3. Scripts
Published: 24.03.2014
in the series Is Photography Over?
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In the last post, I proposed that 21st Century “photography” has come to encompass so many different kinds of technologies, imaging apparatuses, and practices that the kinds of things we easily recognize as photography (cameras, film, prints, etc.) now actually constitute an exception to the rule. I proposed a much broader definition – seeing machines. The point of having such an expanded definition is to help us notice and recognize the myriad ways in which imaging systems (including traditional cameras), and the images they produce, are both ubiquitous, and actively sculpting the world in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Moreover, I proposed that classical photo theory is of little use, and may indeed actually hinder, a broad understating of contemporary imaging systems.

In this and the next few posts, my aim is to sketch out some ideas I use in my own work to try and make sense of seeing machines and their role in contemporary societies. Although I will eventually come to a discussion of images, my more immediate task is to begin understanding seeing machines by thinking about the kinds of “work” they do in the world. This is obviously a multi-faceted question that can, and should, be addressed at multiple geographic and temporal scales, which I will explore in upcoming posts. For today, I will begin with something I call “scripts.”

I think about a “script” as the basic and obvious function of an imaging system, its “style” of seeing, and the immediate relationships (between seer and seen, for example) it produces, and the obvious ways in which a seeing machine sculpts the world. To put it crudely, a script is all of those things that a given seeing machine “wants” to do, how it “wants” to see the world, and how it does what it’s designed to do. A machine’s script strongly proscribes certain activities and relationships, and at the same time precludes others. There is a two-fold question here, “how” a seeing machine sees is utterly bound up with the effects that it produces.

Let’s take an example, one that James Bridle has written about at some length, namely the increasingly ever-present Automated Number Plate Reader (ANPR) imaging systems. An ANPR camera does something very simple: it takes a picture of automobile license plate that passes through its field of view (using a standard shutter speed of 1/1000 and sometimes using infrared illumination), and processes that image to make it readable by optical character recognition software. Finally it stores some combination of the original photograph and metadata in a database. The entire point of an ANPR system is to end up with an easily storable, searchable database of images and information that, in many cases, can be correlated with other data points, or tasked with automatically taking an action in the world if certain conditions are met (i.e. if a car is speeding, the back-end software might automatically issue a ticket to its driver). My point here is that an ANPR system is designed to “see” the word in an extremely specific way and do specific things with the images it makes. These specificities are what I think of as its “script.”

A lawsuit currently making its way through the courts in Utah is instructive here. In the United States, a company called Vigilant Solutions, Inc. operates a private, nationwide fleet of car equipped with ANPR cameras. Their cars roam the country, creating a continually-updated database of where particular vehicles were are particular times. The database currently holds about 2 billion records and grows by about 100 million records each day. Vigilant’s business model involves selling this location information to banks, law enforcement, insurance agencies, and other clients.

Wary of the privacy implications of such databases, the Utah legislature recently passed a law outlawing private companies like Vigilant from collecting ANPR data (police agencies are exempted from the law). Vigilant Solutions and its partner Digital Recognition Network, Inc. responded in February 2014 by suing the state of Utah, claiming that its right to constitutionally protected activities was being infringed. Arguing against the Utah law, Vigilant pointed out that the legislation “arbitrarily prohibits an activity that is protected in all other settings.” Vigilant’s lawyer Michael Carvin compared his clients activities to those of any other person walking around shooting pictures with a digital SLR: “any citizen of Utah can walk outside and photograph anything they please, including a license plate.” On the surface, Vigilant’s argument makes sense – after all, the company simply drives around and takes pictures, which isn’t illegal. But, as far as their respective scripts are concerned, a Vigilant ANPR system is quite a different seeing machine than a Nikon DSLR, and taking pictures with a Vigilant system has very little do with taking photos with a camera designed to take pretty pictures for humans to look at.

The broader point I want to make is that every seeing machine, every camera, whether it’s an 8x10 field camera loaded with Fuji Velvia or a COBRA BRASS infrared and gamma-ray detector installed onboard an ORION signals-intelligence satellite in geostationary orbit, has its particular scripts – the range of activities that it “wants” to do and a range of activities that it cannot do.

My interest in introducing the idea of scripts is to begin developing a way to identify, or to “see,” the ways in which seeing machines create cultural, economic, and political footprints on society at large.

But scripts are really only the beginning of this – seeing machines have much larger footprints than the immediate scripts they perform. If we begin to understand seeing machines in terms of the larger networks of relationships they are produced-by and productive-of, our frame of reference quickly and dramatically expands into what I think of as “geographies of photography.”

