Noortje, the myth of information

Noortje Marres is a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. She runs the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process, as well as a Master's program in digital sociology. She's also  been involved for several years in projects of issue mapping using online data.

She spoke to us about how information that lacks efficacy does not dispel the darkness. She talks about how drones, along with other issues such as climate change, allow zones of unaccountability alongside official 'theatres of accountability'. She talks about  how to open up those new spaces and allow them to speak to the public consciousness, making public action possible, arguing that the key to this is bringing the issue to life through multiple registers.

What is the book you wrote about, and why did you write it?

The book sets up a meeting between political theory and technology studies. The title actually captures what it is about quite literally "material participation", how to participate in politics with things? The starting point is that things and environments and technologies have always played a role in public engagement and the organisation of democracy. But in recent decades, something has changed. I argue that today material forms of participation are being increasingly valued as such. So the capacity of technology to engage people, and to involve them in politics and public issues, is being explicitly recognised and affirmed. What I investigate in the book is how that should change our understanding of participation, and how it should inform our appreciation of the political power of technology. 

One of the things I'm especially concerned with is to show the instability and  variability in the political power and capacities of things and technologies. It can depend on the context or even on the use. The same technology of participation can be completely different in terms of its effects.

Can you give an example of where that occurs, and how it occurs through the power of objects?

Well, one example that I use a lot in the book is smart domestic devices - smart kettles, smart thermostats or smart walls that have sensors embedded in them. In some respects, this is really about the production of the home as a zone of surveillance; you can think of these devices as being very repressive and disciplinarian in their operation. But in other configurations, these are actually the very technologies of environmental living, of ecological activism... of efforts to live differently and enable quite radical forms of environmental change. For me that's one example where you can see similar technologies producing radically different political effects. And what I try to show in my book is that we actually have to affirm that variability of objects and technology if we're interested in their politics. The reflex of trying to argue that particular technologies are inherently good or bad, or inherently democratic or not , is a type of argument we should let go of. That makes it a quite a complicated book, but I haven't regretted it yet!

Do you anticipate regret? One of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is because of your focus on objects. I was thinking of drones as high technology objects being used for different purposes. But there's another misconception of how we understand a drone per se - we seem to describe them as small machines that are quite smart and be used for very basic things, but you have also gigantic machines flying over different countries and shooting missiles that are also called drones... What do you think can be hidden behind what technology is presented as doing?

That's a very difficult question, but I'll try to find my way into it! One thing that I find very important with high tech is to not believe the hype. A lot of critical engagement with technology in the last decades has been very much invested in showing that what gets presented as high technology, is in actual practice also very much a matter of craft and less sophisticated than it is made out to be. 

So there is a certain sort of magic to high technology that it's important to not just buy into. But at the same time, in relation to drone technology - something that has also become clear in recent months with the NSA scandal - is that there are very large asymmetries in technological capacity between major institutions such as those of the US military and the consumer grade versions of things that most of us have access to. Part of the political problem of drones might have to do with that, because the problem with asymmetry is that it's impossible to expose high tech for what it is. So if we have no access to what is happening in these institutions, if there is no way we can send an anthropologist to document how these military analysts are frying their eggs while they're pressing a few buttons, then it becomes practically very hard to bring the technology down from its pedestal.

So it's a problem twice over. Firstly because of the inequality of access to technology, but secondly because there are very few means to  expose the technology for what it is.

How much do we need to know? What do we need to know to be able to act on that knowledge?

Part of my answer to that would be that we have to be careful in making this a question of knowledge. Because if you understand the situation as also one of dramaturgy, of a certain division of roles between actors and a staging of political action, if you will, then by making it all about knowledge we might put ourselves in a role that is not necessarily opportune or advantageous. This is because the knowledge game is the one that we are very likely to lose in view of the issues I just mentioned. I would say what we need to know is not only how these devices are deployed, where are they deployed and with what consequences, but also: what is the wider political context in which this can happen?

So the myth of information is a power in itself...?

The myth of information is relevant in different ways to the question of drones. On the one hand there is the myth about high precision and a form of warfare with low moral costs, which is very much a myth, and this also includes informational warfare - the suggestion they know where to strike, when, these kind of things... But there is a mirrored, mirroring myth - that of the critical power of 'information itself'. We might assume that the way to engage with this issue and to address the scandal of the abuse of power  is by producing information about the attacks, their impacts, their consequences. I think that intuition is partly right, and partly I think it's quite dangerous to believe that the mappings of abuse are sufficient to address it politically in themselves. With drones, if you think about how to map this issue, or how such issue maps could gain political power or the capacity to mobilise, you see that it is practically very challenging. It's almost impossible in a number of ways.
First, how does one map independent abuses that occur in a zone where there is very little infrastructure? There's very little information infrastructure in place on the ground to document abuse. But second, how would we imagine action? What kind of political action do we imagine is possible on the basis of that knowledge? What would be the platforms? Who would this map address? Or is this indeed information? The astounding thing is that so much is known, but if you look at levels of critical awareness of the issue or political debate in institutional or consequential ways, there's very little. 

