In this blog series I explore a burgeoning intimate surveillance culture in neighbourhoods across the world. At the core of this research is a flourishing network of surveillance technologies produced by Silicon Valley and perfectly tailored to a vigilant and paranoid home-owner. This matters. Because being watched by the state is one thing, but being watched by your neighbours invites myriad more questions.
Where I live in the east of Amsterdam I’m surrounded by generous neighbours. We often exchange news in the building’s stairwell, borrow things from each other and generally care for our communal space. It’s a wonderful place to live and I am comforted by the feeling of togetherness and trust in our neighbourhood. Most of my immediate neighbours happen to also be in a WhatsApp group. When I first moved in I was completely unaware of the group. But, not long after I’d unpacked there was a letter in the post from the police, urging me to join. The letter stressed that by joining the group I could make our neighbourhood “safer and more peaceful”. So of course I did.
For the most part, the dynamics in our WhatsApp group simply mirror the dynamics I experience when I meet neighbours face-to-face. There’s a bit of information sharing, some friendly banter. Occasionally someone flags something suspicious. In one instance a neighbour with a Ring doorbell camera, which records footage of anyone who rings it, posted a video in the group. It showed a young man with well-coiffed hair wearing a black leather jacket. He was lingering outside the door waiting for the doorbell to be answered. It never was. The neighbour, clearly suspicious, urged others in the group to be on the lookout. Another neighbour zoomed in on the footage, screen-grabbed it and posted an enlarged and pixelated image of the man’s face back into the WhatsApp group. I received the message on my phone mid-way through dinner. I was confused. What makes this person suspicious? And what exactly are we on the lookout for?
This anecdote goes to the heart of my research. For the past 7 years I have been exploring how technology shapes neighbourhoods and influences neighbours. I am particularly interested in what impact our domestic surveillance devices, like smart doorbell cameras and mobile messaging groups, have on social cohesion and our feeling of safety. Most urgently, this research zooms in on the role that technology plays in creating inclusive spaces. With my creative partner Klasien van de Zandschulp, we have researched neighbourhoods across the globe, from our hometown of Amsterdam, to York in England, Johannesburg, San Paulo, New York and the rural farmlands of the Netherlands, interviewing people about how they use domestic surveillance technology to watch their streets and homes. Amazingly, what we’ve found is that neighbourhood surveillance, enabled by technology, is not unique to wealthy cities with plenty of technology. Instead, it happens in all kinds of places across the world, albeit on different scales and with different implications. We see the rise of an intimate surveillance culture. What I mean by this is that neighbours are buying technology like Ring or Nest doorbell cameras and joining messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Nextdoor or Neighbourhoods (from Facebook) to police their space. Intimate surveillance is booming in streets, buildings, gated compounds and townships, enabled by affordable surveillance technology and social media platforms perfectly tailored to a vigilant consumer.
A great example of this is in the Netherlands where you will most likely spot a street sign with the words “Attention! WhatsApp Neighbourhood Watch”. The sign is often placed at the start of a street. It signals to newcomers that neighbours in that area are watching their suburb and circulating information about suspicious people in their local WhatsApp group. Amazingly, these signs, and the groups they represent, have been adopted and seemingly normalised as part of communal life in the Netherlands. The police encourage residents to join these groups, just like in my neighbourhood in Amsterdam. Ordinary folks become the eyes and ears of the police. It’s hard to decipher the true statistics here. One source claims there are approximately 9,000 registered WhatsApp groups dedicated to neighbourhood surveillance. This accounts for about 630,000 residents. Yet, there are thousands of other groups that aren’t registered but they do exactly the same surveillance work.
For a mere €75, you can order a WhatsApp neighbourhood watch sign for your street in the Netherlands. We had this one custom made for our live performance ‘Good Neighbours’ in Amsterdam in 2021.
WhatsApp neighbourhood groups are however only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. They form a tiny part of a much larger ecosystem of surveillance technologies in neighbourhoods. Another popular device (the rising star of surveillance gadgets) is the Ring doorbell camera. Ring is the humble doorbell redesigned for a paranoid networked society, complete with its own Instagram account and 152,000 followers (as of 2021). In December 2020, when many people were locked down in their homes during the corona pandemic, global online sales of Ring cameras jumped by 180% compared to 2019. In December of 2020, Amazon.com sold nearly half a million Ring cameras to American consumers.
A recording from a Ring doorbell camera in the city of York (UK) where we did part of our research and presented a live performance.
Besides its doorbell function, the Ring includes a built-in camera and motion sensor. If you press a Ring doorbell it films you. If the Ring owner isn’t home they receive a notification on their phone with footage of the visitor. If someone triggers the sensor by walking past, the Ring camera will record that person, regardless of whether they rang the bell or not. Ring owners can even speak through their phones (via the doorbell) to anyone standing outside their door. Sounds convenient right?
In the course of this blog series I will speak into this question, because there’s much more to Ring than convenience (or safety). I will examine WhatsApp, Ring and a few other platforms that are shaping the order of micro politics in neighbourhoods. Pointedly, these technologies raise urgent questions about surveillance, platforms and society. Most immediately, I want to draw attention to the dangerous practice in neighbourhoods when residents sue technology to mark others as strangers who don’t belong. Social and racial profiling are commonplace and becoming ever-more transparent through technology. As Marleen Stikker from Waag Society reminds us, “Technology is an expression of capital and power”. Said more plainly: it’s often about money. Look no further than Nexdoor, a Silicon Valley social network aimed at local neighbourhoods and infamous for facilitating instances of racial profiling, recently valued at $2,1 billion (up 30% from its last valuation in 2017). This entire series is about keeping a critical public record of the relationship between neighbourhoods, neighbours and their technologies and to keep the focus on what is at stake.
