Sunday, March 18, 2012

Assignment 2, Part 2

“I don’t need a tape recorder any more. I am a tape recorder.” (from Miracleman by Neil Gaiman, cited in Cyborg)

Smart Mobs: Cyborgs At Queen’s Park

In the spring of 2000, protesters angry about ongoing welfare and social services reforms directed by then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris gathered around Queen’s Park to make their voices heard and faces seen.  Part of what they saw was captured by videographers whose work was compiled and shared on YouTube, at and

Among those who were in the crowd were University of Toronto Professor Steve Mann and some of his students who were wearing the latest version of his EyeTap wearable technology devices attached to eyeglasses or mounted on construction hard hats. Cyborgs, Haraway (2003) reminds us, “are creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.”

Mann wouldn’t argue with this definition. In fact, he titled his 2001 book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the age of the Wearable Computer. He calls himself a cyborg. And on that June day in 2000, he and the other cyborgs were at Queen’s Park.

In the book, he recalls the new significance to witnessing the events and broadcasting them live to the Internet. “Our perspective on the event was captured and transmitted to remote locations, and the official, typical response to the protest as put forward in the media -- that a dangerous bunch of radicals threatened to storm the legislature for no apparent reason -- was countered by our poignant images of police massing and moving in on the primarily peaceful protesters. The images of police preparing to rush the crowd are frightening, but perhaps more ominous was the relative absence of those images from the local news.” (176)

Writing two years later, Howard Rheingold (2003) puts a name to Mann’s cyborg effort. He calls them smart mobs. “Smart mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices and possess both communication and computing capabilities.”

In an autobiographical video, Mann describes his work as occurring at the intersection of computing, communication and graphics. Rheingold goes on to make a key point about this cheap coupling:

Dirt-cheap microprocessors are beginning to permeate furniture, buildings, and neighborhoods; products, including, everything from box tops to shoes, are embedded with invisible intercommunicating smartifacts. When they connect the tangible objects and places of our daily lives with the Internet, handheld communication media mutate into wearable remote-control devices for the physical world. (xii)

This is at the heart of what a smart mob is, or, rather, what a smart mob does. What they do is use mobile media to “incite and organize collective action.” (225)

We return to Mann, at this point, to consider his view of the deeper significance of what smart mobs are up to. To appreciate his argument, and the motivation behind his dedication to wearable technology, we have to see media convergence through his lens. Convergence is nothing to be proud of, Mann warns. When media conglomerates acquire platforms across televsion, film, video, print, radio, web, and, importantly, when only a small percentage of the population are granted access to that convergence web, what results is, first,  the quiet disappearance information quietly deemed not appropriate, and, second, the downplaying and distortion of opposing points of view “in favour of opinions that shore up a system of mindless consumption -- whether of movies, junk food or technological tidbits.” (177)

Once a greater number of media-equipped cyborgs populate our landscapes, choice will, Mann, contends, fight its way up and out from under convergence.

Don’t like what’s on TV? Make your own show tonight and send out a million emails to alert the cyborg community of your broadcast. Disagree with the version of the protest the one-sided nightly news is putting forward? Set up your own Internet broadcast to address the issue. (pp. 178-179)

Mann has since helped develop this argument and place it within the broader perspective of equiveillance, a concept that includes both surveillance (to watch from above, as in the myriad cameras connected to buildings, light standards, satellites, etc) and sousveillance (to watch from below, as in the cyborg technology used at Queen’s Park). Sousveillance provides a smart-mobbed counterpoint to the ubiquitous surveillance devices in modern society, says Mann, writing, “This real-time live monitoring creates a social commentary and discourse that runs parallel to the widespread surveillance already present in the world around us. Unlike surveillance, which often happens in secrecy, our tools for sousveillance are freely available and moves personal experience capture into the realm of the everyday, with an open forum for public discourse.” (177)

This gets closer to Rheingold’s prophecy that “mobile Internet, when it really arrives, will not be just a way to do old things while moving. It will be a way to do things that couldn’t be done before.”

Steve Mann explains some things about computing. “Computers were once traditionally about calculations. In the old days, you had computers that were designed for adding up numbers and calculations, and so on.  But I had a different vision and that would be computers were much more used for doing communications, like the telephone rather than the calculator. And, so, I envisioned that we would have a new world where computers were bringing people together.”


Haraway, D. (2003). A Cyborg manifesto: Science, technology and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Wardrip-Fruin, N., & Montfort, N. (Eds), The new media reader (pp. 516-523). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Mann, S. (2010, January 16). “Steven Mann Explains the EyeTap.” YouTube:
Mann, S., & Niedzviecki, H. (2001). Cyborg: Digital destiny and human possibility in the age of the wearable computer. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.
Rheingold, H. (2003). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambrige, MA: Perseus.

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