2 comment(s)
Nils Plath
Posted 25.03.2014 at 15:34

A striking post to ponder what it might mean that in the presence of these „increasingly ever-present Automated Number Plate Readers (ANPR)“ and various other surveillance systems it is the automobile itself that has apparently more and more become a medium of transport for data. What was once the materialized promise of individual freedom and the expression of self-determination via unlimited mobility is now seen (by machines and their makers) as a mere data carrier. Formerly a status symbol, an icon of speed and prosperity, an image of technological performance and of the pride of ownership (and thus so often photographed), the automobile is now being used as a supplier of or a collecting tool for information about sitings in order to map the world according to old logics by those who like to act as their new rulers. As we can learn from the post, our vehicles help to draw a new map of the land when turned into objects by seeing machines that register them as carriers of highly valuable information (where we still like to look at them as displays of our life-styles). And the minds of the engineers who believe to master the world of empiricism have in the meantime already turned away from what was once their (or their predecessors') pride and joy – the automobile –, to find self-fulfillment elsewhere in inventing products often invisible to the human eye.
(It might be worth a thought if the automobile itself could not be understood to have been a kind of seeing machine in its own way, too, producing multifold images stored to be recalled later. Indeed, over time, the entire set up of the highly industrialized Western societies that we speak of here was aligned with the automobile. With far-reaching effects. Their traces still exist wherever we stand and go, live and work, while the views through the windshield remembered and unconsciously stored in our memories will continue to accompany us when scanning, registering, cataloguing our present and future environments (as always as depictions). Doesn't this in retrospect make the automobile an imaginary seeing machine?)
The conceptual thinking of reality behind the practice of companies like Vigilant Solutions that turn pictures of objects into data and thereby register objects that represent certain highly charged images (of world views) as new data base content is revealing in a quite different respect, of course. In just a few steps, the „world“ is declared to be a totality (made of data) and is obviously being viewed as an entity up for grabs again, and therefore to be mapped. (The mentioned legal battles going on being a sign that this seizing of data as the new resource of wealth and power does not go undisputed, and are reminders of the wars over territories fought in previous centuries during the course of settlement and land grab.) This totality then must find its complete depiction in data. As taken from license plates here, paired with geodetical information, and elsewhere from other forms of I.D.. For those who seek to survey and measure it by technological means as a totality, the world appears probably as it were when invented by the early “explorers”, when they transfered the “ends of the world” and the “blank spots” discovered into the set up of their brought from home notions and believes. These data collectors also work (maybe unknowingly) on fabricating a closed and cohesive conception of the world in which we live in with our asymmetrical images, following scripts to which their spokespeople remain unaware of.
In our day and age, the surveillance technologies and production of fear and stereotypes, the modes of mental and cognitive mapping, the manufacturing and analysis of models and strategies for in- and exclusion of entire groups or individuals within societies and cultures by identification technologies, the representations of cultural identity under the conditions of networked media and their control are a given, and are a self-evident set of themes and topics in today's debates about our so called present (while in media art works and projects on surveillance and control are as old as video cameras themselves). Within this frame of reference as the state of mind of discourse, all attempts to shed light on the modalities of imaging now common practice will also show how “our” thinking within “our” societies is determined by the scripts, which “we” regard as valid where ever we underwrite the production of a cohesive world view with words. Therefore, a new cartography of the “geographies of photography“ can indeed be seen as a much welcomed step into the right direction here.

Martha Takayama
Posted 28.03.2014 at 17:39

It would seem that the the manner in which the term "script" is employed in this post really constitutes a substitute for the word function. As such the function of a any whether for recording images and information or any other uses is something that has always been with us. The function of recording and or documenting of information for innumerable purposes is ancient . tTe manner in which it is done has changed constantly as technology has constantly progressed. The earliest uses of photography have included documenting geography and territorial holdings as was done by the British in the Middle in East in the mid-1800's. It would seem an artificial designation to conclude that machines developed for all kinds of information whether scientific or not are working with "scripts". Rather what these changes call into question are myriad social, political and even economic questions that involve legal judgments which can extend beyond any one country's borders. Those issues have always been present in the recording or reproduction of images whether clandestine or for targeted purposes or for personal pleasure. The technology employed is a reflection of that which is available, while new processes may be more invasive the question of purpose and end use is a constant. The problems that result are part of something beyond the actual development of machinery.

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