An interview with Dr. Steve Mann, lead convener of the Envisioning Equiveillance Working Group.
McLuhan Centre: What sparked the idea for this working group? What brought you to the McLuhan Centre (rather than Engineering, or other UofT research institutes)?
Steve Mann: In 1998 (22 years ago), I began a collaboration with what was once called the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology on the technical, social, political, and cultural aspects of pandemic preparedness, quasi-mandatory vaccination, mass quarantine, and mass decontamination:
“DECONference sponsored jointly by the DECONism Gallery in Toronto and the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, was conceived as a probe into society, and to understand the culture and technology of mass decontamination.”
-- Steve Mann, James Fung, Mark Federman and Gianluca Baccanico. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), August 2002.
Starting in 1999, we organized a series of inverse-conferences we called “DECONferences”. DECONference 2001 was an exhibit at a downtown gallery outlining the loss of freedom that might follow a pandemic. The following year’s DECONference included the construction of an actual pandemic preparedness facility where attendees were stripped, decontaminated, and subject to a disease scanning procedure as a requirement for attending the event in mandatory PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). The year after that we also introduced mandatory N95 masks.
What we were exploring at the time was the extent of the basic rights and civil liberties people were prepared to relinquish in the event of a contamination, contagion, or disease outbreak, such as a severe acute respiratory syndrome.¹
MC: Can you explain the meaning of "Equiveillance"?
SM: Equiveillance is the equilibrium between surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight). In a totalitarian regime of hypocrisy there is an imbalance with more surveillance (oversight) where sometimes sousveillance (undersight) is prohibited or discouraged. Many years ago at a McDonalds in Paris, I was physically assaulted for wearing a computerized seeing aid. My daughter Stephanie, 7 years old at the time, asked me in response: "Daddy, why do cars and buildings ALWAYS have the right to wear cameras, but people sometimes don't?" Restaurants used to discriminate against cyborgs. Some places even forbade cellphones in their restaurants or stores.
But times have changed—now they discriminate against non-cyborgs. Recently I was with a group of people past midnight and we were hungry. At that time of night only drive-through portion of restaurants were open. They refused to serve pedestrians, so we tried to build a car out of cardboard and asked them how car-like we needed to be before they would serve us. Nowadays many restaurants are takeout only and won’t give you food unless you use food delivery/pickup apps, so in a sense you are required to be a cyborg (i.e. by wearing a computer in your pocket, in the form of a smartphone) and to agree to the Terms and Conditions of an app before you can obtain food. Equiveillance examines these boundaries between individual rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, and those of governments and business establishments.
MC: The composition of your working group is very interdisciplinary—you have researchers spanning Engineering, Information Studies, Medicine, Psychiatry and Technoscience. Can you talk a bit about how you all plan to collaborate? And the significance of approaching this subject from this interdisciplinary lens?
SM: People have asked us if we’re interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, or metadisciplinary. My answer has always been that we don’t care what the prefix (inter, trans, cross, multi, meta) is, but that we’re interpassionary, multipassionary, or the like; passion is a better master than discipline (to paraphrase Einstein’s “Love is a better master than duty”). This is the ethos that drives us. We’re more of a jazz-style collaboration (experimenting and tinkering) rather than a classical approach (planning and Gantt charts).
MC: Why is it important to be studying your topic in the current moment? What connections can you make to the COVID-19 pandemic?
SM: About 20 years ago, we predicted a lot of what we see today. If Michel Foucault were alive today he might say “Authority loves the pandemic”. We see ideas like mandatory vaccine passports and disease surveillance everywhere. What we need is also some disease sousveillance, making equiveillance more important now than ever. We also produced a number of art pieces in response to this that speak to social distancing and surveillance. A semi-permanent art installation, “The Social Distancer”, exists now at 330 Dundas Street West, directly across the street from AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario).
Above: The Social Distancer, on display at the MannLab (330 Dundas Street West). The installation is a social distancing apparatus and surveillance tool made to understand the culture and technology of decontamination, quarantine, and Covidized surveillance. Those who come too close are automatically photographed and logged in a database of "violators". Photo courtesy Steve Mann.
MC: Can you tell us about the events that you are planning for the year?
SM: We’re planning a virtual workshop on Surveillance, Sousveillance, and Privacy—which together is what we call “Priveillance” (the interplay between privacy and the veillances). We’re also planning a number of publications and two works: “Witnessential network” and “Culture and Technology of equi-veillance”.
"About 20 years ago, we predicted a lot of what we see today. If Michel Foucault were alive today he might say 'Authority loves the pandemic'."
MC: Anything else that you’d like people to know about your group?
SM: Yes—that a new threat has recently emerged that affects our mental health and well-being. In 2011, I brought together stakeholders from across Ontario to address the rights and responsibilities regarding access to clean water, to recognize Ontario’s place as “water capital of the world”, and to begin a sousveillance of the Great Lakes watershed. Some of us swim in Lake Ontario everyday, year round. The rush of cold water has great health benefits. Toronto’s cleanest beach in terms of water quality is located at Ontario Place, on the West island. Some of us have been going there nearly every day to conduct water sousveillance (underwater wearable computing and scientific “outstruments”).
[Recently] a group of us were on our way to swim at Ontario Place, when we were stopped by security guards telling us that the grounds were private property and that we were not permitted to swim there. We were recording them, but they were trying to stop us. We see here a perfect example of the “we’re recording you but you can’t record us” hypocrisy on what should be public space. Join us at SwimOP (Swim at Ontario Place), an advocacy group for the basic human right and responsibility to access clean water. With all the gyms, pools, and recreation centres closed, we need now, more than ever, public access and public space.
¹ See also “Public safety and security system”, Canadian Patent 2303611 and “Decontamination, Surveillance and Ready Made Martial Law in the Anthrax Age”, by Steve Mann, Marc Böhlen, and Sara Diamond, paper 1716, http://wearcam.org/isea02/
Steve Mann [Electrical & Computer Engineering, UTSG]
Rhonda McEwen [ICCIT, Faculty of Information]
David Naylor [Faculty of Medicine]
John Griffiths [Psychiatry, CAMH]
Beth Coleman [ICCIT, Faculty of Information]
Kristen Bos [Indigenous Science & Technology Studies, UTM; Co-Director, Technoscience Research Unit]
Amir Adnan Ali [Faculty of Engineering]