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<eyebeam><blast> Foresighted Is No Longer Forearmed

Foresighted Is No Longer Forearmed

I'm posting the following in hope that it might serve as
counterpoint to Martin Jay's thought-provoking "Astronomical
Hindsight." (I never got around to publishing it, so I'd
be grateful for any comments from the list.)

ABSTRACT: In cyberspace, light does not radiate but travels
in loops. This fact renders obsolete the assumptions of continuity,
contiguity, and horizon that characterize perspectival space. The
architecture of control of the twenty-first century will therefore
not be a centralized Panopticon, but a distributed force of
low-level agents.


"He is seen, but does not see; he is the object of
information, never the subject in communication."  So Michel
Foucault describes the typical inmate in Jeremy Bentham's 1843
design for a maximum-security prison, the Panopticon.
So we might also paraphrase the worst fears expressed by the
critics of cyberspace: that this marvelous telescope designed to let
our eye peer beyond the horizon will just make it easier
to let others keep their eye on us.  But how
far will this comparison take us?  Will the architecture of
control in the twenty-first century simply be an electronic
version of that of the nineteenth century?

Certainly Foucault believed that Bentham's design had far-reaching
effects on the architecture of the last two centuries. Bentham's
plans called for a central guard tower whose windows look out on an
annular building divided into prison cells.  Although impenetrable
walls divide the inmates from each other, each cell has a
window facing back at the tower as well as one on the
opposite wall facing out into the world.  The function of
this window to the outside is not to give inmates a
room with a view, but to backlight them against the
light of day to make them all the more visible to the
inspectors in the tower.  For their part, the inspectors
employ venetian blinds to ensure that inmates cannot tell at
any given moment if they are being watched.  Although Bentham
had in mind the limited application of his design to prison
architecture, Foucault calls the Panopticon "the diagram of a
mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form," and goes on to
describe its influence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
on the architecture of hospitals, workshops, and schools--
in short, "whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity
of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior
must be imposed."

It is tempting to extrapolate Foucault's analysis to the twenty-
first century, where cyberspace will be the terrain upon which many
battles for power will be played out.  After all, wasn't it a
Panoptic impulse that prompted the U.S. government in
the 1950s to try to impose a centralized command structure on
the ARPAnet?  The answer is doubtless yes; but we must realize that
the reason the attempt at centralization failed is that cyberspace
is structurally different from the perspectival space of Bentham's
Panopticon.  What hasn't changed is that some people still want
control over other people, and they have already begun to
think about how to adjust the structure of cyberspace to make
that control possible.

The Panopticon, as its name implies, depended on light as a means of
gathering information.  But the way light illuminates a perspectival
space is different from the way electromagnetic signals--even if
traveling through fiber optic cables--spread knowledge through
network. Perspectival light radiates.  An illuminated object
reflects light outward in all directions from its position.
Conversely, a central eye, by swiveling in different directions, can
monitor incoming light from every quarter. For this reason,
perspectival space is continuous: a guardian of the Panopticon could
do a quick count of the entire prison population simply by panning
his glance 360 degrees across the rows of cells in the peripheric

Cyberspace, however, is built not from bricks and glass but from
computer code.  And no matter how much computer memory and processor
time programmers devote to simulating perspectival
space, even the most advanced forms of virtual reality are
fundamentally composed of multiple, intersecting loops--and often show
it.  A good example of this fundamental discontinuity is
reflected in Jenny Holzer's virtual _World Two_ (1993).
Viewers who don the headset of this virtual world can steer
into the darkened portal of a dwelling, but just as
they pass through they will notice a momentary pause in the
program before they find themselves in an empty room. This
delay is caused not by a bug in the virtual world's
computer code, but by the very structure of the code
itself. To take advantage of the computer's knack for doing
a lot of dumb calculations very quickly, programmers write
procedures that repeat the same simple calculation over and over
in a recursive loop. For complicated applications, programmers nest
these small program loops inside larger loops. When the computer has
to switch between two very large loops, however, even a
sophisticated machine often halts output for a second or two.
To some extent, then, programmers are fighting the natural
tendencies of the computer when they try to smooth over the
seam between two loops in a program. No matter how
well camouflaged for the user, the threshold between two loops
in a program--such as the doorway leading from a
landscape into a house--may require the machine's processor to
perform a prodigious leap across pages of computer code.

