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Chaos and Control

The Critique of Computation in American Commercial Media (1950-1980)

Steve Anderson, Author

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Surveillance and Computation

Fears of excessive or unwarranted government surveillance are routinely woven into what I have termed here the libertarian critique of computation. However, recent revelations by government contractor Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency's secret data-gathering operation known as Prism provides an opportunity to bring a historical perspective to the cultural discourse related to covert intelligence operations via computational systems.

First I would make a distinction between popular culture visions of largely precomputational (audio/visual) surveillance and the kind of high-volume data mining that forms the basis of Prism. However, I would argue that being watched by intelligent machines serves as a particularly graphic metaphor for cultural anxieties about the more abstract realm of data mining. Surveillance -- and, for our purposes, representations of surveillance in popular culture -- did not begin with computers, nor did they rise to public awareness only in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The question of whether data mining constitutes merely an extension of A/V surveillance (covert photography, video surveillance, bugging, wiretapping) into the computational realm is worth considering seriously. Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), for example, represents a moment of transition in surveillance technologies that was already under way in the early 1970s.

Even among paranoid cinematic narratives of the Watergate era, The Conversation is uniquely obsessed with the art and science of audio surveillance as exemplified through the character of Harry Caul, a legendary bugger played by Gene Hackman. In this narratively inconsequential scene, a muscle car street race is resolved when a car full of surveillance experts in a Dodge Challenger are unable to beat some teenagers driving a Mustang. The investigators resort to data surveillance by using a car phone to obtain information on the opposing driver. Instead of engine torque or driving skill, knowing their opponent's name, address and physical description proves to be the deciding factor in their competition.

The emergence of "distributed subjectivity" described by Lev Manovich (2001) more than a decade ago, which involves having our identities scattered across multiple corporate and governmental databases, represents a trope of technology in popular culture that has resonated on film and television throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The mastery of government agents -- or private bureaucrats -- over personal information recurs frequently in libertarian-style critiques of surveillance, as seen in my broader project, Technologies of Cinema, of which this is a part. However, even if we consider only examples that fall within the pre-PC era time frame considered in this project, some revealing historical precedents emerge.

In particular, the depiction of two cinematic supercomputers that achieve sentience in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Demon Seed (1978) may be read as metaphors for nascent fears that computers are, or soon will be, "watching us." In both films, a highly advanced supercomputer exceeds the limits of its intended programming and begins to control the lives of the humans around it. In the course of reversing the original human-machine power relations, both computers begin voyeuristically observing humans in their most vulnerable and private moments -- stepping out of the shower, undressing for bed, or having intimate foreplay. Arguably this convoluted narrative conceit simply constitutes an all-too-familiar cinematic excuse to display women's bodies for voyeuristic consumption. But the metaphorical resonance of these scenes is unmistakable when mapped onto broader cultural concerns about the loss of privacy to electronic and computerized surveillance systems.
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