The Evolution of Surveillance, Part 2: Red Queens & Evil Eyes

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Continued from “Part 1: Burgess Shale to Google Glass”

 “The man discusses a dream he’s had in which his Manhattan neighborhood has been reduced to a series of canals, and he’s been given a kind of flotation device armed with Jet Skis that can skim the top of the water while everyone around him drowns.”
– Gary Shteyngart, “Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer”

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
– Red Queen, Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass

With the evolution of the eye came predation, and with predation came herd behaviors. The collective is an adaptive response that confounds a hunter in several ways: beyond the simple benefit to animals moving in the center of the herd (or flock, or troupe, or school) and thus behind a protective wall of flesh, great numbers of creatures moving as a single unit disrupt predator perception (think a swirling mass of fish to sharks trying to isolate an individual herring or sardine; think an ocean of stripes as a thousand zebras pass the hiding lions).  Another great advantage comes from multiplying eyes, combining attention, noticing from different places.  The herd, tied together in exquisite sensitivity to each member’s social cues, agitation amplifying through the group by resonance, out-thinks – on average – the tactics of a lone assailant and becomes the new complex environment that compels team hunting behavior by a more sophisticated predator.  (Schooling may confuse a shark, but whales with more intricate social brains can see the school as an individual entity and work together to corral it in a tube of bubbles – the school’s own dizzying perceptual hack used against it in what amounts to the behavioral form of destructive interference, or a denial-of-service-attack.)

So began an evolutionary arms race that modern biologists describe with the Red Queen Hypothesis, named for the way that teeth and armor, poisons and immunities, continue to leapfrog each other on a treadmill as generations come and go.  Police call it “escalation.”  The logic is simple: over numberless generations, offensive and defensive strategies sharpen each other, drawing both into remarkable intricacy and precisely interlocking interdependence.  

And so it was with perception: in a geological instant, two distinct, reliable strategies emerged.  Prey cognition is ambient, receptive, omni-directional.  It evolves as a reaction to the complimentary focused, goal-oriented, stereoscopic cognition of predators – a mind that seeks to find, pattern detection to specific end; and a mind that grew as a response and excels in response, an expert in noticing a difference.  Like Yin and Yang, the two contain one another, create one another – a half-billion years of convoluted selfhood as countless generations re-imagine variations on the theme of hide-and-seek.  Although, as in chess, the Yang pursuer, White, moves first, so many plays flicker by in deep time that myth and history, reiteration and recursion, become one seamless gesture, Ouroboros, Gaia.  

Due to their respective natures as aggressor and evader (and this is of course a gross oversimplification, since even cows engage in a slow arms race with grass, and hyenas have to be on guard for lions), predator and prey either focus their attention on “the business end” – forward-facing, pointed, linear – or on the space, perturbances, peripheral awareness, circular and diffuse.

Human beings are unusual (although far from unique) in our compound nervous systems, benefiting from our multilayered brains that record the ancient shift in niche from forest-dwelling fruit eaters to savannah pack hunters.  The kinship we experience with whales and dolphins comes from our similar twist in origin stories: before their aquatic stint as clever social carnivores, Cetaceans were more like deer or horses.  Whether or not those ancient Artiodactyls hunted before they took to water, their move to a new environment required an expansion of the senses – a new growth in intelligence, self, and society, combining the chased and chasing minds.

These are basic, archetypal modes, deep structure in the associative embodied metaphorical basis of thought.  The linear march of progress, the circular endless now of myth; the angular agendas of masculinity and the curvaceous feeling-being of the feminine, symbolized by sword and chalice, tower and moat; the figure- and individual-focused Occidental seeing, and the ground- and context-Way of the Orient.  Marshall McLuhan tied this basic binary distinction to the radical shift from the embedded self of oral cultures to the distanced self of print – the move from the sound of storytellers round a fire to the image of a lone scholar in his study.  It is a change reflecting our transition from the huddled tribe attuned to the living acoustic space to “the ivory tower,” the myth of self-authoring agency, the dissociation of academic magisterial and countless lonely suburbs transfixed by their TVs. 

“For the basilisk is produced and grows from…the menstrual blood. So, too, from the blood of the semen; if it be placed in a glass receptacle and allowed to putrefy in horse dung, from that putrefaction a basilisk is produced.  But who would be so bold and daring as to wish to produce it, even to take it and at once kill it, unless he had first clothed and protected himself with mirrors?”
– Paracelsus The Great

Mesmerism may be a young science, but the hypnotic stare of a lion or cobra goes back millions of years.  The charismatic power of gurus, rock stars, and sociopaths lies largely in the “charm” transmitted through eye contact, a power etymologically connected to “caris,” the ubiquitous suffix of the prehistoric crab-things preserved in the Burgess Shale.  To grab you.  “She stopped me in my tracks.”  “A deer in the headlights.”  The shock of a mirror you didn’t expect…

Self-discovery takes some getting used to.  The invention of the mirror caused a wave of superstition, a body of folklore about evil doppelgangers through the looking glass, vampires without a reflection, the future scryed in mirror pools.  Even earlier, Narcissus drowned in his own reflection.  To see and thus to know thyself – to face one’s self at least in surface detail, in a surface – is awkward at first, too real.  The disillusionment of instant, honest feedback, light scattered back to brighten space imagination’s darkness filled.  The mirror’s rude awakening took time to level out, to be mundane, only for its sharp ephemera to be rendered permanent in silver plate daguerreotypes with the invention of photography.  It’s little wonder the premodern mind rejected cameras as stealers of the soul.