Dr. Natalie Dixon is an INC research fellow and founder & cultural insights director at affect lab, a women-led creative studio and research practice based in Amsterdam. Her work explores questions of gender, race and belonging through the lens of technology.
Thinking about the current state of platforms, I’m reminded of Mark Fisher’s articulation of capitalist realism, the idea that we don’t imagine or build alternatives to capitalism because we can no longer envision a world without it. Big tech, in a few short years, has managed to instill within the public a similar state of platform realism. So many are unable to imagine how global communication, media, search, etc. could ever function without the platforms. Despite a growing malaise, it’s become difficult for many to consider a world without big tech platforms as a viable conception of the future.
That means we undoubtedly need to focus some of our energy towards the building of such alternatives. Users of big tech will need to see, feel, and use new avant-garde technologies that center anti-capitalist pro-public values before they ever abandon big tech platforms en masse. But along the way, we also need to engage the world where they are. With 3 billion+ people already signed on, some of this work should happen inside big tech’s platforms themselves.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds, though, because platforms can be fruitful spaces for cultivating criticality. Whether covertly subversive or overtly confrontational, platform manipulations (such as those that can be enacted via browser extensions, online performance projects, etc.) can prompt users to reconsider the role of these systems currently considered as inevitable parts of the 21st century landscape. By exposing the hidden and hiding the visible, hacktivist art, tactical media, and other related practices can help users question the role of platforms in everyday life. Why are they built this way? Who benefits? Who is made most vulnerable? How could it be different?
Such manipulations can also transform big tech platforms into good spaces for modeling resistance to capitalism, as the platforms themselves embody capitalist values in their most distilled and potent forms. The platforms are encodings of tech bro entrepreneurial ideology, agential systems that enact and amplify their beliefs in the importance of scale, the imperative of growth, and the superiority of the quantitative. Examples include my own projects that alter existing platforms to hide their metrics, to confuse their algorithmic profiling, and to distill their central manipulation mechanisms down to their barest essentials in ways that make them visible and tangible.
Other examples include projects by artists such as Joana Moll or Disnovation, as well as essential software/platform/code/media studies critiques by thinkers such as Wendy Chun, Safiya Noble, Matthew Fuller, Søren Pold, yourself, and others in our community. The more we can illuminate existing connections between wider societal ills and the ways that big tech models, reifies, and amplifies them, the easier any platform exodus will be.
Decentralization undoubtedly holds some promise for dreams of exodus from big tech platforms. But decentralization on its own is not a panacea. We only need look at speculative finance and libertarian crypto dreams to find clues about who feels most excited about decentralization and why (e.g., it’s not about rebuilding the public or strengthening democracy).
In other words, the problem with platforms isn’t, in all cases, centralization per se. Instead, the negatives we contend with on big tech’s platforms are rooted in their software’s alignment with and embedding of the ideologies of capitalism. Global-scale software-based platforms are reflective of the same profit-focused business values that drive big tech’s executives to build those companies in the first place: growth, scale, more at any cost. This foundation is doomed from the start, as it inevitably leads big tech to treat users as resources to be mined, manipulated, and transformed into profit. It makes expendable user-centric values around privacy and agency.
Instead we need a turn away from the private and a return to the public. Without a private profit motive, many of the problems with big tech platforms would fall away. I say this knowing full-well that making such systems public is by no means a solution by itself. We’ve seen unprecedented corruption of and new justified distrust in public institutions over the last many years. But big tech’s platforms are decidedly anti-public, and this positioning is part of what makes them so damaging to privacy, agency, and democracy.
I think we should also experiment with new platforms (public or non-profit private) that enact decidedly different values than what big tech promotes. For example, what would a platform look like if it actively worked to defuse compulsive use rather than to produce it? Or if it wants less from users rather than more? Or if it encourages conceptions of time that are slow rather than fast?
For me, these ideas point towards a shared set of values to consider as we work to dismantle the control of big tech. These include:
SLOW — We need media that actively and intentionally works against the platform capitalist idea that speed and efficiency is always desirable and productive.
LESS — We need alternatives that advance an anti-scale, anti-more agenda. Facebook’s answer to the negative effects of platform scale post-2016 was to foreground Groups to “give people the power to build community.” Four years later that platform-produced power propelled racism and authoritarianism to new heights, culminating (so far) in a violent insurrection at the US Capitol.
PUBLIC — Social media infrastructure for 3 billion+ users should never be driven by profit or controlled by single individuals. Ditto goods distribution (Amazon), information access (Google), etc.
DECOY — To help produce a culture of platform exodus we need new projects/works that get into the platforms and help users turn themselves away from them.
You may be awakening to a new reality.twelve cutting-edge activists, scholars, and change-makers probe the deep roots of our current predicament while reflecting on the social DNA for a post-capitalist future. We learn about seed-sharing in agriculture, blockchain technologies for networked collaboration, cosmolocal peer production of houses and vehicles, creative hacks on law, and new[...]
by: Heather Morrison, Luan Borges, Xuan Zhao, Tanoh Laurent Kakou & Amit Nataraj Shanbhoug
This study examines trends in open access article processing charges (APCs) from 2011 – 2021, building on a 2011 study by Solomon & Björk (2012). Two methods are employed, a modified replica and a status update of the 2011 journals. Data is drawn from multiple sources and datasets are available as open data (Morrison et al, 2021). Most journals do not charge APCs; this has not changed. The global average per-journal APC increased slightly, from 906 USD to 958 USD, while the per-article average increased from 904 USD to 1,626 USD, indicating that authors choose to publish in more expensive journals. Publisher size, type, impact metrics and subject affect charging tendencies, average APC and pricing trends. About half the journals from the 2011 sample are no longer listed in DOAJ in 2021, due to ceased publication or publisher de-listing. Conclusions include a caution about the potential of the APC model to increase costs beyond inflation, and a suggestion that support for the university sector, responsible for the majority of journals, nearly half the articles, with a tendency not to charge and very low average APCs, may be the most promising approach to achieve economically sustainable no-fee OA journal publishing.
