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Considering the UK Context

Recently, I’ve had a steady stream of people visiting me in London.  Aside from the obvious benefit of reuniting with friends, there are a couple of other personal advantages to their visits: first, they bring me products that I can’t easily get in London (Lucky Charms from the States, stroopwafels from the Netherlands, and the list goes on). Secondly—and likely more importantly—I get the chance to see London from a refreshingly different perspective. Spending time with people who haven’t yet been normalized to the city alerts me to things that I’ve ignored, forgotten, or come to regard as banal.

Friends in town means an excuse to see the more touristy side of London, like Westminster Abbey. Photo courtesy of Schuyler Softy.

Last week, as I was walking in the city with a couple of visiting friends,  one of them lightheartedly pointed out a CCTV camera and jokingly asked it if was a part of the tracking that’s taking place in my project. As a reminder, my project involves gathering the geolocation and browser history data of Londoners in order to create visual maps of relationships. It has absolutely nothing to do with surveillance cameras, but his comment stuck with me nonetheless. Though he was only kidding, he still was drawing a clear parallel between the methodology of my work and the infrastructure of the city in which my work is situated.

To explain a bit better: Britain has a bit of a history when it comes to tracking, surveillance, and data. In 2013, a CCTV survey concluded that there was one camera for every eleven people in the state, and I’d wager that number is only rising. London in particular has one of the highest number of surveillance cameras of any city in the world. There are approximately 7000 public CCTV cameras in the city alone (compare that with Paris’s 326 equivalent cameras!).

These cameras aren’t hidden, and they’re certainly not a secret. They’re publicly visible in the streets, tube, and generally all over the city. For instance, every double-decker bus contains at least one sign that politely notes that cameras are installed on the bus “for comfort and peace of mind during your journey.”

The persistent presence of these cameras, among other things, have contributed to critics labeling the UK as something akin to a surveillance state.  I’ve previously steered clear of directly addressing such issues. This has been purely for the sake of simplicity: it’s obviously easier for me to sidestep debates around whether and how the government is fostering a culture of surveillance or censorship. But the fact of the matter is that it’s impossible for me to ignore the fact these same cultures form the backdrop of the project that I’m doing this year. “Surveillance” refers to close observation, or the careful monitoring of behaviors and activities. The word typically carries negative connotations, in large part because it’s often enacted in surreptitious actions that spring from distrustful aims (at least from the point of view of the surveilled). Given that my project involves participants having various pieces of their digital data tracked for the period of a month, it could be argued that my project fits, albeit jaggedly, into the UK’s wider narrative and trend of data collection.

An example of one of the signs present in most London buses.
An example of one of the signs present in most London buses.

Having said that, I’d wager that most would laugh at the idea of my project being a surveillatory piece. My project only involves participants who have willingly opted in and intentionally aims to make the data collection process as positive as possible for the participants. I’m an artist and researcher, not a member of the NSA or the British equivalent, the GCHQ, and it’s safe to say that my work doesn’t tick the boxes on any understandings of what surveillance is.

But in some ways, that fact is irrelevant to the realization that my friend prompted. Everything we do functions within a larger context, and my project is no exception to that. I’m beginning to wonder how it changes my orientation to the project when I consider reactions to it as a direct result and response to the current climate around data collection. This is extra relevant  right now, as I’m approaching a part of my project where it’s increasingly important to be able to articulate the ways in which my project is part of a larger conversation.

So one of my tasks for the next couple of weeks is to consider what role the conceptual and computational landscape of London plays in external considerations of my project. With that in mind, I’d welcome any critical opinions that are related to that task. As always, feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me a message on Twitter at @thistimeitsmimi. You can also find me at my personal website or at the project site.