17, 2002 | The invitation for DECONference:
DECONstructing DECONtamination (Toronto 29.08.2002) read: "Decontamination
prior to entry. Complimentary attire will be provided. Bring no
valuables." At 7PM around 60 conference attendees congregated
outside a building in downtown Toronto and began submitting themselves
to what would become a long line of bureaucratic procedures. The
first one was familiar and benign: a line up. It took more than
an hour for all of us to be registered, and sign a two page document
waiving all our rights while attending the event.
Each of us was then asked to take off the shoes, put them in a
clear plastic bag and wear a "Evidence" tag which indicated
the degree to which we were contaminated in four possible states:
Minor, Delayed (can follow simple commands), Immediate (life threatening
injury) and Morgue.
With the plastic bag in our hand, the tag dangling around the neck
and no shoes we were asked to wait in a rather hot and stuffy room
(the heat probably wasn't programmed by the organizers but the lack
of ventilation certainly added flavour to the unfolding drama).
Inside this completely white room Arthur Kroker and Derrick de Kerckhove
introduced the event with two short speeches. Kroker emphasized
the increasing power of institutional and global surveillance and
control practices. We live in a world in which some individuals
are increasingly willing to accept being subject to all sorts of
invasive practices in the hope that this protects them from unfocused
security fears, while others are forced to accept these same rules
if they have any hopes of making it to the world of the first. Security
paranoia and the practices of economic exclusion go hand in hand
and leave little space for personal choices.
De Kerckhove focused on the another aspect of contamination/decontamination
procedures. He spoke of decontamination as a cathartic process in
which individuals are not mere spectators but actors. Like in a
Greek tragedy, adversity held the promise of uniting us as we strived
to achieve a common goal. The event had already started and we were
all actively participating in it. (In fact, the speed in which the
first group of people volunteered to go first indicated that people
were very keen to collaborate).
After everyone was registered and the introductory speeches were
over, decontamination officers in yellow protective overalls led
the first group of twelve contaminated individuals into a room containing
a table with towels, surveillance cameras, a glass ceiling, and
a talking computer that endlessly repeated the following message
in the most soothing voice: "You will feel better when stripping."
This is exactly what the officers told us to do and after a moment
of awkwardness it is what we did: take off all our clothes and accessories,
put them into the plastic and hand everything over to yet another
officer for storage.
Naked, we waited, lining up against the wall, until everyone had
completed this step. We were then led to the shower room, where
the real decontamination was about to start. The shower facility
was remote controlled through motion detectors, no human presence
needed. The actual shower was short and painless - the water was
pleasantly warm. Afterwards each attendee was handed a (paper) towel
and was asked to stand in front a scanner that took a digital impression
of his/her body and displayed it on the computer with an indication
of the size of the attire he/she should be given: a white protective
plastic coverall with the brand name TYVEX printed in the chest.
Like in any other institutional procedure there were some of us
who managed to smuggle in the most diverse objects: cigarettes,
watches, underwear, etc. This was done through a process of begging
and delicate reasoning with the guards, and gave a sense of reality
to the drama we were now involved in. Women, on average, were much
more inventive when it came to tweaking the procedure to their own
needs, the men went through more docilely.
Dressed in nothing but white plastic overalls, we were led upstairs
into a balcony to meet our fellow decontaminees: a group of white,
barefooted aliens who, contrary to what would be expected seemed
comfortable and happy. Perhaps we were all just happy that we had
made it through.
From the roof, looking down on us, came two more speeches, by Steve
Mann and Steve Kurtz, dressed in the yellow suits marking them as
"officials." Mann, the main organizer of the event, discussed
our experience in (de)cyborgization terms. Our technologies - clothes,
cell phones, watches - are extensions of the body that complement
us, we are all cyborgs now. The State fears us, our cyborg bodies,
forcing us to undergo cleansing. With this cleansing we are returned
to a natural, pristine state, that leaves us powerless. Quoting
Foucault - the Government loves the plague - Mann argued security
scares exacerbate (and make visible) the authoritarian tendencies
of all governments.
