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CPSR Journal Vol 19, No 4
Volume 19, Number 4 The CPSR Journal Fall 2001

Turning Tables with Steve Mann by Gene Haldeman

[ Read the program notes ]

Steve Mann has been wearing implants for 20 years—no, not that sort of impants; electronic ones. Originally they were a form of visual art.

A large audience of CPSR members watched the video-conferenced presentation from Steve Mann’s office in Toronto. Steve pointed out that a computer is not much more than a configured and configurable wristwatch and we wear them with no compunction. Computers have been used for so many different things; why should we not extend that? The spirit of his creations was in self creation and mastery of onesself.


So, Steve started a company called “EXISTech” whose motto was “Existence first, essence after.” People started taking a liking to his wearable computers, and he unwittingly became a cyborg performance artist.At first, accoridng to Mann, it made for a lot of frivolous stuff, but he still considered it an exploration.His machines raised some fundamental issues. The Domes

One of the items Mann created was a wearable security dome. Mounted on the stomach, the dark glass dome looks like the domes on cielings of department stores, and like those domes, one never knows if the camera mounted within is on, is being used, is swiveled in your direction. Mann calls this personal surveillance system “sousveillance”—if you are to watch me, then I am to watch you as well. Like Bentham’s concept of a Panopticon, it will cause you to be on your best behavior if you don’t know whether or not you are being watched.

The Anthrax Decontamination Area

One of Mann’s displays (long prior to our current anthrax scares) included seven rooms, each hexagonal in nature, as the entrance to the exhibit. The first two were men’s and women’s stripdown rooms, then men’s and women’s shower rooms, and finally, men’s and women’s exam rooms. In the center, an observation room behind one-way glass. Was there or was there not an observer, or a web cam in the center observation room? Going from room to room required you togo through a one-way turnstile. Mann says the Coverment (his term for both corporate intertests and the government) loves anthrax, loves the plague as it can then cause draconian measures in times of civil unhappiness.

Anthrax Free Mail

As assitant mailroom clerk for EXISTtech, Mann shows his mail delivery briefcase—this case can only be opened via a fingerprint scan, and therefore Mann cannot open it, only the recipient with the proper fingerprint can open it. If someonewants to use the case, they must be fingerprinted and photographed. EXISTTech products

There’s a dome worn as a necklace, sunglasses he calls “mirror shades,” because what is carried on them is actually on several mirror sites around the world, and bra domes—left cup is an infrared imaging system, right cup a 24-bit imaging apparatus. He also has a pair of eyeglasses with a card reader and a keypad—“If you would like to talk with me, please press one, and wait for the next available moment. If you would like to show me an advertisement, please slide your credit card through, then press pound.”

The Chair

Mann was asked for an exhibit by the San Francisco Art Institute, and he gave them something they weren’t expecting. It was a large oak chair, with spikes underneath the seating area. Once you purchase and download your seating license, from the “Seating Made Simple” licensing program, the spikes will retract and you can sit in it. Shortly before the license runs out, an alarm will sound, and when your license runs out, the spikes return.. Now available, says Mann, with floating licenses.


Mann then showed a video of himself interacting with other people while using his wearable dome. Remarkably, when he asks one department store employee what that glass dome in the ceiling is, the employee answeres that it is part of the heating and cooling system; then when Mann insists on knowing more, the employee tells him he will have to discuss it with the security force.


Mann’s EXISTech, while amusing, is also thought-provoking. Perhaps the “There is no privacy, get used to it” crowd have a point, and that the only thing we can do as individuals is to turn the tables on the surveillors and make sure we are watching them with the same gusto with which they watch us.

Editor’s note: Although Mann actually said “Foucault’s Panopticon” it was not Foucault’s original concept, although he may well have written about it. It was Bentham’s.

More from Steve Mann at:

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