Mediterranean cultures hang the “evil eye” outside their homes to scare away spirits for the same reason that Indian loggers wear rear-facing masks to ward off tiger attacks.  False eyespots abound in the Animal Kingdom.  You don’t have to be bird-brained to avoid a fake owl; person-shaped cardboard cutouts in grocery stores discourage shoplifting.  As social creatures we may love the attention, but nobody likes being watched.

And I still cannot help but wave at the grainy simulacrum of myself on the security CCTV when entering the department store.  By contrast, there is something strangely hollow about watching video I have recorded through Glass – uncanny, not the invisible camera of professional cinema, but intimate, personal, and still somehow anonymous – a Being John Malkovich view of my own hands, the jiggle of my own steps, my self too close to see.  As McLuhan was fond of saying, “The sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment,” and now in an age of digital surveillance my own point of view becomes an artifact in the transparent ground of a featureless observer, both everyone and no one.  In the conservation of momentum, technological evolution into quicker and subtler forms is also the involution of imagination into matter, the externalization and descent of our inner imaginal potentials.  By watching my own Glass first-person video, I induce an out-of-self experience, and as digital voyeur of my self displaced in time prepare the Witness – the Great Self beyond egoic mind – to find itself without the snazzy training wheels. 

Not simply because of the ways in which it alters my consciousness, donning the Glass makes me an initiate.  There is a very real risk of death here, by cancer, and of being compromised by making myself transparent to an ineffable hidden intelligence.  But more:  the easier I can flow in the empyrean collective, the harder it becomes with normal social interactions.  Like Clive Thompson noticed with his own Glass self-experiments, “From my perspective, I was wearing a computer, a tool that gave me the constant, easy ability to access information quickly. To everyone else, I was just a guy with a camera on his head.”  

Even though I can’t use Glass to see through clothes, or even recognize a person’s face, strangers fill in the blanks with sci-fi suspicion and regard me as a spy.  I had a dream shortly after getting it I was a journalist in love with the leader of The Resistance, and though she loved me too it was only with great effort we could meet, as I posed a threat to her entire operation.  I finally interviewed her in the back of an unmarked van, Glass off.  (…When did I start dreaming I was wearing them?)

There is a stigma associated with the fear of what we cannot understand, the obscene novelty of it, that sets me as apart from everyone else in, say, the mall as a mage or shaman would be in some pre-modern village.  As I pass the queue of people waiting for an iPhone 5S outside the Apple Store, a man glares at me and raises his voice: “Don’t record me, bro!” – as if he’s not, that very moment, not only in a shopping mall bristling with security cameras, butwaiting in line to fork over $800 so he can have the new TouchID system scan his fingerprints with transhuman precision.    

But that’s the cognitive dissonance I’m growing used to as a Glass Explorer:  by wearing this in public I am bringing awkward issues into brutal brilliance, where they can’t be slipped into a pocket and avoided.  When it comes to the perverted privacy of social spaces, Glass makes no intrusions that smart phones haven’t made for a decade plus already; paradoxically, it makes the mess explicit and provides a weird inverted dignity by being rudely obvious.  I get the feeling people aren’t so mad at me for my apparent complicity in Google’s New Digital Age as they are offended I insist on bringing the topic up in polite conversation, forcing an unpleasant appraisal of how far we have already come without reflecting on it.  If I’m a “Glasshole” it’s not because I violate their privacy – that ship has sailed – but because it’s one thing to know and another thing to feel, and no amount of Edward Snowden in the evening news is as visceral as confronting cameras at eye level. 

White, black, or grey (“cotton,” “charcoal,” or “shale”), wizards hold doors open to a mystery unwelcome in the pews, and their appearance in town square is symptom of unwelcome news.  Since everyone has skeletons, telling them our hiding flesh is turning clear…it’s something that no body wants to hear.

But it’s a conversation we must have.  Because – just as “a fact requires a theory the way a flame requires an atmosphere” – where there are wizards, here be dragons…

To be continued…

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Paleontologist turned performance philosopher, Michael Garfield‘s ecodelic explorations map the evolutionary landscape and our place in it through improvised acoustic guitar electronica, live painting, and techgnostic evangelism for planetary culture.  The message in whatever medium: imagination is our greatest natural resource, and everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice.  Follow him on twitter @michaelgarfield.

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