Steve Kurtz, who seemed rather bewildered by the whole spectacle,
spoke down on us about forced decontamination and holding facilities-
which are currently being set up in some US air force bases for
up to 500'000 people - as being the hard end of authoritarianism
and 'cleansing'. He warned us against a more dangerous side, the
soft end of the same logic, that comes disguised in the vocabulary
of consumerism and convenience.
Afterwards, by now it was about 10PM, we were led into yet another
room where, finally, something to eat and drink was provided. The
evening was scheduled to end with one-on-one philosophical discussions
on the docility with which our society is falling prey to "for
our own good" surveillance measures. But everyone was simply
too elated and, relieved to have reached the end the cathartic process,
immediately proceeded to drink copious amounts of wine. Standing
around in our white bunny-suits, the atmosphere shifted definitely
from that of a penal colony to one of a pajama party.
As a site for social and political experimentation with individual
boundaries DECONference was extremely successful. It pushed us to
the limit and proved just how flexible and acceptant the decontamination
contagium we can be. In true Steve Mann style it was technologically
advanced and fully functional, giving the dramatic performance a
sense of reality. However, there were also some conceptual ambiguities
giving it room for improvement.
While for most of us the experience of full decontamination is
a once in a lifetime experience, soft-surveillance, the practice
of exclusion and categorization under a logic of consumption, is
a pervasive and effective instrument in the surveillance/security
landscape. For instance, in North America having a credit card is
one of the best sources of institutional and commercial recognition.
A credit card is the de facto material essence of a human existence.
As a pre-requisite to this recognition, rights must be signed off,
the right of disclosure given to someone else. This strategy is
systematically used in all sorts of interactions, both with commercial
and institutional entities. The ensuing power inequalities become
an intrinsic part of the relationship and of the larger system.
DECONference organizer's missed a good opportunity to flesh out
this combined use of hard-surveillance procedures and soft-surveillance
strategies in the struggle for 'security' and control. This all
the more unfortunate because both mechanisms were readily available
and in place at DECONference. To enter the premises all attendees
were asked to release personal information and sign a rights-waiver.
Those who refused to do it were denied entry, excluded from participation.
But these were the minority, most of us did signed both without
thinking twice, and probably still have no idea what we signed in
to or how our personal information will be treated. The rights-waiver
was written in legalese and included clauses ranging from intellectual
property to reverse engineering, limitations of liability and accountability.
(In fact, as I read through it now, I realize that the writing of
this essay maybe against the general terms of the 'agreement'. I'll
find out soon if this is the
I would have liked to see these issues better explored throughout
the event: How are different surveillance strategies being used
to create docile, indexed citizens and consumers? How are we dependent
on them to become fully recognized individuals? And finally, What
strategies, if any, are at our disposal to fight back?
Fighting back, finding counter surveillance measures was not part
of the event's design. Some of us did make it part of our personal
agenda and tried to subvert the system by smuggling illegal objects
in. But we were moved by individualistic and egocentric reasons,
in my case smoking a cigarette. In fact, this was my greatest disappointment
with the event: DECONference exposed problems but offered no solutions.
Is there any space left to resist the systematic implementation
of surveillance systems? A DECONtamination CONtainment event should
be the next step in the agenda.
The author thanks the comments by Felix Stalder
Viseu is a researcher currently working at the University
of Toronto on her Ph.D. dissertation entitled, "Socio-technical
worlds: The visions and realities of bodynets", which focuses
on the development and implementation of wearable computers and
the emerging sociotechnical worlds that sustain it. Her research
interests include questions of privacy, social dimensions of technology,
and the mutual adaptation processes between individuals and technology.
Ana is the director of the 'Privacy Lecture Series' in Toronto,
which serves as a forum to foment awareness and discuss different
facets of privacy. Ana holds a Master's Degree in Interactive
Communication from the Universitat AutÚnoma de Barcelona, Spain.
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