There are a lot of people - artists, scientists, human rights documenters and so on - trying to gather as much evidence possible about what actually is happening. So what do you think politically would make it more relevant and actionable for those people who are not directly engaged, but would possibly act if the issue was presented differently? 

The way in which publics respond and act is notoriously unpredictable, which is also one of the features I appreciate a lot about them. They will not materialise when you expect them to be outraged, then when you expect everything's quiet suddenly there will be protests with scores of people showing up in places. So it's not that I think I can predict when and how a public for drones can come about. But there are two things that strike me. One is that a lot of what constraints the production of reliable information about drones for a public are also the very things that can help to bring the issue to life. 

For example, when I hear that a lot of the reporting involves local people being paid on a case-to- case basis to travel five hours to check what has happened – that's a story about the local economy, about how one travels in this place actually, and this helps to situate and contextualise the phenomenon. You might think that those kind of social or economic aspects would distract from the real issue which is that of casualties and damage done by drones. But you might also turn it around and say that by including these seemingly trivial or non-essential aspects that come to light in the process of mapping drones, that that is actually the way to know the issue. We should not decide too quickly what is relevant and what is not. 

Part of the problem here is that, in information gathering practices, there can be a implicit reliance on legal reasoning as the ideal to follow in terms of the criteria of efficacy, or accuracy of information. In order to hold up, it has to be very solid. It has to be neutral, unbiased. But in relation to the public debate or public mobilisation, it might be that there are quite different criteria of relevance or criteria of interest where the social dimensions of a process of gaining information can help to give it a credibility or a liveliness that can help make this issue real, or mean that the map gains reality rather than loses it.

What about invisibility? The military apparatus, secret services and so on, use the power of invisibility, of secrecy, to be able to do very important things. That's the dialect they use, that we need secrecy because otherwise the enemy will know what we're doing and the power structure will be reversed. Now when it comes to drones and the NSA, it seems like there's a possibility of creating parallel worlds. Do you think these zones of invisibility are being used strategically to make things seem rational?

Yes, but it's very complex. Firstly,  something you emphasised yourself is the way in which zones of invisibility - where military power concentrates its efforts - mirror the zones of visibility which are proliferating all across the planet. So, if you think about changes in social space in the last decades, there's an incredible shift in how the means of visibility are distributed. In  terms of proliferation of cameras, of tracking devices, there is an incredible potential for visibility. A colleague of min, Dhiraj Murthy, mentioned the example of kids in Chicago neighbourhoods who can quite effectively now use the threat of sending a picture on Twitter in negotiations with police around their arrests. So we should not forget, when we are concerned with zones of invisibility, how shifts in visibility have been accomplished. You could say it's a sign of success, that military might is now so focused on these zones of invisibility. 

Secondly, invisibility is artificially produced. There is a lot of legal and technological artifice required in order to produce a zone of invisibility. When you speak about rural Pakistan as a zone of invisibility, that has nothing to do with the fact that you would not be able to report from the region in and of itself. It's not a natural property of that physical space that it is invisible. We should never forget that it is through very active legal, institutional, and technological intervention that particular regions are militarised or are turned into zones of invisibility, and as a consequence military action becomes possible there.

On the other hand, because they make it so invisible, they must have been able to make it extremely visible to themselves. They have all the means of technology and know-how and equipment that is enabling them to act. So what is that production of invisibility about?

Again, there are a number of different things. Firstly I think it's very hard to disentangle what is indifference and what is invisibility. And just what counts as invisibility, because we've also discussed how a lot is actually known. There are fairly well-documented reports of the abuses, deaths, casualties, interventions, strikes and failed strikes. Yet we are inclined to not consider that kind of information and knowledge as producing visibility because that information and knowledge has not as yet translated into efficacious action on the issue. It seems to lack efficacy, and information that lacks efficacy does not dispel the darkness. Information needs to translate into action to qualify as a source of visibility. So you have to be very careful to actually affirm the status of this region as a zone of invisibility.

Secondly, there is the great technical capacity when it comes to the command and control required for a military mission. But that is of course a very particular visibility, or a highly partial vision. So the kind of visibility that we must assume to be available or accomplished within an institutional context, it's not necessarily total visibility. 

The third question is - if we make the invisibility our starting point then to visualise can very quickly become our primary goal, our political purpose. What is the political purpose in relation to drones? It's to attain visibility of what's rendered invisible. That partly makes complete sense to me, but partly it might weaken the campaign against drones. By making everything too dependent on visibility strategies, we might be perpetuating a particular understanding of this situation which isn't actually the right one. If it's true that there is actually a lot of information in circulation, how do we address this question of this information not resonating? In what ways is it not resonating? What are the dynamics of attention and relevance that freeze this issue or generate a situation of what can seem like paralysis or nothing happening?

