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Surveillance in Latin America

March 7, 2009

For the last three days, I’ve been at the Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America symposium, organised by Rodrigo Firmino at PUCPR (with help from Fernanda Bruno, Marta Kanashiro, Nelson Arteaga Botello and myself). The conference was the first to be held on surveillance in Brazil and will be the start of a new network of surveillance researchers in Brazil and more widely across Latin America.

All of the presenters had something interesting to say and I learned a lot from the event, however it is worth noting some individual presentations and sessions that were really insightful. There were great keynotes from David Lyon, Luiz Antonio Machado da Silva and Nelson. Two sessions stood out for me: one on Rhetorics of Crime and Media which had an exceptional central presentation by Paola Barreta Leblanc, a film-maker and currently a student of Fernanda Bruno’s. Her paper (and films) on the way in which we impose narrative onto CCTV images argued cogently that we see CCTV with a (Hollywood) cinema-trained eye and consequently overestimate (or over-interpret) what we are seeing. The other papers in the session were also good, in particular Elena Camargo Shizuno on Brazilian police journal of the 1920s and how they trained the vision of middle and upper-class Brazilians of the time through a combination of reportage, fiction, and advocacy. The session as a whole left me with many new questions and directions of thought.

The other really sparky session was on the last day and was on the Internet and Surveillance. The first paper was from was Marcelo de Luz Batalha on police repression of community and activist networks at the State University of Campinas, which linked nicely into concerns I have been following here on the surveillance of activist networks in the UK. Then there was Hille Koskela’s theoretically sophisticated and searching paper on the Texas-Mexico border webcam system (that I noted back in January) which explored the ways in which this participatory surveillance system both succeeded and failed in inculcating an attitude of patriotic anti-outsider watchfulness and responsibilization of citizens. Finally there was an interesting if not entirely successful film from Renata Marquez and Washington Cancado which used Charles and Ray Eames’ famous Powers of Ten, one of my favourite bits of pop-science ever, as an inspiration for an exploration of the uneven gaze of Google. They provoked some very interesting thoughts on the ‘myopia’ of the new ‘god-like’ view we are afforded through interactive global mapping systems. I think their approach could be very fruitful but it is still missing some key elements – having talked to them, I am convinced they will turn this into something really excellent. I have asked them and Paula to submit their work to Surveillance & Society’s special on Performance, New Media and Surveillance, because I think both are exactly the kind of explorations we are looking for. If Fernanda Bruno’s excellent paper on participatory crime-mapping has been part of this session, it would have been perfect! See Fernanda’s thoughts on the seminar over at her blog – she was also Twittering throughout the event but I’m afraid I just can’t get on with Twitter!

Other memorable papers included Danilo Doneda’s on the new Brazilian ID system, which sparked our post-conference considerations on where to go with this new network, which will probably be a project on Identification, Citizenship and Surveillance in Latin America. Nelson Arteaga Botello has already generously agreed to host the next symposium on this theme in Mexico City next March! Fernando Rogerio Jardim gave a passionate paper on the the SINIAV vehicle tracking pilot in Sao Paulo and I was most impressed with the careful Gavin Smith-style CCTV control-room ethnography by one of Rodrigo Firmino’s students, Elisa Trevisan, and Marta Kanashiro and Andre Lemos both gave insightful presentations too – I’ve already come to expect both care and insight from Marta in the short time that I’ve known her. I hope we’ll be able to work more closely together in the future. Let’s see…

The event as a whole was a great start for the study of surveillance in Latin America, despite the disappointing lack of Spanish-language interest. This is just the beginning, and the new networks of scholars here will grow. I was just happy to be there a the start and play a small role. As for my keynote, I took the opportunity to do something a bit different and instead of doing my usual tech-centred stuff, I gave a talk on the emotional response to surveillance and how this might form the basis for reconstructing (anti-)surveillance ethics and politics. I have no idea whether it really worked or what people got out of it…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2009 12:46 am

    Hi David,
    I am very happy to learn that my ideas connected to you! Sometimes writing can be a very lonely practice, to hear from others is fondamental.
    Your talk about the anti surveillance actions – and the need of giving political and ethical responses to social control – meets my thoughts about the subject in many points, as you could notice.

  2. David permalink
    March 9, 2009 11:42 am

    Thank-you, Paola. Despite all the activity around surveillance in Britain, I am also quite isolated in my university in Newcastle. It is through events like these and the connections we make that we start to realise ‘we are not alone’…

  3. Luís permalink
    April 25, 2010 12:42 am

    Congratulation, thats amazing this comments.especially from Nelson Arteaga, how is focussing in the new forms of social control. is possible that in mexico we are living in a dictactorial goverment make up it with this news formal control…

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