Het symposium vindt online plaats op zaterdag middag 26 juni 2021 van 14:00 – 17:30 uur.
Connected Digital Europe (CODE) NL-D is een samenwerking tussen IMPAKT [Centrum voor Mediacultuur], (NL) en School of Machines, Making & Make-believe in Berlijn, (DE). CODE NL-D brengt kunstenaars, bezorgde burgers, politici en beleidsmakers samen om de dialoog en kritische discussie aan te gaan op het gebied van digital agency.
Het eerste symposium draait om de vragen ‘Wat voor soort verandering willen we?’ en ‘Hoe kunnen we bijdragen aan deze verandering?’ We zullen elk onderwerp afzonderlijk behandelen door middel van twee paneldiscussies, waarbij we de confrontatie aangaan met kwesties betreffende huidige en nieuwe technologieën en hun maatschappelijke impact. Met een focus op het wetgevingslandschap in Duitsland en Nederland, willen we het potentieel begrijpen van interdisciplinaire samenwerkingen en artistieke interventies om systeemverandering tot stand te brengen.
• Evelyn Austin (Bits of Freedom);
• Leonieke Verhoog (Public Spaces);
• Queeny Rajkowski (Comissie digitale zaken tweede kamer en tweede kamerlid voor de VVD);
• Jillian York (Auteur en directeur internationale vrijheid van meningsuiting bij de Electronic Frontier Foundation);
• Marek Tuszynski (Creatief directeur en mede-oprichter van Tactical Tech);
• Sarah Grant (Oprichter van de interactieve mediastudio Cosmic.Berlin).
Available for Android and iOS devices, OS claims to detectand be triggered by a woman’s (true) “panic scream,” and, after 20 seconds and unless the alarm is cancelled, it will send botha text message to the user’s chosen contacts and an automated call with the location to a nominated contact. The app is meant to help women in situations where dialing 999, (assumed to be the natural and preferred response to danger), is not viable for the user and, in the ideal embodiment, this nominated contact, “the helper,” is the police. OSdid automatically contact police (and required a paid subscription) in 2016, but it did not work out well and by 2018, was declared a work in progress: “What we really want is for the app to dial 999 when it detects a panic scream, but first, we need to prove how accurate it is. That’s where you come in. . .” OS is currently in beta and free (while in beta). It is unclear whether the developers have given up with that utmost expression of OS.
OS is based on the premise that men fight and women scream —“It is an innate response for females in danger to scream for help”—and its correct functioning requires its users to be ready to do so, even if such an innate and instinctive response doesn’t come naturally to them: “If you do not scream, the app will not be able to detect you.” However, there are two discriminations in terms of scream analysis, in how the app discriminates while listening for and to screams, and in failing to detect or respond to them. The first has to do with who can use the app (i.e., whose panicked screams are able to trigger it) in the first place. This is presented in terms of gender and age—for the moment, OS can listento “girls aged 14+ and women under 60,” where cisgender, as in anything OS, is taken for granted. It is, however, a matter of acoustic parameters set by the developers (notably, of reaching a certain high pitch and loudness threshold). Which is why the app was implemented to include a “screamometer” for potential users to scream, hard, figure out, and see whether they can reach “the intensity that is needed to set it off” (confetti means they do). The second one discriminates truepanicked screams from other types of screams (e.g., happiness, untrue panic). As presented by the developers, both discriminations are problematic and misleading, and so is“the science behind screaming” One Scream‘s website boasts of.
The app does not quite distinguish true from fake screams, nor joy from panic for that matter. Instead, One Scream listens for “roughness,” which a team of scream researchers—it truly is a “tiny science lesson” —has identified as scream’s “privileged acoustic niche” for communicating alarm. According to this 2015 study in Current Biology, “roughness” is the distinctive quality of effective, compelling human screams (and of artificial alarms) in terms of their ability to trigger listeners and in terms of perceived urgency. Abrupt increases in loudness and pitch are not unique to screams. The rougher the scream, then, the greater its perceived “alarmess” and its alarming effect. That’s why developers say OS “hears real distress,” essentially “just as your own ear.” However, other studies suggest your own ears might not be so great at distinguishing happiness from fear and scream research, and particularly the specific “bit” OS builds on, by and large assumes, relies on, and furthers the irrelevance of “real” on the scream vocalizer end.
In OS’s pledge to its users, the app’s fine-tuning to its scream niche—i.e., to rough temporal modulations between 30 and 150Hz—is as important, as is the developers (flawed) insistence on the irredeemably uniqueness of true panic’s scream vocalizations, which they posit are instinctive and can’t be plotted or counterfeit: “Experience has shown that it is difficult for women to fake their scream.” Yet, current scream analysis and research primarily and largely relies on screams delivered by human research subjects (often university students, ideally drama students) in response to prompts for the purposes of studying them as well as, especially, on screams extracted from commercial movies and sound effect libraries. The same applies to the other types of vocalizations (e.g., neutral and valenced speech, screamed sentences, laughter, etc.) produced or retrieved for the purposes of figuring out what it is that makes a scream a scream, and how to translate that into a set of quantifiable parameters to capitalize on that knowledge, regardless of the agenda.