Hoping to be seduced by the virtual world they have
paid to experience, most viewers will ignore this bump in
the road of perspective and assume the exterior space of the
landscape is continuous with the interior space of the room.
Holzer, however, doesn't let them swallow the illusion quite
so easily. Say when they entered the portal the sky
was blue and the sand a brilliant yellow.  Once they
steer their way out again, they may find scrubby green
tundra against a coal-gray horizon.  It's not really
that the textures and colors of the landscape completely changed while
they were inside--there was no landscape waiting
outside when they were in the room, just a switch to connect
them to another loop in the program.  And just because
they entered through a certain door is no guarantee that leaving
through that door will return them to the same place.
Holzer's world deliberately exposes a restriction of networked reality
that many of its champions, from Marshall McLuhan to Roland
Barthes, have overlooked: although users may feel that they can
freely maneuver around the landscape, the landscape's apparent
continuity is an elaborate fiction that is constructed by, and
ultimately revocable by, the creator of that space.  Of course, securing
the borders of a space built from loops can be trickier
than securing a continuous territory. If you are a criminal
being hunted down in cyberspace, the lack of continuity may
make it harder to find you; if you've already been
caught, it may make it harder for you to find
your way out of whatever labyrinth your captors have prepared for

Along with continuity, cyberspace does away with our assumptions
about contiguity as well. If an inmate were missing from a given
cell in an ordinary prison, the authorities would interrogate
the next-door neighbors in the same cellblock, figuring they might be in
on a conspiracy.  Precisely to prevent such collaboration,
Bentham designed walls between adjacent cells so that contiguous
prisoners couldn't see each other.  But in cyberspace, information's
tendency to suffuse the local neighborhood is replaced
by a tendency for information to shoot off in one
or more discrete vectors.  Contiguity used to be geographic, and
a message was associated most strongly with its origin:
"This letter came from Yokohama, which is near
Tokyo." If there is any contiguity in cyberspace, however,
it is linear, and a message is associated most
strongly with its pathway. To get a sense of the
ever-widening network of power spanned by these pathways,
take a close look at one of those e-mail
"good luck" charms that are the cyber equivalent of
the old-fashioned chain-mail letter.  The return
-path header of the document records the vector that brought
that e-mail to your mailbox. That is,

"<takayama@yok.edu.jp>, received from esusda.gov by well.sf.ca.us,
received from gateway.stanley.com by...."

means the message traveled from a university in
Yokohama to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington to a
pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia to a private mailbox in San
Francisco.  Rather unintentionally, e-mail chain letters act like
information moles, tunneling through the Internet to reveal a hidden
power network of social and business contacts. Fortunately, an
expanding web of contacts can create new forms of access just
as it restricts others. Physical evidence can be buried--
"out of sight, out of mind"--but electronic information, once let
loose in a world monitored by TV, radio, and the Internet, can
spread across the globe too fast for it to be "covered up." In
cyberspace, under the right conditions, everyone can hear you

