Interview with Katarzyna Szymielewicz

Szymielewicz gave a guest tour of the exhibition on Sunday, 20 March.

Hi Katarzyna. Could you introduce yourself

Sure. I work for Panoptikon Foundation, which is a Polish non-governmental organization, but operates internationally as well. Our job is to keep surveillance under control. We want surveillance to work for people, not against them; so we fight for better laws and better policies, but we also educate people on how they can defend themselves against various forms of surveillance.

You just did a tour of the Nervous Systems exhibition. What narrative did you choose for this tour?

I was trying to show how the society we're operating in, or the structures of power, move from apparently innocent pattern detection to overreactions that are targeted at individuals and can hurt individuals very badly.

So we started with looking at how pattern detection works; and how it has very little to do with detecting anything and much more with creating certain kinds of narratives about reality; how the machines see without understanding.

Through some of the historical and contemporary examples of pattern detection we looked at how it fails at getting to the truth about human beings; but at the same time how the systems we operate in, our societies, force us to seek patterns because patterns are seen as required, as things that should exist; that probably exist even though they might not be there at all.

And then we moved on to categorization and segregation of people - how society deals with bigger categories once they're established, and how that can lead to discrimination, to things like assuming who will be the criminal or what groups of people should be monitored more closely.

So we discussed criminal anthropology, we discussed some historical pieces about linking poverty and crime, or linking poverty and other kinds of abnormal behaviour. Then we moved to Ben Hayes's excellent piece [Anatomical Paranoia] on systems getting very nervous about alerts. So what happens when there is an alert? How the system reacts to an alert - or how, basically, the surveillance concept is pushed down from governments to institutions like schools, universities, financial institutions, who are forced to react with the alert to any abnormality, anything that breaks the pattern - and how that can result in individuals being harassed, discriminated, excluded, isolated.

And on that topic I was trying to show personal stories, the stories of drone targets using Laurent Grasso's drone/falcon piece ["On Air", 2009] - how nature is here much, much more clever than our technology, and how drones basically fail in targeting the right targets, and they kill innocent people. So we discussed drone attacks, we discussed the impact of surveillance on those who surveil... and we used Deborah Stratman's movie "Hacked Circuit" [2014, based on The Conversation by FF Copola], about how paranoia affects people who have to monitor other human beings.

And we entered the Assange room [!Mediengruppe Bitnik, "Delivery for Mr. Assange", 2014] to see how that particular individual was isolated by the system because he posed too much risk and was kept... is still kept, obviously.... in the Ecuadorian embassy.

From there, I took my group to discuss the "Don't spike to the algorithm" piece [Matteo Pasquinelli] which deals with predictive policing and shows how people are forced to obey by the system that creates these alerts, and nobody wants to be subjected to some kind of alert or super-examination.

So people tend to behave in a very obedient, conformative way, so as not to step out of the presumed pattern. But then what happens if we don't see the pattern ourselves? If the the pattern is only seen by those who police us, then it's very easy to trigger the alarm and very easy to fall into that assumption "We did something wrong," when we're completely innocent - we don't even understand the question. There's a very interesting thought expressed somewhere in that piece that you don't have to torture people if you already know, from the data, what they have to hide.

And from there, I took my group to discussing truth. What is the truth, and why is "the truth" still extracted from human bodies if we already know everything from the data? If patterns were so reliable, if data were so reliable, we wouldn't have to take the truth from human bodies using lie detectors, brain analysis, narco-analysis and these kinds of crazy inventions. And here I used the duck and rabbit "Janus" piece [Miljohn Ruperto, 2014], questioning the existence of the objective truth at all.

And then we finished by discussing human beings, the human body and the human condition, by discussing biometrics and a quantified self as two aspects of how human body and data can interact. And for me, that was the best introduction to the White Room, the space where the group experienced more contemporary forms, where these problems take even more problematic shapes. So we discussed the role of the companies behind it. We discussed the Big Mama table with examples of how various systems of control are used not to frighten us, not to harass us, but supposedly to help us. But then the backlash of these systems - like with iris scanning used in the context of refugees - can be very, very problematic. And then I left the group here with White Room experts, and I think they are still enjoying it.

What was it like, the experience of giving a guided tour?

It was very challenging for me, I'd never done anything like that before, so I think I was very focused, and really trying to do my best. And what helped me a lot is to see that people were following, even though they just met.

And I don't think they expected something that complex and that problematic, that troubling, but when it revealed itself as such, they didn't escape. They didn't just go somewhere to look at nice pictures, even though there are many nice pictures here to look at, if somebody wants that. But they stayed with the narrative, they even asked questions, for example, about EU-funded research that is focusing on pattern detection and things like that. We discussed drones, Assange.

So, I could see that what we are trying to say, this narrative that that exhibition shows, actually touches people emotionally. And that's, for me - as the activist and human rights lawyer - that's the key.

I see emotional reactions, and I see that they can actually link what we look at to their very personal experience; that they imagine what would it be like if they were in the situation that we're discussing, or experience it, like in the Assange room where people find themselves in this confinement, in this weird room, which is a prison effectively, without a judgement, without any reason to be so. So, what I really liked is both the seriousness of this - that people didn't escape that - and the real emotions that I could see in faces and in reactions.

Were there any things that you sensed were more interesting to the audience?

I think that the pattern detection, understanding how it really works, how the machines see without understanding, this is really powerful.

I mean really confronting people with the lack of objectivity, the lack of foundation; it's all some kind of narrative built by those who perceive threats in a certain way, who perceive the world as dangerous, and they want us to believe so, and then they adjust how the machines work and what they detect. And this kind of tension is very helpful in our work.

Also the historical examples, like the one taken from the medical histories of women who were working as typists, and it was used to - I guess - increase their work efficiency, without their knowledge - it's not quantified self, it's quantified worker. And now we use similar kind of data analysis to feel healthier, to work faster, to feel that we manage ourselves better.

So, linking contemporary, sometimes very innocent, narratives back to experiments from the past might be very helpful in showing how that can change again, and how very quickly we may find ourselves subjected to these forms of oppression or power that we've already seen in the past; with IBM's punch card system and the Holocaust, for example [one of the triangluations in the exhibition mentions Herman Hollerith’s tabulator that enabled the targeting of European Jews - leading to confiscation of their property, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation]. So these kinds of examples that we have here on display, I think they can be very helpful, by showing the extremes to which it can go.

How would you recommend visiting this exhibition?

Well, come and experience it by touching, by looking at things, by feeling, and by talking to people who are here about how data can gain very real life, and can affect your life or other's lives in a very troubling way.

Find out more about Katarzyna Szymielewicz and the Panoptykon Foundation here: https://en.panoptykon.org/