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Mocking Sousveillance: Being caught in the deliberate

In our daily navigation of surveillance tracking technologies, it is integral to remember that defying the dictatorial eye is intrinsic to historical struggles.

When children gnaw on dirt
pursing stones under their tongues
parental hands open their mouth cavities from above –
It is all a horror story for the dirt eaters.

The eyes of a parent are usually filled with love, but they are also our first experiences of looking at a towering figure from our low levelled cribs. Author and professor specialising in cyborg consciousness, Donna J Haraway says “To see from below is neither easily learned nor unproblematic, even if ‘we’ ‘naturally’ inhabit the great underground terrain of subjugated knowledges.” By cleverly quoting the collective experience which naturalises the childhood habit of looking above, she wonders if we are used to being looked at constantly by the sensory techniques that track our motions, voices and ideas at all times.

We move back into our minds, to consider what the authorities’ eyes look like to us. How have we adapted to manipulate the blurry, divulged, omnipresent gaze of technological surveillance that overwhelms us? Steve Mann, a Canadian engineer exploring augmented realities, coined ‘sousveillance’, the inverted act of observing an authoritative figure performing the act of surveillance. Sous, in French, means below. Therefore, the term translates to looking at something from below rather than above (Sur).

When Velutha jumped into the river
the buoyancy of his body dispersed
into the mouths of the eels and the seers
and they all jumped on the water surface to find you.  

While reading Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things on a break at work, I found myself making a duck face with a peace sign at the work CCTV over my head. I felt I was seven all over again, but now I knew the exact angles where the CCTV could see my face. A typical sousveillant technology started with wearable or handheld cameras, but the instincts to defy the forces of surveillance trumps it all. I remember the character Velutha all over again and how he rebirthed through the fishes who ate up all the ostracising looks he faced as a dirty, lower-caste lover of the protagonist.

While recording the police, transport officers, and the army in colonies, using our phones is a common sousveillance practice. It is not a blind one. People hide behind the trees, put their phones in a pocket, place it conspicuously behind their bags, and take the fastest route to run when being cut off by an officer. They look back at the camera with a natural, contingent planning that is a technology of its own. The opening of Simone Browne’s Dark matters (2015) mentions how “the seeing eye is white”. And to fight the white, bourgeois eye, the ‘non-seeing’, non-white and non-elite viewer try becoming a little like it.

At workplaces when people want to grab a bite during their work shift, they often squat to the floor level to hide from the customers, bosses and the camera. They calculate the return time of their managers, pick up a fistful of chips, run to the corner of the store with no camera and eat in an unventilated chemical room. They look at the eyes of the cameras (which are deceptively covered) and the authority to avoid the  brunt of managerial confrontation that could follow if they are spied on. 

My managers probably saw me posing for the camera, but I did so out of the sheer childhood urge to deliberately vilify the looming eye. The childlike act of making faces at the camera and the teenage urge to click selfies against concave security mirrors underline the motivated dismissal of people towards authoritative eyes. If they know you know it and find it funny, what will they do?

A friend once used the analogy of inverted microscopes to describe sousveillance, where the light source and condenser are below the stage of the device. Harraway also mentions how primate eyes can be equipped with satellites, sonographies, and prostheses to be able to observe the world from everywhere. In our daily navigation of surveillance tracking technologies, it is integral to remember that defying the dictatorial eye is intrinsic to historical struggles. By observing the placement and behaviours of guards, jailors, electric barricades, the incarcerated and enslaved have dug escape routes to freedom. From Gilboa in Israel to the dreary convict establishments in Western Australia, the history of sousveillance entails more for those scrutinised.