week 1: Philip Agre's "Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy"

Philip Agre’s piece “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy” was published in 1994. The more reading and research I do into the history of computation the more apparent it becomes to me that computers were never actually about liberation or democracy or any of the ethos that technologists still tout today. In this piece Philip theorizes two modes of privacy which inform so much of how computation and society continue to affect each other.

The first is the surveillance model. This is the more familiar one although I would say that the capture model, discussed below, has prevailed in terms of familiarity. The surveillance model uses the metaphor of “big brother” and the panopticon. It’s main mode is to be a central entity which irregardless of what or who it is watching it is all-seeing and always present. This presence produces fear to the point of oppression.

The second model of privacy that Agre writes about is the capture model. While we do in fact live in a panoptic society due to the rise of ubiquitous computing and maybe especially due to imaging technology many of us are active participants in the capture model throughout our day to day activities. We carry tracking devices that double as our phones and our computers in our pockets and we willingly check in, scan, and purchase things with them. We are so embedded in the loop of giving up personal and geolocation data in exchange for fast and tailored information it is hard to even see where the control actually exists and this I think is where concern should be pointed.

As Agre points out, a “grammar of actions” are continuously being created and shaped by our interactions with ubiquitous computing and we are therefore submissively building a decentralized and all-knowing entity that is larger than us or even the people who are indirectly or directly programming the technologies that make it what it is. Regardless of how it’s defined or where it’s power lies or what it looks like it has already begun to shape the interactions we think we are in control of before we even decide to interact at all. The fear here is not exclusively that we are being watched but that we are also giving up individual and communal power to decide how and when to act.

Something else I took away from the reading was Agre’s point about the common computing word “capture”. He highlights the fact that discourse around computation rarely deconstructs this word which like many words in computational discourse is a metaphor. The word capture infers to escape from and inherently involves a power dynamic that can also be read as violent. This reminds me of  Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “On software, or the persistence of visual knowledge” in which she describes the built in power dynamic of the programmer always commanding computer. If computation began with capturing and commanding where do we expect it go from here?