That's not necessarily about visibility. It's about how people can connect to an issue. To what extent do we participate in a particular military construction of the phenomenon if we say it happens in a desert? I'm aware there is a lot of interesting work being done which precisely addresses this problem of relevance. So it's not that I think we're all falling prey to this misconception, but it's still very tempting to think it's people dropping in a desert through faceless machines.

There are a lot of corporate and state activities being outsourced to contractors, or being done first-hand by the corporation itself, but in very remote locations. That allows them to escape accountability for decades. Do you perceive that strategy, and what would be a counter-strategy against that?

Yes I do. The phrase that's often used is the "theatre of accountability." Now there are particular ways in which a “theatre of accountability” is being configured - you can refer to it as the front stages of politics, or the front stages of democracy or public life. But this is often a very narrow accountability. What does it mean to be critical? To be engaged? And to use mapping practices politically? I think a lot of it is about shifting these sites and not accepting the ways in which the space of accountability is already organised. 

For instance, thematising anti-accountability and by showing how there are all these zones of non-accountability or anti-accountability that exist alongside the theatres of accountability - I think that rightly is one of the critical purposes of digital mapping and information activism. Because to focus on those things is to say - "look, there is a theatre of accountability where moral, ethical, and social standards can be upheld." But then there are all these other cases which are organised precisely to create the opportunity to act in the absence of those guidelines. 

So the funny thing is that you might think (and often this critique is made) that digital mapping or information activism buys into the fantasy of accountability, that it believes in the theatre of accountability against our better judgement. But actually I would say it's the opposite, in so far as information and activism in the form of digital mapping can bring into view these zones of anti- accountability. It is precisely about not buying into that confined demarcation of what counts as our political space.

So that is one myth... what about the other myth, of democracy as a moral system? There is a a myth that if you are a democratic country such as the US or wherever, their actions should always be pursued on a basis of democratic morals. But for me, one has nothing to do with the other. The democratic choice of action doesn't have to be a moral choice of action. It may even be driven by the temporary need to do something immoral, such as the NSA's activities. Is that something you think is important in this case?

Firstly, we have the spatial organisation of ethics, morality and politics. One analogy is everyday culture, there used to be the classic assumption that you sleep in certain rooms, you eat in certain rooms, you smoke in certain rooms. Similarly, there used to be clear assumptions about spatial distribution of state functions. There are rules of proper conduct for a state when, for instance, acting within an international context. They are very different rules of how a state is expected to conduct itself internally, in relation to civil society. War is, again, very different. 

In relation to everyday culture, it is often asked: what has modern life done to it? It has led to people smoking in bed and watching TV in the car. And there's been a loss of the sense of the proper spatial distribution of different behaviours. That's one way of describing the 20th century. 

Now, you could make an analogy with states and governments and say that something similar has happened. We expect particular conduct of the state in situations that aren't necessarily historically organised for that conduct. What I think follow is that sometimes there can seem to be a cartoon-like distribution between power and counter-power, where we all know that it's a staging, and where power knows and is quite sophisticated in it's ironic or cynical appreciation of the situation. As in: Yes, we know that the public good is a just a story. Yes, of course we know that this is dirty business. Then counter-power gets pushed into this role of defender of purity and virtue, seeming naive.

Sometimes this oddly also leaves its traces in information activism. When mapping human rights abuses or pollution as a counter-public intervention, it's as if that kind of intervention can only work or be credible if we can believe these standards of purity and impeccable behaviour can be upheld. I think that is really something that information activism and digital mapping has to be wary of - being pushed in the role of the idealist who cannot appreciate how things really happen or are really done. Because so often in the broader context of public debate, we all know we're having this debate where we're claiming to care about certain issues, but we know that elsewhere something else happens. So what I would like is for information activism (or the left, or whatever name you want to give to these counter-powers) to also build that intelligence into their own practices. Yes, we know that in different settings, different rules apply. We know that the government is a different beast in different spaces. But it doesn't mean that the abuses or issues that we bring to the table are excusable or that they may become excusable, or simply a joke.

Today, issues get mapped on different platforms. In the case of drones, you will have maps made using Google Earth, of where there have been impacts or sightings. But equally you could map the issue of drones through other platforms, such as Twitter, and you could look at what and how often are people are tweeting about drones? What are the main terms and phrases occurring in relation to drones on Twitter? Is it surveillance? Is it primarily about the US? How prominently does the military figure, in relation to drones? On the one hand, you could think that these are two completely different projects. There's something about our understanding of space, but also our understanding of issues, that makes us think that those two spaces are drastically, radically different; mapping the physical object versus mapping the social issue. 