The third axiom of perspective the network forces us to jettison is
the horizon.  The horizon was where enemies came from, so you built
lookout towers to see barbarian invaders before they got to you.
The horizon was also where you escaped to, so the guardians of
the Panopticon controlled the sight lines through which escaped
inmates would try to flee.  Now the backlit horizon of the
Panopticon has been replaced with a backlit screen. The problem is
not the horizon line itself, for in a network there
is still information that is unknown (and hence "infinitely
far away"). The problem, rather, is the intervening
terrain a horizon implies. For perspective assumes that we can
see something coming before it gets to us, that visual
contact precedes tactile contact. Thanks to the speed and constancy
of electronic transmission, in a network this is no longer
true: messages can pop up on the screen without warning. (No one
would bother to send a special e-mail just to alert the recipient
that she or he was about to get e-mail!) With the advent
of force-feedback clothing, even a handshake or caress
can arrive at the speed of light--where this "light,"
of course, is not the light of the sun illuminating
the open plain, but electromagnetic pulses sent through
fiber optics to power datagloves and fill videoscreens.

What will become of privacy if both intimacy and violence can
materialize without warning? Paul Virilio has noted that in previous
eras military control hinged on keeping the target always in sight.
Bentham designed the Panopticon so that administrators would control the
horizon, and hence all the vanishing points through which oppressed
subjects could escape. Instead of surveying

the horizon, however, overlords of the network survey the information
trails left by users navigating through data. Their means of control
does not
depend on visual contact: reconnaissance is replaced by a global
Search, strikes by Search and Destroy, invasion by Search
and Replace, colonization by Search and Replicate. (These
new tactics can be just as prone to "collateral damage": witness the
breast-cancer survivor chat groups deleted by America On Line
administrators, who indiscriminately eradicated every conversation
that included the word "breast.")  Though the overlords' planning
may be centralized, their means may be distributed: the best
way to infiltrate a network may be to unleash a semi
-autonomous army of algorithmic agents. As the offense abandons
the Panopticon, so the defense must abandon the medieval tower.
Now that the horizon has been replaced by the screen, it has become
necessary to use this screen to intercede
between users and the outside world. A succession of windows
("now screening for junk mail," "now screening for
viruses") delays the appearance of an incoming transmission, isolating
users from overexposure and protecting them from

Of course, as the defense builds firewalls and gateways to
screen out potential infections, the offense can take advantage of
ever more insidious forms of intervention: trojan horses, viruses,
and unauthorized scans.  (The Microsoft Network's request to
scan each new subscriber's hard drive came as a surprise to
many--though other online services had performed the feat earlier
without asking the subscriber's permission.)  In Panoptic space, the
higher the lookout tower, the better the control of information.
In cyberspace, however, control is maintained not at a high level
but at a low one: back doors into Windows programs can be opened by
those who know DOS, and back doors into DOS can be opened by those
who know machine language.  The lowest level of computer code
is the most powerful.  So perhaps the best defense is
to go underground, tunneling from one domain name and e-mail
address to another, screening sensitive communications with
deep encryption.

Despite this transition from enlightenment to connectedness, from
lookout towers to look-in screens, there is one aspect of the
Panopticon that will survive the jump to the twenty-first century:
what Foucault calls the "dissymmetry" of power.  As in the
Panopticon, the disempowered on the Internet are still "the object
of information, never a subject in communication."  In a footnote
to his discussion of Bentham's prototype, Foucault mentions that
Bentham's first plan for the Panopticon had included an acoustic
surveillance system with pipes leading from the cells to the central
tower.  The problem was that the prisoners could also hear what the
inspectors were doing.  (In a different but curiously parallel
vein, Marshall McLuhan claimed that electronic networks are based on
an acoustic world-view, and therefore more free than
a visual one.)  It is tempting to see in Bentham's
acoustic network a prototype for today's Internet, and to conclude
from his rejection of the idea that free access to information
is automatically empowering. But the mere ability to receive
information does not guarantee that you can use it to better your
situation or other people's; cable TV is proof of that.
Empowerment, whether physical or electronic, isn't just a
matter of catching a glimpse of an otherwise unattainable commodity,
but of taking it home ("downloading"), modifying it,
and passing it on ("uploading").  Only by encouraging a
cyberspace that allows reciprocal exchange on as many levels as
possible can we escape the network equivalent of the Panopticon.

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