Scream research often relies on how human listeners recruited for the cause respond to audio samples. Apparently, whether the scream is “real,” acted, or post-produced is neither something study subjects necessarily distinguish nor a determining factor in how they rate and react. In terms of machines learning to scream-mine audio data, it is what it is: “natural corpora with extreme emotional manifestation and atypical sounds events for surveillance applications” are scarce, unreliable, and largely unavailable because of their private character. That is no longer the case for OS, which has been accruing, and machine-learning from, its beta-user screams as well as how users themselves monitor/rate their screams and the app’s sensibility. OS users’ screams might not be exactly ad lib, as users/vocalizers first practice with the “screamometer” to learn to scream for and as a means to interface with OS, but it’s as natural a corpora as it gets, and it’s free for the users of the screams. OS not only echoes “voice stress analysis” technologies invested in distinguishing true from fake or in ranking urgency, but, as part and parcel of a larger scream surveillance enterprise, also public surveillance technologies such as ShotSpotter, all of which Lawrence Abu Hamdan has brilliantly dissected in his essay on the recording of the police gunshots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Chillais a strikingly similar app developed and available in India—although there’s a nuanced difference in the developer’s rationale for Chilla, which in its pursuance of scream-activated personal safety also aims to compensate for the fact that many girls and women don’t call “parents or police” for help when harassed or in danger. As presented, Chilla responds both to assaults and to women’s ambivalence towards their guardians. The latter is, too, a manifestation of the breadth of gender-based violence as a socio-cultural problem, one that Chilla is trained to fail to listen to and one that, because of OS’s particular niche user market, is simply out of the purview of its UK counterpart.
That problem–and that failure–is neither exclusive to India nor to scream-activated personal safety apps. Calling 999 in the UK, 911 in the US, or 091 in Spain, where I am writing, doesn’t come naturally to many targets of sexual and gender-based violence because they don’t conceive police as a help or because, directly, they see it as a risk—to themselves and/or to others. As Angela Ritchie has copiously documented in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, women of color and Black women in particular are at extremely high risk for rape and sexual abuse by police officers, as high as 1 in 5 women in New York City alone.
OS, then, is framed as a pragmatic, partial answer to a problem it doesn’t solve: “We should never have to dress in a certain way…but we do.” The specifics of how OS would actually “save” or even has saved its users in particular scenarios go unexplained, because OS is meant to help with feeling safe; getting into the details, and the what ifs, compromises that service. This sense of safety has two components and is based on two promises: one, that OS will listen to your (panic) scream, and, two, as of now via the intermediacy of your contacts, the police will go save you. The second component and its assumed self-evidence speaks to the app’s whiteness and of its target market of white, securitized, cisgender female subjects.
Wearable or otherwise portable technologies to keep women “safe,” specifically from sexual assaults, are not new and are varied. These have been vigorously protested, particularly from feminist standpoints other than the white, securitized, capitalist brand OS professes—because, in (partly) delegating safety on technologies women then become personally responsible for, these technologies further “blame” women. For authorities and the patriarchy, this shift in blame is a relief. In discussing the racialized securitization of US university campuses, Kwame Holmes notes how despite “reactionary attacks” on campus feminism (e.g., so-called “snowflakes” complaining about bad sex) and authorities’ effective reluctance to acknowledge and challenge rape culture, anti-sexual assault technologies tend to be welcomed and accepted. As Holmes also notes, there’s no paradox in that. Those technologies flatten the discussion, deactivate more radical feminist critiques and potential strategies, and protect the status quo—not so much women and not those who, whenever an alarm sounds and especially when security forces respond, readily become insecure.
One Scream’s FAQs cover selected worries that users have or OS anticipates they might have. Among these, there are privacy concerns (i.e., does it listen to your conversations?) and the fear the alarm will activate “when it shouldn’t.” In the Apple Store user reviews, there’s a more popular type of concern: OS not responding to users’ screams. In other words, there’s simultaneously a worry about OS listening and detecting too much and about OS failing to listen “when it matters.” These anxieties around OS’s listening excesses and insufficiencies touch on (audio) surveillance paradoxical workings: does OS encroach on the everyday life of those within users’ cell phones’ earshot while not necessarily delivering on an otherwise modest promise of safety in highly specific scenarios? There’s a unified developer response to these concerns: OS “is trained to detect panic screams only.”
Featured Image: By Flicker User Dirk Haun. Image appears to be a woman screaming on a street corner, but is actually an advertisement on the window of a T-Mobile cell phone shop(CC BY 2.0)
María Edurne Zuazu works in music, sound, and media studies, and researches the intersections of material culture and sonic practices in relation to questions of cultural memory, social and environmental justice, and the production of knowledge (and of ignorance) in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries. María has presented on topics ranging from sound and multimedia art and obsolete musical instruments, to aircraft sound and popular music, and published articles on telenovela, weaponized uses of sound, music and historical memory, and music videos. She received her PhD in Music from The CUNY Graduate Center, and has been the recipient of Fulbright and Fundación La Caixa fellowships. She is a 2021-2022 Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
In June 2018, three years ago to the day as I write, a conference called ‘Plagiarizing Posterity: Reading the Nineteenth Century Backwards’ took place at the University of Exeter with financial support from the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Study Groups of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), and the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter. The keynote speakers were Ilya Vinitsky (Princeton University) and Timothy Langen (University of Missouri). Delegates attended from Cambridge, Leeds, London, and St Andrews, joining many curious students and colleagues from Exeter. We were united by our diligent, often erudite, and unfailingly humorous exploration of an idea first limned by the French Oulipo: that past writers might have stolen ideas, topics, and even characters from their literary posterity. Pierre Bayard calls this idea ‘anticipatory plagiarism’, and his monograph on the topic identifies several distinguished precedents. Did you know that Voltaire plagiarized Conan Doyle? Or that Maupassant anticipated Proust, or that Shakespeare nicked T.S. Eliot’s best ideas? Plagiarism by anticipation is both quaintly ludicrous and unexpectedly fecund, overturning familiar notions of literary adaptation (and anxiety of influence). As a character in David Lodge’s novel Small World points out, ‘“…[W]ho can read Hamlet today without thinking of Prufrock? [Or]… Ferdinand in The Tempest without being reminded of ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land?”’
Taking a leaf out of Lodge (or possibly taking back notions he anticipated from us in the first place), we dedicated our day to re-reading the Russian nineteenth-century classics through a reverse prism. When the Universities of Exeter and Missouri later allowed Tim Langen and me funding to publish selected ‘Plagiarizing Posterity’ conference proceedings as an Open Access volume with OBP, we jumped at the opportunity. That was how Reading Backwards: An Advance Retrospective on Russian Literature took shape. To cohere our approach, we asked our contributors to focus on just three canonical authors, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, to be analysed as alternately (or, sometimes, simultaneously) perpetrators and victims of advance plagiarism. How would we read Gogol differently, Tim Langen speculated, if we knew he had appropriated his ontology of absurdity from early twentieth-century author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, who snaffled his own aesthetic from Irish satirist Flann O’Brien? What if Dostoevsky had borrowed the ethical tensions of The Brothers Karamazov from both J.M. Coetzee’s prose and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as Michael Bowden suggested?Or if Tolstoy’s Andrei Bolkonskii, one of the troubled heroes of War and Peace, was stolen by Homer to serve as a prototype for the Iliad’s Achilles, as Svetlana Yefimenko plausibly contends?
As playful as anticipatory plagiarism may seem, it is also strikingly useful. As Eric Naiman writes (in his wry and wise Afterword to our volume, ranging from Pushkin to Proust), anticipatory plagiarism works best as ‘a heuristic conceit’, rebuffing the rigid systematism of many contemporary academic methodologies, while lending scholars the confidence to develop unexpected yet richly revealing comparisons between genres, eras, authors and artists. What if, Ilya Vinitsky asks, Gogol had recognized his own image in Raphael’s Transfiguration? Ilya’s essay argues for the interdependence of Gogol’s inspirations (including the famous mute scene from The Government Inspector, and his much-reviled Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends) with famous Russian and European artworks. Steven Shankman makes the case that the ‘philosophical poet’ Tolstoy anticipated the teachings of the ‘poetic philosopher’ Levinas. Two of the essays in Reading Backwards explore the Bayardian notion of ‘reciprocal’, or two-way, plagiarism. Inna Tigountsova’s essay explores the self-plagiarism committed by a composite being called Petroevsky (a mix of Dostoevsky and contemporary author Liudmila Petrushevskaia), which perpetuates and feminizes the frustration experienced by Dostoevsky’s iconic Underground Man. My own contribution reveals the history of reciprocal theft (as well as sadly one-sided admiration) between Tolstoy and the now-neglected Victorian novelist Hall Caine. None of our contributors ever suggest that anticipatory plagiarism is ever other than logically impossible. David Gillespie and Marina Korneeva do not seriously allege that Dostoevsky stole the material for Notes from the House of the Dead from Guzel’ Yakhina’s contemporary bestseller Zuleikha, a novel set in Stalin’s camps for political exiles. But by juxtaposing these books and throwing their common elements into sharp relief, they show us something new about Dostoevsky and Yakhina – and their writings. As Svetlana Yefimenko argues, anticipatory plagiarism ‘serves to illuminate latent tendencies’ in plagiarist and plagiarized alike, tendencies which help us to understand both authors better – demonstrating the underlying continuity of fictional themes, and the undying relevance of great writing.
Childhood’s End, a 1953 science fiction classic by Arthur C. Clarke, provides a useful allegory for conceptualizing anticipatory plagiarism (between Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians and Flann O’Brien’s omnium, Reading Backwards is already fertile ground for scientific fantasy). In Clarke’s narrative, Earth is visited by a technologically superior alien species, the so-called Overlords. At first reluctant to appear in person, they eventually reveal their true form: tall, winged, and horned beings long-familiar from the global iconography of demons. One befuddled human character asks, logically enough, whether the aliens had made a previous, unfortunate visit to our planet – thus leaving their image in our race memory. But, as the Overlords explain, ‘“[…] that memory was not of the past, but of the future”’ (a phrase, no doubt coincidentally, appropriated more than twenty years earlier by one of the writers discussed in our volume, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, for the title of his 1929 novella, ‘Memories of the Future’). Because these aliens are destined to be present at the end of the human race, humanity has somehow retained an advance impression of their appearance – long before they ever physically appeared. ‘“It was as if a distorted echo had reverberated round the closed circle of time, from the future to the past. Call it not a memory, but a premonition.”’ Whether or not we can remember our future, the concept of literature as an achronological continuum – where ideas can migrate backwards and forwards between authors long-dead and not-yet-born – is at the heart of our book. Each of the essays in the present volume can be read independently, but taken together, they sparkle with the creative energy and originality unlocked by scholarly ‘reading backwards’.
Muireann Maguire, University of Exeter June 2021
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (London and Sydney: Pan Books, 1974), p. 180.
All Incomplete Stefano Harney and Fred Moten Building on the ideas Harney and Moten developed in The Undercommons, All Incompleteextends the critical investigation of logistics, individuation and sovereignty. It reflects their chances to travel, listen and deepen their commitment to and claim upon partiality. All Incomplete studies thehistory of a preference for the force and ground and underground of social … Continue reading →
In early May 2021, the internet lost a controversial yet vital part of its history. Seemingly out of the blue, video hosting platform LiveLeak shut down. It was a staple website for gore content, especially among millennials or other early internet users, and for its information transparency and unrestricted censorship to citizen journalists, whistleblowers and hacktivists. The seemingly disparate demographic of LiveLeak is intertwined by neoliberal ideals foundational to the internet: information wants to be free, individual freedom of expression and free-market capitalism.