However, digital mapping and monitoring, or digital analytics, now happens across platforms where some of the techniques used to analyse Twitter might be similar to those used to do textual analysis of leaked military documents, and we begin to see more continuity between mapping objects in physical space and mapping social objects in public information space. And that is something we could take advantage of or exploit.
The poverty of mapping is that often it gives us the object or phenomenon as it exists in only one channel, which makes it very hard to relate to. You can think - "oh, this is just Twitter, or this is just people being obsessed with Google Earth or... " But what I find very interesting is that this alsot invites us to think of issues as more heterogeneous, as existing across different channels. Maybe the thought or the conviction that the social object and the physical object are so far apart  shows that we're not actually understanding the political process well enough.

You often refer to something you call a “critical intervention”. What would be the characteristics of this in the realm of impossibility of reporting? Who would be the actors and what would be the possibility of an intervention to make it reportable, or visible?

Well, when you are deeply engaged with an issue you often become quite absorbed in the detail. And you can think that it is really in the substance of the matter that it will get decided - whether there will be critical effects, whether you can make a critical intervention in the issue or not. So if we can show that there are X number of casualties or if we can show this projected increase in the carbon density of the atmosphere... if only we can demonstrate that, then we will be able to shift the debate. 

But often activity around an issue operates at different levels, right? Where there is also a whole political contextual situation where a trivial, or seemingly trivial, feature can suddenly become critical. Take the example of the body bag - are body bags visible on the news? If I try to not know the situation, I would say that whether or not we can see a body bag is surely not the critical piece of information in relation to military deaths during war. Yet somehow body bags became the critical objects. If body bags are visible in the news, that signals inadmissibility of military deaths. So if the question is about what it means to be tactical in information activism, you also will need a lot of social and political intelligence about why a body bag became a moment where war deaths were no longer admissible or acceptable? 

There are some “shifters”, representations, that shift the debate or understanding of a problem, shifting the debate... that could be an infographic of a slave ship and how people were packed into it etc...
Well, it's also about the sort of connections that we are prepared to recognise as relevant. Take climate change. The experts often say - "what happens this summer is immaterial, climate change is a long-term phenomenon. It's really about a pattern of regularity in the data across many decades." Now, I can see that that argument makes sense within a certain understanding of what it means to intervene critically in the climate change issue. But at the same time I find that kind of argument demonstrates a great misunderstanding about how issues enter into awareness, and how public action on issues becomes possible. For instance, it is the relative lack of the UK government's investment in flood defences that is absolutely critical to climate change awareness in the UK. It's not because there's a linear connection between those things. In a proper understanding of what constitutes climate change as a atmospheric phenomenon, clearly those flood defences don't enter. But when thinking about mapping the issue with the aim of understanding how public action might be possible, we need to think how this issue enter into awareness? Those kind of connections are critical. 

I think what I'm concerned with is that certain scientific ideals of what it means to know an issue can gain such a hold on our own assumptions about what kind of information is needed to convince publics or to mobilise publics. That's what I also mean with being creative with information - be prepared to make connections or emphasise certain links that don't necessarily make sense.

Final question, on the issue of authority and the necessity of authority. If you look at climate change as a scientist, those scientists are the authority as they write the technical reports. In the case of human rights, it's mostly lawyers talking law. The same goes for economics and other domains. We have this tendency to look at issues through the eyes of authoritative knowledge. How important is that? How is that shaping issues? And what's the connection with what you have been talking about?

Yeah, you see that with a lot of issues, how the production of a single authority becomes really important institutionally. As you mentioned in relation to climate change, there was the setting up of the IPCC, which is a scientific body hosted by the UN, as the decisive institutional theatre for the issue of climate change. Even the language of human rights can be interpreted in those terms, as the establishment of the legal as the language of the issue. But I'm always struck by the incredible heterogeneity of formats and registers in relation to issues. I also tend to find if you have multiple registers, that's when issues come to life. For instance, when climate change somehow got connected to everyday resource use, when people started using dry toilets or unplugging their fridge. That kind of social behaviour became relevant in relation to climate change during the sustainable living phase of the debate, when it became about adaptation. 

That's interesting to me for multiple reasons, but it's one example of an issue being registered when we didn't quite expect it, is often the moment where it is most lively, active and engaging. But that creates a really difficult problem in that to gain institutional efficacy, it can be really foolish to challenge the dominant register (ie. 'we are really committed to climate change, but we're not going to privilege the scientific register'). Institutionally, that is how one marginalises oneself. If you don't speak the language of the issue, how can you ever be heard? 

But at the same time I really think that that single channel articulation of issues is often why you do not have the levels of public mobilisation or public awareness that we would hope for. So it creates a real double bind - speak in different languages and you lose the issue, but if you don't you also lose it. But that is where artistic and creative intervention is so important. 

