HEWN, No. 340

All your heroes are problematic. And it's okay to mourn them when they die.

This week’s Columbidae is the extinct Caloenas maculata — the spotted green pigeon a.k.a. the Liverpool pigeon. The bird wasn’t from Liverpool, but that’s where the only known specimen now resides: in the World Museum. (Image credits)

A little bit of trivia about the museum: in 2018, it held its most popular exhibit ever: “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors.” One year later, a privacy watchdog group, Big Brother Watch, issued a report on facial recognition, calling out the museum as one of the growing number of sites in the UK to adopt the technology, after it surveiled the visitors to the exhibit. “In a statement,” Artnet News reported, “the director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, noted that the ‘authoritarian surveillance tool is rarely seen outside of China.’”

But let’s be honest here. Facial surveillance technology is not something “rarely seen outside of China.” It’s popping up in malls and museums and airports and schools everywhere. Surveillance companies do not simply work with and for the Chinese government; they work closely with and for other governments as well. It’s origins aren’t Chinese; they’re American.

Responding to an interview from Davos — ahhhhh, Davos — with Palantir’s CEO, in which he justified his company's relationship with the US government and role in identifying undocumented immigrants, Moira Weigel tweeted that, “I fear tech nationalism is what comes after the Californian ideology, the material basis for it is already there....” And it’s been here for a while. “The Californian Ideology,” as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote back in 1995, “promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.” But the growth of Silicon Valley has never been separate from militarism. Today’s techno-libertarianism — remember, Peter Thiel sits on the board of Facebook and Palantir — is not anti-statist. There is much money to be made from government contracts, from politicians’ ad buys. “Democratization” in tech-speak does not equal “democracy.” It means the spread of a product and a culture. And that culture is authoritarian, not because it’s Chinese or American, but because it has emerged from this computational ethos, one that is built on counting and tracking.

Elsewhere, on surveillance:

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey