, in terms of understanding or imposition of structure, analysis, and argument. Literacy with image and video delivers little of what is needed for such activities.

A sign of the times is the transmogrification and even castration of the 'meme' notion. It began in the 1970s as a metaphor of 'gene': it's an idea, usually with at least some degree of articulation, which has the important characteristic of appearing to contrive its own success by 'going viral'. The term now refers to a mere icon - an image-with-caption that embodies what is in most cases a superficial and ephemeral sentiment. Moreover, the bar has been lowered so that the icon qualifies as a meme whether or not it strikes a chord, and whether or not it achieves survival by going viral.

3. The Public's Comprehension of Surveillance

The term 'surveillance' came into English from the French surveiller, 'to watch over'. Jeremy Bentham co-opted it c. 1799, as part of his promotion of the original 'panopticon' (constructed from the Greek). This was a means of monitoring prisoners which achieved a high degree of efficiency in two ways. Firstly, the design provided a broad field of view, and hence needed fewer watchmen. Secondly, the watched were never sure when the watcher's gaze was focussed on them in particular, giving rise to a self-disciplinary 'chilling effect'.

The 'chilling' notion invokes one particular human sense; but every other element of the notion involves the sense of sight. The dominance of the visual in public perceptions of surveillance is apparent from the intensity with which cameras have had the dominant share of media coverage. Wet-chemistry/analogue still images gave way to high-density 'moving' image, and to far-more-manipulable digital files and streams. Camera-carriers changed from people's hands, to tripods, to gantries, to aircraft, to chests and helmets, to poles, to cars, to satellites, to drones. Camera sizes and costs plummeted, functionality exploded, and uses and numbers spiralled upward.

CCTV, ANPR and facial recognition currently dominate imagery because they're easy to, um, 'visualise'. The problem is that the most threatening forms of surveillance are not visual at all. Important instances are:

4. The Incomprehensibility of Non-Visual Surveillance

A blindspot in contemporary visual literacy is structured images, which we conventionally call diagrams. They are still poorly constructed and still poorly understood. In semiotic terms, the syntactics and semantics of diagramming conventions are a complete pickle. For example, boxes and arrows don't just mean different things in different diagrams; authors commonly use them to mean different things even within a single diagram.

Another example of the problem is the devices that film-makers fall back on in order to convey cyberspace. Gibson nailed the imagery-in-text in the mid-1980s:

"a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system ... lines of light ranged in the nonspace of mind, clusters and constellations of data" (Gibson 1984, pp. 12, 6)

This has given rise to the images used in feature films, documentaries and news reports alike, with streams of binary digits, streams of numbers, and towers of streams, intended to invoke the data-induced 'shared hallucination'. From a data-modelling viewpoint, the images are laughable; but this is the trivial level at which the public perception of 'big data' operates.

To discuss surveillance, complex sentences need to be constructed, and de-constructed. The iGeneration is well ahead of their elders in visual literacy; but the capabilities of most of them only extend to allusions and simple sentences. They commonly lack the richness of ideas, linkages among them, and the ability to appreciate and to originate structures, analyses, and arguments. As a result, they're ill-equipped to grasp, and to navigate their way around, the models involved in contemporary surveillance.

5. Panoptic 2.0 - Auto-Submission

My perception of the generations whose idea-consumption is dominated by video-content is that they readily succumb to a revised version of the panoptic notion.

They lack comprehension of the nature, extent, impacts and implications of surveillance technologies, surveillance society, and the surveillance economy. They assume omniscience on the part of disembodied business, and disembodied government. They value convenience to such a high degree that they evidence a preparedness to trade-off, very cheaply, the human and consumer rights their forebears fought hard to achieve. They casually accept corporate and government abuses of personal data, and organisations' continual failures to secure that data against abuse by others.

The meteoric rise of East Asia as the source of information infrastructure brings with it a spectre of dominance by Confucian, fundamentally submissive social philosophy. This threatens to reinforce the corporation-convenient mythologies of 'privacy is dead; get over it' and 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear'.

6. Conclusions

We need to mobilise social energy against the many forms of surveillance, and against its integration into an omni-present, and ultimately omni-scient and omni-potent whole. To achieve that mobilisation, we need to extend the public's perception of surveillance beyond the visual. But how do we help the public to visualise the virtual? I have questions, but only a few thoughts about answers.

People, at least those most capable of abstract thought, need to be encouraged, even enveigled, into understanding ideas, and linkages among them. To the extent that individuals are losing the habit, and the capacity, to grasp ideas and linkages from text, we must find substitutes. Diagrams can provide depth and structure, but demand literacy skills of diagram-drawer and diagram-viewer alike. Mere image and video do not require those skills, and people whose dominant mode of content-consumption is video have no means to develop them. It may be that a key role, to bridge video-limited people across to critical thought, can be played by cartoon animations or video-graphics (Bail 2018) interspersed with video, and linked to 'drill-down' materials.

Reference List

Bail K. (2018) ' The nursing process (clinical decision making) - a video graphic to help digital health teams (and more)' University of Canberra, 2018, at

Clarke R. (1988) 'Information Technology and Dataveillance' Commun. ACM 31,5 (May 1988) 498-512, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2000) 'Technologies of Mass Observation' Notes for the 'Mass Observation Movement' Forum, run by Experimenta Media Arts and Open Channel, Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 26 October 2000, at

Clarke R. (2007) 'What is +berveillance? (And What Should Be Done About It?)' IEEE Technology and Society 29, 2 (Summer 2010) 17-25, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2009) 'The Covert Implementation of Mass Vehicle Surveillance in Australia' Proc. Fourth Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security: Covert Policing, 7 April 2009, ANU, Canberra, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, April 2009, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2012) 'A Framework for Surveillance Analysis' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, February 2012, at

Clarke R. (2019) 'Risks Inherent in the Digital Surveillance Economy: A Research Agenda' Journal of Information Technology 34,1 (Mar 2019) 59-80, PrePrint at

Clarke R. & Wigan M. (2011) 'You Are Where You've Been: The Privacy Implications of Location and Tracking Technologies' Journal of Location Based Services 5, 3-4 (December 2011) 138-155, PrePrint at

Gibson W. (1984) 'Neuromancer' Grafton/Collins, 1984

Michael K., & Clarke R. (2012) 'Location and Tracking of Mobile Devices: +berveillance Stalks the Streets' Computer Law & Security Review 29, 3 (June 2013) 216-228, PrePrint at

Michael M.G. & Michael K. (2007) 'A Note on U_berveillance / A Note on Uberveillance: From Dataveillance to U_berveillance and the Realpolitik of the Transparent Society' Proc. The Second Workshop on Social Implications of National Security, Wollongong, Australia, 29 October 2007, pp. 9-26, PrePrint at

Zuboff S. (2015) 'Big other: Surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization' Journal of Information Technology, 30, 2 (2015) 75-89, at


These Notes were stimulated by an invitation by ISTAS Conference Chair, Prof. Katina Michael, to participate in a panel discussing the video-documentary 'Stare into the lights, my pretties', by Jordan Brown. Katina moderated the event, and Jordan drove the session's agenda.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor associated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation in UNSW Law, and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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