Eyal Weizman, who's also here at Goldsmith, uses the language of architecture to address the Israel- Palestine conflict. It's very effective. The conflict is clearly not about architecture, but about the land people live on. But by making it about architecture, the buildings people live in, the conflict suddenly speaks much more strongly to the imagination. It's much more engaging, becomes a lively affair.

What is the book you wrote about, and why did you write it?

The book sets up a meeting between political theory and technology studies. The title actually captures what it is about. Quite literally "material participation", how to participate in politics with things? The starting point is that things and environments and technologies have always played a role in public engagement and the organisation of democracy. But in recent decades, something has changed. I argue that today material forms of participation are being increasingly valued as such. So the capacity of technology to engage people, and to involve them in politics and public issues, is being explicitly recognised and affirmed. What I investigate in the book is how that should change our understanding of participation, and how it should inform our appreciation of the political power of technology. 

One of the things I'm especially concerned with is to show the instability and variability in the political power and capacities of things and technologies. It can depend on the context or even on the use. The same technology of participation can be completely different in terms of its effects.

Can you give an example of where that occurs, and how it occurs through the power of objects?

Well, one example that I use a lot in the book is smart domestic devices - smart kettles, smart thermostats or smart walls that have sensors embedded in them. In some respects, this is really about the production of the home as a zone of surveillance; you can think of these devices as being very repressive and disciplinarian in their operation. But in other configurations, these are the very technologies of environmental living, of ecological activism... of efforts to live differently and enable quite radical forms of environmental change. For me that's one example where you can see similar technologies producing radically different political effects. And what I try to show in my book is that we actually have to affirm that variability of objects and technology if we're interested in their politics. The reflex of trying to argue that particular technologies are inherently good or bad, or inherently democratic or not, is a type of argument we should let go of. That makes it a quite a complicated book, but I haven't regretted it yet!

Do you anticipate regret? One of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is because of your focus on objects. I was thinking of drones as high technology objects being used for different purposes. But there's another misconception of how we understand a drone per se. We seem to describe them as small machines that are quite smart and be used for very basic things, but you have also gigantic machines flying over different countries and shooting missiles. What do you think can be hidden behind what technology is presented as doing?

One thing that I find very important with high tech is to not believe the hype. A lot of critical engagement with technology in recent decades has been very much invested in showing that what gets presented as high technology, is in actual practice also very much a matter of craft and less sophisticated than it is made out to be. 

So there is a certain sort of magic to high technology that it's important to not just buy into. But at the same time, in relation to drone technology, something that has also become clear in recent months with the NSA scandal is that there are very large asymmetries in technological capacity between major institutions such as those of the US military, and the consumer grade versions of things that most of us have access to. Part of the political problem of drones might have to do with that, because the problem with asymmetry is that it's impossible to expose high tech for what it is. So if we have no access to what is happening in these institutions, if there is no way we can send an anthropologist to document how these military analysts are frying their eggs while they're pressing a few buttons, then it becomes practically very hard to bring the technology down from its pedestal.

So it's a problem twice over. Firstly because of the inequality of access to technology, but secondly because there are very few means to  expose the technology for what it is.

How much do we need to know? What do we need to know to be able to act on that knowledge?

Part of my answer to that would be that we have to be careful in making this a question of knowledge. Because if you understand the situation as also one of dramaturgy (a certain division of roles between actors and a staging of political action, if you will), then by making it all about knowledge we might put ourselves in a role that is not necessarily opportune or advantageous. This is because the knowledge game is the one that we are very likely to lose, in view of the issues I just mentioned. I would say what we need to know is not only , where they are deployed and with what consequences, but also - what is the wider political context in which this can happen?

So the myth of information is a power in itself...?

The myth of information is relevant in different ways to the question of drones. On the one hand there is the myth about high precision and a form of warfare with low moral costs, which is very much a myth. This also includes informational warfare - the suggestion they know where to strike, when, these kind of things. But there is a mirrored, mirroring myth - that of the critical power of 'information itself'. We might assume that the way to engage with this issue and to address the scandal of the abuse of power  is by producing information about the attacks, their impacts, their consequences. I think that intuition is partly right, and partly I think it's quite dangerous to believe that the mappings of abuse are sufficient to address them politically. With drones, if you think about how to map this issue, or how such issue maps could gain political power or the capacity to mobilise, you see that it is practically very challenging. It's almost impossible in a number of ways.

First, how does one map independent abuses that occur in a zone where there is very little infrastructure? There's very little information infrastructure in place on the ground to document abuse. But second, how would we imagine action? What kind of political action do we imagine is possible on the basis of that knowledge? What would be the platforms? Who would this map address? Or is this indeed information? The astounding thing is that so much is known, but if you look at levels of critical awareness of the issue or political debate in institutional or consequential ways, there's very little. 

