Seeing, Naming, Knowing

Essay by Nora N. Khan for Brooklyn Rail: “…. Throughout this essay, I use “machine eye” as a metaphor for the unmoored orb, a kind of truly omnidirectional camera (meaning, a camera that can look in every direction and vector that defines the dimensions of a sphere), and as a symbolic shorthand for the sum of four distinct realms in which automated vision is deployed as a service. (Vision as a Service, reads the selling tag for a new AI surveillance camera company).10 Those four general realms are: 

1. Massive AI systems fueled by the public’s flexible datasets of their personal images, creating a visual culture entirely out of digitized images. 

2. Facial recognition technologies and neural networks improving atop their databases. 

3. The advancement of predictive policing to sort people by types. 

4. The combination of location-based tracking, license plate-reading, and heat sensors to render skein-like, live, evolving maps of people moving, marked as likely to do X.

Though we live the results of its seeing, and its interpretation of its seeing, for now I would hold on blaming ourselves for this situation. We are, after all, the living instantiations of a few thousand years of such violent seeing globally, enacted through imperialism, colonialism, caste stratification, nationalist purges, internal class struggle, and all the evolving theory to support and galvanize the above. Technology simply recasts, concentrates, and amplifies these “tendencies.” They can be hard to see at first because the eye’s seeing seems innocuous, and is designed to seem so. It is a direct expression of the ideology of software, which reflects its makers’ desires. These makers are lauded as American pioneers, innovators, genius-heroes living in the Bay Area in the late 1970s, vibrating at a highly specific frequency, the generative nexus of failed communalism and an emerging Californian Ideology. That seductive ideology has been exported all over the world, and we are only now contending with its impact.

Because the workings of machine visual culture are so remote from our sense perception, and because it so acutely determines our material (economic, social), and affective futures, I invite you to see underneath the eye’s outer glass shell, its holder, beyond it, to the grid that organizes its “mind.” That mind simulates a strain of ideology about who exactly gets to gather data about those on that grid below, and how that data should be mobilized to predict the movements and desires of the grid dwellers. This mind, a vast computational regime we are embedded in, drives the machine eye. And this computational regime has specific values that determine what is seen, how it is seen, and what that seeing means….(More)”.