In the current digital climate, however, these neoliberal ideals require habituation. Numerous alt-tech platforms premised on unrestricted censorship rise and fall through the co-optation by those groups subjected by the consequences of free information and individual freedom: (right-wing) extremist, racists or conspiracists. In recent years, this form of habituating irresponsible behavior, immoralization and the disciplining of subjects is enclosed in the term digital hygiene. This euphemism for the developing field of digital biopolitics not only disciplines users, but extends to a broader context of controlling information freedom as well. LiveLeak now redirects to the new, more sanitized ItemFix.com: a website where visitors are encouraged to engage with uploaded content by remixing and re-uploading it, emphasizing participatory culture and memetics. More importantly, ItemFix has a strict content policy, something both Ogrish and LiveLeak firmly opposed. Tracing the maturity of LiveLeak from Ogrish to ItemFix creates an allegorical umbilical cord connected to the internet’s coming of age.
During LiveLeak’s infancy as Ogrish, the website was related to the Shock blog or gore porn discourse (you might remember rotten.com or Goatse). The website hosted videos of atrocities such as executions, suicides, beheadings, rape, general mutilation. It can also be labeled as dark tourism by providing fetishized sight. Gore porn is used metaphorically to instill some form of morality in the viewer’s mind. This is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s theories on metaphors but did not resist Ogrish and its visitors to become a market that fetishized unethical video content. The spectatorship of body horrors, as Tait calls it, was the main characteristic of the website, where context and significance seemed to be shed as excess skin on a snake.
As Orgish became a pre-teen between ’05 and ’06, Tait recognized that it wished to reposition its views on the spectatorship of body horror in a way that’d become more political. The shift of making body horrors more ethical was positively embraced, as legacy media used (edited) content from the website in news items on US invasion in Iraq (such as the beheading of Nick Berg). These changes, its newsworthiness appeal and moralization of gore content became the culmination that leads Ogrish to the high school and college stage of its life: LiveLeak.
Transgressive teen or ambitious adolescent?
While LiveLeak was the result of the domestication and moralization of gore porn, its fetishizing sight still remained under the hood. This led to a dichotomy in how the same content is perceived. CCTV footage leaked information or just straightforward captures of unethical activity: LiveLeak offered a platform for all types of content in name of redefining the media, as their tagline goes. Closing in their relationship to news, the platform and its content providers purposefully tried to establish itself as the cousin of the news who, by sifting through horrendous content, were destined to show what’s really going on. ‘[I]mages of atrocity are understood to make a call to conscience, to enable the viewer to bear witness to scenes cleansed from mainstream media through repressive standards of taste and decency,’ as Sue Tait puts it.
‘[I]mages of atrocity are understood to make a call to conscience, to enable the viewer to bear witness to scenes cleansed from mainstream media through repressive standards of taste and decency.
But because of its participatory nature and the increased interest in the platform–stemming from the moralized sight on gore content for the sake of newsworthiness– content of everyday life in non-Western countries started to form a genre, coinciding with citizen journalism. A significant amount of videos, for example, featured the working environments of Chinese construction or factory workers. The CCTV documented not only their poor and hazardous labor environments, which could be used by journalists but also recorded immanent disasters such as breaking pipelines, leaking liquid metals, explosions and so on. This narrative became so well-known on LiveLeak, it even made it into a TikTok meme.
Gore content was domesticated and conceptualized as ethical, new usage of the platform affordances made the demographics more heterogeneous and content could be recontextualized for political or activist means. Has LiveLeak reached the phase of adolescence? It did seem more mature in the sense that it was taken more seriously and value. Yet, it still balanced on the fissure between citizen journalism and this gore-induced fetishized gaze of body horror.
Being an alternative for news, featuring graphic content and having a supply and demand relationship of such circulating content, LiveLeak is easily wedged together with fringe networks such as 4chan and 8kun–which are not seen as mature, to say the least. In reality, it was more similar to Reddit, in that the platform held a significant position in the media landscape as an underdog. Along with the tolerant moderation, this unique position enabled LiveLeak to spread both graphic and extremist content far wider than imageboards. Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders utilized these affordances to broadcast his anti-Islam film Fitna. During the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand, telecom company Telstra denied access to LiveLeak (stitching it together with the imageboard) as means of minimizing the spread of the manifesto of ethnonationalist and terrorist Tarrant.
Gore, citizen journalism and hacktivism
Of course, the liberating element here is that news becomes democratized. Legacy news media’s censorship of gore content and even events that weren’t deemed newsworthy found a new platform to circulate through. Citizen journalism attempts to report the reality after the news media’s camera lens stopped rolling. They were the dirty or the explicit version of a song, where legacy news media signify the clean version without foul language. Saddam Hussein’s execution, the imagery of transgressive military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and journalist James Foley’s beheading were all popular videos hosted and extensively viewed on LiveLeak. It also played an important role during the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
If LiveLeak had been around during the Gulf War, Baudrillard wouldn’t have claimed that it didn’t happen.
Around the same period, after anonymous users shared videos about war crimes in Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called LiveLeak a “pro-terrorist manipulating web site.” Similarly, in 2007, the former White House Press Secretary mentioned LiveLeak in his speech and underlined its “mass manipulating” characteristic. While these indicate the ‘reality’ behind global news events, street journalism was also a prime narrative. On-site reports and everyday captures hinged between journalist intent, lulz and graphic imagery. If LiveLeak had been around during the Gulf War, Baudrillard wouldn’t have claimed that it didn’t happen.
Screenshot of LiveLeak. Source: Internet Archive.