There are a lot of people - artists, scientists, human rights documenters and so on - trying to gather as much evidence possible about what actually is happening. So what do you think politically would make it more relevant and actionable for those people who are not directly engaged, but would possibly act if the issue was presented differently? 

The way in which publics respond and act is notoriously unpredictable, which is also one of the features I appreciate a lot about them. They will not materialise when you expect them to be outraged, then when you expect everything's quiet suddenly there will be protests with scores of people showing up in places. So it's not that I think I can predict when and how a public for drones can come about. But there are two things that strike me. One is that a lot of what constrains the production of reliable information about drones for a public are also the very things that can help to bring the issue to life. 

For example, when I hear that a lot of the reporting involves local people being paid on a case-to- case basis to travel five hours to check what has happened – that's a story about the local economy, about how one travels in this place, and that helps to situate and contextualise the phenomenon. You might think that those kind of social or economic aspects would distract from the real issue, which is that of casualties and damage done by drones. But you might also turn it around and say that by including these seemingly trivial or non-essential aspects that come to light in the process of mapping drones, that is actually the way to know the issue. We should not decide too quickly what is relevant and what is not. 

Part of the problem here is that in information gathering practices, there can be a implicit reliance on legal reasoning as the ideal to follow in terms of the criteria of efficacy, or accuracy of information. In order to hold up, it has to be very solid. It has to be neutral, unbiased. But in relation to the public debate or public mobilisation, it might be that there are quite different criteria of relevance or criteria of interest, where the social dimensions of a process of gaining information can help to give it a credibility or a liveliness that can help make this issue real, or mean that the map gains reality rather than loses it.

What about invisibility? The military apparatus, secret services and so on, use the power of invisibility, of secrecy, to be able to do very important things. That's the dialect they use, that we need secrecy because otherwise the enemy will know what we're doing and the power structure will be reversed. Now when it comes to drones and the NSA, it seems like there's a possibility of creating parallel worlds. Do you think these zones of invisibility are being used strategically to make things seem rational?

Yes, but it's very complex. Firstly something you emphasised yourself is the way in which zones of invisibility, where military power concentrates its efforts, mirror the zones of visibility which are proliferating all across the planet. So, if you think about changes in social space in the last decades, there's an incredible shift in how the means of visibility are distributed. In  terms of proliferation of cameras, of tracking devices, there is an incredible potential for visibility. A colleague of mine, Dhiraj Murthy, mentioned the example of kids in Chicago neighbourhoods who can quite effectively now use the threat of sending a picture on Twitter in negotiations with police around their arrests. So we should not forget, we are concerned with zones of invisibility, how shifts in visibility have been accomplished. You could say it's a sign of success that military might is now so focused on these zones of invisibility. 

Secondly, invisibility is artificially produced. There is a lot of legal and technological artifice required in order to produce a zone of invisibility. When you speak about rural Pakistan as a zone of invisibility, that has nothing to do with the fact that you would not be able to report from the region in and of itself. It's not a natural property of that physical space that it is invisible. We should never forget that it is through very active legal, institutional, and technological intervention that particular regions are militarised or are turned into zones of invisibility, and as a consequence military action becomes possible there.

On the other hand, because they make it so invisible, they must have been able to make it extremely visible to themselves. They have all the means of technology and know-how and equipment that is enabling them to act. So what is that production of invisibility about?

Again, there are a number of different things. Firstly I think it's very hard to disentangle what is indifference and what is invisibility. And just what counts as invisibility, because we've also discussed how a lot is actually known. There are fairly well-documented reports of the abuses, deaths, casualties, interventions, strikes and failed strikes. Yet we are inclined to not consider that kind of information and knowledge as producing visibility because that information and knowledge has not as yet translated into efficacious action on the issue. It seems to lack efficacy, and information that lacks efficacy does not dispel the darkness. Information needs to translate into action to qualify as a source of visibility. So you have to be very careful to affirm the status of this region as a zone of invisibility.Image - droneanimation.png

Secondly, there is the great technical capacity when it comes to the command and control required for a military mission. But that is of course a very particular visibility, or a highly partial vision. The kind of visibility that we must assume to be available or accomplished within an institutional context, is not necessarily total visibility. 

The third question is this. If we make the invisibility our starting point, then to can very quickly become our primary goal, our political purpose. What is the political purpose in relation to drones? It's to attain visibility of what's rendered invisible. That partly makes complete sense to me, but partly it might weaken the campaign against drones. By making everything too dependent on visibility strategies, we might be perpetuating a particular understanding of this situation which isn't actually the right one. If it's true that there is a lot of information in circulation, how do we address this question of that information not resonating? In what ways is it not resonating? What are the dynamics of attention and relevance that freeze this issue or generate a situation of what can seem like paralysis?

