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September 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

Ana 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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