In this case, LiveLeak is the embodiment of fringe networks disseminating information to wider audiences beyond traditional discourse. It could therefore well be named among the endeavors of WikiLeaks. After the release of Collateral Murder, Wikileaks cemented the internet as an important participant of public political debate, often crossing over and grabbing headlines in legacy media. Milan’s chapter in the book Beyond WikiLeaks elaborates further on this. Similarly, LiveLeak played an equally important role during the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, as it allowed the information flow to reverse, from non-Western to the West, something Çömlekçi and Güney argue is a unique potential of the platform. Citizen journalism thus also closely relates to hacktivism. Which is another way LiveLeak was utilized.
Whistleblowers used LiveLeak as an intermediary to securely share their information anonymously while also increasing their audience and reach, operating behind the smokescreen of gore and citizen journalist content.
LiveLeak is not often mentioned in the discourse of information communication. It’s privy to the logics of citizen journalism, but that does not fully entail its relevancy when it comes to the digital dissemination of information. Its aim to provide an alternative flow of information thus also attracts those who utilize this for activist reasons: whistle-blowers and free information activists. Where WikiLeaks is founded upon the ideals of these information transparency activists, LiveLeak was not but did share some similar logics. This is why Whistleblowers used LiveLeak as an intermediary to securely share their information anonymously while also increasing their audience and reach. Whistleblower networks could operate behind the smokescreen of gore and citizen journalist content. The usability of LiveLeak thus is found in the midst of this trilateral demographic.
Both platforms contain a disruptive element to the flow and control of information. But while WikiLeaks maintained a close and contested relationship to journalism, the platform logics situated LiveLeak more in a social context. Metrics decided the popularity and thus visibility of videos, which allows for elements of memetics. Videos on animals could very well reach the home page, categorized in either ‘Must See’, ‘In The News’, or ‘Featured Items’. To overcome this dialectic between memetic videos and journalist content, features such as ‘Channels’ and ‘Current Events’ are introduced, indicating that the platform knows users come to LiveLeak for various reasons and want to adhere to both. LiveLeak is the intermediary, serving its purpose as a repository or additional source for journalism. Its relationship with journalism is similar to its relationship with whistleblowers: distant cousins who use their kinship only instrumentally.
Screenshot of LiveLeak (May 20th 2016). Source: Internet Archive
Whereas tax havens such as the Cayman Islands are utilized to avoid paying your monthly dues, LiveLeak functioned as an information haven where whistleblowers and citizen journalists could redirect their information through it to avoid possible tracing and thus prosecution. While YouTube is a year older, puberty hit LiveLeak earlier during their formative years. The latter can be seen as the transgressive teenager trying to provoke, either by suppressed information, shock-inducing content from places far away.
But why didn’t LiveLeak manage to hold more political?
The activism of WikiLeaks (and the transparency movement it ushered in) is not quite prevalent in the demographic of LiveLeak. Both have made legacy news as sources for information, albeit in a disproportionate matter. But while the content might be crossposted from the former to the latter to widen the scope, LiveLeak tends to lean on the fact that it’s reporting on spectacle. It’s the (graphic) images and not the context that get the clicks. Debord prophetically saw the ocularcentrist emphasis of images as the degradation of meaning in the society of the spectacle. LiveLeak provided the millennial generation with the explicit version of the spectacles we were served by legacy news media. The unauthorized video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, one might argue, serves as a more spectacular closure to the war in Iraq than the symbolic representations: presidential speeches, troops marching with flags or Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down. Content on LiveLeak thus operates in two parallel (and somewhat contrasting) dimensions. On the one hand, the content relates as an explicit version to the spectacular horrors, maintaining its context. Simultaneously, the content is deconstructed of meaning and recontextualized akin to the spectacular or shock value the platform is known for. It illustrates once more how the moralization of gore content is problematized.
[The] emphasis on rendering spectatorship of graphic imagery as an antidote to the hygiene of mainstream press coverage potentially has significant consequences, as it enables viewers to avoid the moralizing frameworks [news media retain]. Tait, 2008
Middle Child Syndrome
Two groups congregating on a platform to both consume and circulate information positioned LiveLeak as a middle child in some ways. On the one hand, it was the transgressive and edgy older brother to YouTube. He guided you to more obscure content your parents didn’t want you to see. That same rebellious attitude is juxtaposed by his politically conscious and hacker-savvy older sibling WikiLeaks. Too indoctrinated by his own gore fetishization during his childhood as Ogrish, LiveLeak was not able to comply with the political strides of WikiLeaks, although the two did interact. This idea of middle child syndrome can be elaborated by the fact that LiveLeak followed various internet logics. Due to its inception in a specific transitional time from web 1.0 to 2.0, the platform was grounded on logics such as sociality, sharing, transparency, hacktivism, participatory culture and so on.
On the one hand, LiveLeak was the transgressive and edgy older brother to YouTube. He guided you to more obscure content your parents didn’t want you to see. That same rebellious attitude is juxtaposed by his politically conscious and hacker-savvy older sbiling WikiLeaks, too indoctrinated by his own gore fetishization during his childhood as Ogrish.
Like Wikileaks, LiveLeak’s aspects of citizen journalism share similarities to hacktivism, but with notions of alternative countercultural and digital citizen media models which had introduced easy participatory content production (Brevini et al 4). In addition to these notions, LiveLeak contained logics of social media and memetics. Virality plays an important role which was endorsed by a like and viewing system to categorize videos, emphasizing the sociality of the platform. Metrics decided the popularity and thus visibility of videos, which allows for elements of memetics. Videos on animals could very well reach the home page, categorized in either ‘Must See’, ‘In The News’, or ‘Featured Items’. To overcome this dialectic between memetic videos and journalist content, features such as ‘Channels’ and ‘Current Events’ are introduced, indicating that the platform knows users come to LiveLeak for various reasons and want to adhere to both.