That's not necessarily about visibility. It's about how people can connect to an issue. To what extent do we participate in a particular military construction of the phenomenon if we say it happens in a desert? I'm aware there is a lot of interesting work being done which precisely addresses this problem of relevance. So it's not that I think we're all falling prey to this misconception, but it's still very tempting to think it's people dropping in a desert through faceless machines.

There are a lot of corporate and state activities being outsourced to contractors, or being done first-hand by the corporation itself, but in very remote locations. That allows them to escape accountability for decades. Do you perceive that strategy, and what would be a counter-strategy against that?

Yes I do. The phrase that's often used is the "theatre of accountability." Now there are particular ways in which a “theatre of accountability” is being configured - you can refer to it as the front stages of politics, or the front stages of democracy or public life. But this is often a very narrow accountability. What does it mean to be critical? To be engaged? And to use mapping practices politically? I think a lot of it is about shifting these sites and not accepting the ways in which the space of accountability is already organised. 

For instance, thematising anti-accountability and by showing how there are all these zones of non-accountability or anti-accountability that exist alongside the theatres of accountability - I think that rightly is one of the critical purposes of digital mapping and information activism. Because to focus on those things is to say - "look, there is a theatre of accountability where moral, ethical, and social standards can be upheld." But then there are all these other cases which are organised precisely to create the opportunity to act in the absence of those guidelines. 

So the funny thing is that you might think (and often this critique is made) that digital mapping or information activism buys into the fantasy of accountability, that it believes in the theatre of accountability against our better judgement. But actually I would say it's the opposite, in so far as information and activism in the form of can bring into view these zones of anti- accountability. It is precisely about not buying into that confined demarcation of what counts as our political space.

So that is one myth... what about the other myth, of democracy as a moral system? There is a a myth that if you are a democratic country such as the US or wherever, you actions should always be pursued on a basis of democratic morals. But for me, one has nothing to do with the other. The democratic choice of action doesn't have to be a moral choice of action. It may even be driven by the temporary need to do something immoral, such as the NSA's activities. Is that something you think is important in this case?

Firstly, we have the spatial organisation of ethics, morality and politics. One analogy is everyday culture. There used to be the classic assumption that you sleep in certain rooms, you eat in certain rooms, you smoke in certain rooms. Similarly, there used to be clear assumptions about spatial distribution of state functions. There are rules of proper conduct for a state when, for instance, acting within an international context. They are very different rules of how a state is expected to conduct itself internally, in relation to civil society. War is, again, very different. 

In relation to everyday culture, it is often asked: what has modern life done to it? It has led to people smoking in bed and watching TV in the car. And there's been a loss of the sense of the proper spatial distribution of different behaviours. That's one way of describing the 20th century. 

Now, you could make an analogy with states and governments and say that something similar has happened. We expect particular conduct of the state in situations that aren't necessarily historically organised for that conduct. What I think follows is that sometimes there can seem to be a cartoon-like distribution between power and counter-power, where we all know that it's a staging, and where power knows, and is quite sophisticated in it's ironic or cynical appreciation of the situation: "Yes, we know that the public good is a just a story. Yes, of course we know that this is dirty business". Then counter-power gets pushed into this role of defender of purity and virtue, seeming naive.Image - protestersinrain.png

Sometimes this oddly also leaves its traces in information activism. When mapping human rights abuses or pollution as a counter-public intervention, it's as if that kind of intervention can only work or be credible if we can believe these standards of purity and impeccable behaviour can be upheld. I think that is really something that information activism and digital mapping has to be wary of - being pushed in the role of the idealist who cannot appreciate how things really happen or are really done. Because so often in the broader context of public debate, we all know we're having this debate where we're claiming to care about certain issues, but we know that elsewhere something else happens. So what I would like is for information activism (or the left, or whatever name you want to give to these counter-powers) to build that intelligence into their own practices. Yes, we know that in different settings, different rules apply. We know that the government is a different beast in different spaces. But it doesn't mean that the abuses or issues that we bring to the table are excusable or that they may become excusable, or simply a joke.

Today, issues get mapped on different platforms. In the case of drones, you will have maps made using Google Earth, of where there have been impacts or sightings. But equally you could map the issue of drones through other platforms, such as Twitter, and you could look at what and how often are people are tweeting about drones? What are the main terms and phrases occurring in relation to drones on Twitter? Is it surveillance? Is it primarily about the US? How prominently does the military figure in relation to drones? On the one hand, you could think that those are two completely different projects. There's something about our understanding of space, but also our understanding of issues, that makes us think that those two spaces are drastically, radically different; mapping the physical object versus mapping the social issue. 

However, digital mapping and monitoring, or digital analytics, now happens across platforms where some of the techniques used to analyse Twitter might be similar to those used to do textual analysis of leaked military documents, and we begin to see more continuity between mapping objects in physical space and mapping social objects in public information space. And that is something we could take advantage of or exploit.

The poverty of mapping is that often it gives us the object or phenomenon as it exists in only one channel, which makes it very hard to relate to. You can think - "oh, this is just Twitter, or this is just people being obsessed with Google Earth or... " But what I find very interesting is that this also invites us to think of issues as more heterogeneous, as existing across different channels. Maybe the thought or the conviction that the social object and the physical object are so far apart  shows that we're not actually understanding the political process well enough.

You often refer to something you call a “critical intervention”. What would be the characteristics of this in the realm of impossibility of reporting? Who would be the actors and what would be the possibility of an intervention to make it reportable, or visible?

Well, when you are deeply engaged with an issue you often become quite absorbed in the detail. And you can think that it is really in the substance of the matter that it will get decided - whether there will be critical effects, whether you can make a critical intervention in the issue or not. So if we can show that there are X number of casualties or if we can show this projected increase in the carbon density of the atmosphere... if only we can demonstrate that, then we will be able to shift the debate. 

But often activity around an issue operates at different levels, right? There can be a whole political contextual situation where a trivial, or seemingly trivial, feature can suddenly become critical. Take the example of the body bag. Are body bags visible on the news? If I try to not know the situation, I would say that whether or not we can see a body bag is surely not the critical piece of information in relation to military deaths during war. Yet somehow body bags became the critical objects. If body bags are visible in the news, that signals inadmissibility of military deaths. So if the question is about what it means to be tactical in information activism, you also will need a lot of social and political intelligence about why a body bag became a moment where war deaths were no longer admissible or acceptable? 

There are some “shifters”, representations that shift the debate or understanding of a problem. That could be an infographic of a slave ship and how people were packed into it, for example. It's also about the sort of connections that we are prepared to recognise as relevant. Take climate change. The experts often say - "what happens this summer is immaterial, climate change is a long-term phenomenon. It's really about a pattern of regularity in the data across many decades." Now, I can see that that argument makes sense within a certain understanding of what it means to intervene critically in the climate change issue. But at the same time I find that kind of argument demonstrates a great misunderstanding about how issues enter into awareness, and how public action on issues becomes possible. For instance, it is the relative lack of the UK government's investment in flood defences that is absolutely critical to climate change awareness in the UK. It's not because there's a linear connection between those things. In a proper understanding of what constitutes climate change as a atmospheric phenomenon, clearly those flood defences don't enter. But when thinking about mapping the issue with the aim of understanding how public action might be possible, we need to think how this issue enter into awareness? Those kind of connections are critical. 

I think what I'm concerned with is that certain scientific ideals of what it means to know an issue can gain such a hold on our own assumptions about what kind of information is needed to convince publics or to mobilise publics. That's what I also mean with being creative with information - be prepared to make connections or emphasise certain links that don't necessarily make sense.

If you look at climate change as a scientist, those scientists are the authority as they write the technical reports. In the case of human rights, it's mostly lawyers talking law. The same goes for economics and other domains. We have this tendency to look at issues through the eyes of authoritative knowledge. How important is that? How is that shaping issues? And what's the connection with what you have been talking about?

Yeah, you see that with a lot of issues, how the production of a single authority becomes really important institutionally. As you mentioned in relation to climate change, there was the setting up of the IPCC, which is a scientific body hosted by the UN, as the decisive institutional theatre for the issue of climate change. Even the language of human rights can be interpreted in those terms, as the establishment of the legal as the language of the issue. But I'm always struck by the incredible heterogeneity of formats and registers in relation to issues. I also tend to find if you have multiple registers, that's when issues come to life. For instance when climate change somehow got connected to everyday resource use, when people started using dry toilets or unplugging their fridge. That kind of social behaviour became relevant in relation to climate change during the sustainable living phase of the debate, when it became about adaptation. 

That's interesting to me for multiple reasons, but it's one example of an issue being registered when we didn't quite expect it. That is often the moment where it is most lively, active and engaging. But that creates a really difficult problem in that to gain institutional efficacy, it can be really foolish to challenge the dominant register (ie. 'we are really committed to climate change, but we're not going to privilege the scientific register'). Institutionally, that is how one marginalises oneself. If you don't speak the language of the issue, how can you ever be heard? 

But at the same time I really think that that single channel articulation of issues is often why you do not have the levels of public mobilisation or public awareness that we would hope for. So it creates a real double bind - speak in different languages and you lose the issue, but if you don't you also lose it. That is where artistic and creative intervention is so important. 

Eyal Weizman, who's also here at Goldsmith, uses the language of architecture to address the Israel- Palestine conflict. It's very effective. The conflict is clearly not about architecture, but about the land people live on. But by making it about architecture, the buildings people live in, the conflict suddenly speaks much more strongly to the imagination. It's much more engaging, and becomes a lively affair.