For the dissemination of information, content was decontextualized by the platform’s hacker ethos, which holds an agnostic stance towards information. The journalist ethos requires contextualization, which WikiLeaks did actively adopted and LiveLeak attempted. Where citizen journalism might be the intention, in a McLuhan-esque way the platform appropriates the gore content for the demand present on LiveLeak, making it harder to be politically disruptive. Poe’s law learns us that without clear indication, it is impossible to read an author’s intention. The content is stripped of its context as soon as it circulates on LiveLeak. The genetic code LiveLeak adopted from Ogrish seemed to influence its ability to become more activist. The lack of collective activism (collactivism) stems from the fact that the platform serves the visitor, the viewer, the subject of the spectacle. Activism was never intently built into the design of LiveLeak. Its technological affordances, in terms of Helmond and Bucher, did allow for the whistleblower demographic to adopt the platform and use it instrumentally.
ItemFix, the disciplined adult
The growth spurt of LiveLeak spanned 15 years, eventually reaching the ceiling in early May 2021. Not because of dizzying heights in its success, but because the waves of fake news, misinformation, (rightwing) extremism, polarisation and online conspiracism made the sea levels of the digital climate rise. It requires an increase in content moderation and policies, which LiveLeak actively opposed. ItemFix tries to disband its politicization by appealing to the participatory nature of the internet. It calls itself a social video factory, where users can fix or remix videos as they see fit. The core USP of ItemFix is underscored in the first seconds of their introductory video: ‘you can create videos and gifs to share on your social media account’. This is done by using the ‘easy to use in-browser editing software.
While users are still encouraged to upload content, similar to LiveLeak and Ogrish, this time there are strict content policies. Accordingly, all ‘accidents’ are now sanitized and bear no visual fatalities. Social media logics on LiveLeak are extrapolated and magnified as primary features on ItemFix. Popular channels include Viral, Memes, News, Fail, WTF, Crashes and Cool. The algorithmic sorting system is split between ‘Virality’ and ‘Newest’. And lastly, upvotes, scores and views determine the content’s popularity, similar to Reddit.
Content policy on ItemFix.
ItemFix represents the adult phase, as it’s working as (or in) a self-proclaimed factory now. Together with its employees, it promotes an economy where memetics and virality become the dominant mode of production, consumption and distribution. It subjects its employees to the neoliberal tendency of entrepreneuralization, to gain and compete in the market for cultural capital. It should be said that the platform is still quite young, so it might be adopted to a group with other ideals.
Home page of ItemFix.
The participatory mechanisms, the emphasis on the individual and strict content policies are like gene replacement therapy for the gore strand which was present in its DNA. Or even activist activity for that matter. One glance at the main page or the news channel illustrates an emphasis on humor, but not in any sadistic form reflective in Ogrish. In the image below, however, you can still the demand for gore or shock content. The video with the most upvotes, views and comments is a CCTV capture of a cable car accident, killing 14 people. The characteristics of Ogrish and LiveLeak are still present in the audience of ItemFix, demanding content they know the site(s) for.
Different times, different manners
Earlier, I wrote about the emerging phenomenon of digital hygiene, a socio-technical aim to reform to control individual’s internet usage. In addition to appealing to cybersecurity, immoral content consumption is also immoralized and discouraged. The termination of LiveLeak–and the transition into ItemFix–signifies the pervasiveness of digital hygiene on a macro-level. Beyond the control of digital citizens’ information consumption through the disciplinary nature of labeling certain practices immoral, identified as the micro-level, this macro-level instance of digital hygiene illustrates that non-hegemonic platforms with less care for information or content moderation require to adapt or face consequences. Platform capitalist-endorsed digital hygiene and the accompanying rules of living apply pressure on fringe platforms that are not self-sustaining or anonymous (such as imageboards). LiveLeak is not included in the impending hygienic internet environment where there is no space for limited content moderation, graphic content and extremism.
While it might seem like a single case, the termination of LiveLeak represents something bigger than itself. Where there was hierarchical intervention during the Christchurch shootings and the Capitol Raid by ISPs, app providers and hosting services, the termination of LiveLeak can be seen as an occurrence of preemptive self-censorship. It is not enforced by other actors, but rather an internal decision by Hayden Hewitt and other owners of LiveLeak as a response to the growing pressure on platforms with lenient content moderation. It seems to be a conscious decision to turn away from the politicized debate around information freedom, content moderation and the platform’s responsibility to conform to a wider trend of compliance.
Where there was hierarchical intervention during the Christchurch shootings and the Capitol Raid by ISPs, app providers and hosting services, the termination of LiveLeak can be seen as an occurrence of preemptive self-censorship.
With no official statement around the reasoning for LiveLeak’s sudden termination, the argument for preventive self-censorship is just educated speculation. But tracing the trend of sanitizing oneself of immoral digital behavior, this also applies to LiveLeak. From the everything-goes mentality of the shock blog era Ogrish emerged from, to the relative political nature of citizen journalism and its relation to hacktivism on LiveLeak, the transition to ItemFix symbolizes the stronghold digital hygiene has– both on individuals as on platforms.
A normative argument can be extrapolated from this genealogy. It can be analogous to the changing phases of the internet, where information is once again centralized, restricted in its flow and increasingly moderated to maintain control, implicitly increasing the dominant platform’s hegemony.
Together with Ellen Rutten (University of Amsterdam) and colleagues from Italy and Germany I co-wrote the open letter below, signed by Olga Tokarczuk, Judith Butler, Boris Groys, Saskia Sassen, Eva Illouz, Slavoj Zizek and many others: