Tecnologie e Società


Operational Media

Jordan Crandall





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[This text was originally published on CTHEORY]


Over the past several decades in computationally-driven cultures, we have witnessed the emergence of increasingly networked and automatedapparatuses of engagement that are used for security, combat and navigation. These are strategicapplications that facilitate distributed fields of intelligence and agency. We might recognize them at work when we see calculations and computergraphical overlays on screen-based representations of events, or luminous portable information scrims that hover between viewer and world.

Integrated into all manner of strategic informational displays – whether used for entertainment, communication, or locationing, by the military,policing, or civilian sectors – these media have in turn been integrated into a contemporary regime of spectacle. They are visible everywhere aspart of a machine-aided process of disciplinary attentiveness, embodied in practice, that is bound up within the demands of a new production andsecurity regime.

The enabling premises of such “operational media” can be found in the 1940s WWII wartime sciences of operations research, game theory, andcybernetics. The ground was laid for its emergence in the 1950s, when the development of computing became allied with the communication, command,simulation, and control imperatives of the Cold War. Its two primary forms – the real time tracking interface and the distributed interactivesimulation – were shaped by technological demands and the symbolic-communicative practices of wartime production. At the same time, such media hashelped shape new economies of organization, optimization, and vigilance.

As a conceptual and material apparatus of engagement, operational mediation has always been about the detection and strategic codification ofmovement, and the development of maneuvers of strategic positionality. Against many of the orientations of virtual discourses over the last decade,which have often situated virtuality in terms of delocalization and disembodiment, its tradition is one of precise locational and temporalspecificity. In this sense, operational media can be thought to serve as a reaffirmation of positionality and place. It plays an importantrole in the resurgence of temporal and locational specificity witnessed in new surveillance and location-aware navigational technologies.

Historically, operational mediation has always been dependent on the formal modeling of closed systems and the development of highly sophisticatedscenario planning techniques, which are privileged at the expense of situated, experiential knowledge. It has always been oriented toward an ideal ofintegrated control and panoptic oversight, where external reality is seen as manageable through the application of abstracted calculations andstrategies. In this sense it is inherently protective and agonistic, coalescing against a field of potential threat, whether scriptedin terms of danger or inefficiency.

Yet, at the same time, the operational assemblage is fundamentally about acquisition. Propelled by a libidinous, suspicious, andsupervisory gaze, its objects are those which are to be managed or owned. It is fueled by the demands of efficiency and vigilance, moving toward realtime engagements and continuous, heightened states of alertness and preparedness, whether for protection or libidinous consumption. It is not onlydriven by security and productivity, but of convenient access to desired objects. As a technological-semiotic support, it blends combat and commodity,functioning as a link between war and consumerism.

This essay is about a unique modality of the spectacle that has emerged in this era of new security machines and mobile apparatuses of engagement.


Orientations of Integration and Control [1]

Out of his studies in feedback mechanisms, communication technology, and nonlinear processes, Norbert Weiner coined cybernetics in 1947 todesignate a new science of control mechanisms that relied on the exchange of information. These were fundamentally mechanisms of control rather thansimply those of exploration: for Weiner, power and control were absolutely central to the very foundation of the practice. However, this was not acentralized form of control, nor a static one. Objects were seen as flexible, self-regulating control-communication systems that were able tocorrect, in the course of their functioning, both their performance and the rules governing their performance. The object regulated and controlleditself based on feedback from the system. It was a machine that could learn.

Weiner’s anti-aircraft predictor was an example of such a device. It was developed to determine, several seconds in advance, where an enemyaircraft would be and to use that information to direct artillery fire. Today’s self-regulating weapon is its descendant.

In cybernetics, both ally and enemy were so merged with their technology that the distinctions between human and machine were blurred. Soldier,airplane, calculator, and firepower were merged into a single integrated system. However, ally and enemy were not part of the same system but werefundamentally two different feedback mechanisms in opposition. In this sense cybernetics (as well as operations analysis) was always dealing with aworld of confrontations and oppositional tactics. The enemy was a probabilistic system that could be countered using cybernetic tools andmethods, which involved statistical methods and fast, mechanized computing methods to solve these statistical problems. It was a fundamentallyagonistic calculus of tactical moves and countermoves.[2]

This agonistic calculus involved the construction of strategies, systems, and weapons that tie humans and technologies together through flows ofinformation and issues of symbolic processing, positioning the body and mind in terms of an integrated, information processing system. It graduallybecame the prototype for a new understanding of the human-machine relation. Within the context of industrial wartime, it was elevated into a generalphilosophy of human action.

Cybernetics was a circuit-reductionist model where behavior was always understood as purposeful and intentional. Both ally and enemy werefundamentally rational and calculating entities that played on a mechanized battlefield, well-versed in strategy, tactics, and maneuver. Humans andobjects could only be known in terms of their observable functions. Under the gaze of such inquiry, human intentionality was the same as theself-regulation of machines.[3] That which was exhibited in the human realm but was not observable oroperationally useful in science (such as non-purposeful behavior) was neglected. In this “black-box” conception of human nature, where behavior isdefined in terms of broad classes of actions based on input and output, there is no way of dealing with the full depth and complexity of humaninteraction. Human behavior is reduced to moves of pursuit, escape, and deception. An abstract level of pattern is emphasized over a uniquelyembodied particularity.

As clusters of tools, procedures, and metaphors, technologies configure a platform for discourse and ideology. Such a technical-discursiveensemble is modifiable through politics, yet it has political orientations built into its system. It is not only the technology and its use, in otherwords, but the assumptions and orientations that come bundled with it.[4] To what extent is thisessential confrontational and agonistic nature of cybernetics and its circuit-reductionist models of behavior, “hardwired” into its descendants today?In cybernetic control theory, control systems beget other control systems. As Katherine Hayles points out, “envisioning different kinds of exchangesdemanded different kinds of control mechanisms, and constructing new control mechanisms facilitated the construction of more exchanges in thatmode.”[5] To what extent have its enabling premises replicated?

One could ask the same questions of computing in general. Cybernetics and its companion wartime sciences were themselves driven by the systematic,logical rules of computing, where it is understood that everything – warfare, ground realities, markets – can be formalized, modeled, and managed. Reality is figured as mathematical and “capturable” through a formal programming logic. It can be thought to have contributed to an experience of theworld as a predictable, manipulable entity, leading to a sense of dominance over the future.[6]

One could suggest three intersecting areas, descending from cybernetics and its companion wartime sciences, that are bundled into operational mediafrom the start. First, the perpetuation of an idealist orientation where humans have no access to unmediated reality and the world is activelyconstructed in terms of relational information systems. Here the world is scripted as inherently controllable, filtered through a scrim ofinformation that modifies both system and materiality. Second, following from the first, is an emphasis on data patterns over essence: anever-greater abstraction of persons, bodies, and things, and an emphasis on statistical patterns of behavior, where the populace is pictured as acalculus of probability distributions and manageable functions. Third, a fundamentally agonistic orientation, deriving from a world built onconfrontation and oppositional tactics, of tactical moves and countermoves.

Such pathways are dimensions of media development, whether militaristic or not. They flow into the worlds of science, marketing, and videogaming, for example. A sense of mastery is generated through the contemporary popular media, where the spectator is infused with an artificial sense ofcontrol over the machine and an exterior world represented on the screen. Within the perfect world of the operational system, reality is subsumed within the dictates of the interface. An unruly or unproductive situation is dominated, over and through the technology, and a de facto powerrelation is established between observer and observed.

This tradition has been motivated by, and participated in the construction of, an imagined enclosure of global panoptic oversight – a “fullspectrum dominance.”[7] In 1997,the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force predicted that by the year 2000,“we shall be capable of finding, tracking, and targeting virtually in real timeany significant element moving on the face of the earth.”[8] The operational impulse is aboutacquiring a position of mastery through an omniscient distribution of the gaze:a controlling gaze that is everywhere yet nowhere, and which acquires power solelybecause of this amorphousness.

Moving through a world of information and communications technology, information is increasingly seen as more essential that than which itrepresents. Pattern is privileged over presence.[9]


The Real Time Tracking Interface

The twentieth century was driven by the race to eliminate time delays of all sorts – between actions and displayed results; between the time oftraveling between distant points; between sent messages and received responses; between observation and engagement. One could see the entire historyof both military development and industrial production as having been driven, in one way or another, by the need for advance detection andknowledge-action-time. It was driven by the sense that only advanced technological systems are capable of dealing accurately and consistentlywith the calculations and extremely complex demands of battle situations – particularly within potentially devastating warfare scenarios, when thereis thought to be no time for human intervention and error.

The real time interface coalesced out of the demands of war and production. As Lev Manovich points out, it was radar that offered the massemployment of this fundamentally new type of screen – the screen of “real time” – which will gradually come to dominate modern visual culture.[10] Radar was the first real time tracking technology. Much of its development occurred in the early1940s during the War, due to its rapid abilities at gathering volumes of information. It generated so much information that crews had to reorganizeand accelerate their way of working in order to keep up with its pace. The real time interface, then, brought with it demands for its acclimation,generating new patterns of organization, attentivity, and action.

The first large-scale, computerized command, control, and communications system was SAGE, established in the mid-1950s. It was created to linktogether radar installations around the perimeter of the U.S., analyze and interpret their signals, and direct intercepting jets toward incomingobjects. As Paul Edwards shows, SAGE unleashed a wave of command-control projects from the late 1950s onwards, which eventually formed the core of aworldwide satellite, sensor, and communications web geared for global oversight and instantaneous military response.[11] It is within this web that the forms and ideologies of tracking arose – as well as working methodologies and rhythms, formsof interface and engagement. It is within this “total system,” intertwined with the cybernetic tradition of integration, that operational mediabegan to coalesce, along with the forms of organization and attention that were appropriate to it. It was coincident with, and driven by, logicsof production, self-optimization, and vigilance.

Consider a contemporary example. A soldier on the ground in Iraq calculates coordinates for a strike using laser binoculars and a GPS device. Hetransmits them via satellite to the Joint Operations Center in Qatar. Command personnel in Qatar check the information against digital maps made fromsatellite photographs, determine the coordinates for the strike, and then relay the coordinates via communications satellite to the pilot of a B-2,into whose missile guidance system they are fed. The launched missile is corrected in flight by a GPS satellite.

Plans are currently underway for the development of a “Global Information Grid” – a secure, wireless network that will fuse US military andintelligence services into one unified system, making volumes of information available instantly to all military and intelligence actors. Proponentssay that it will become the most lethal weapon in the US arsenal and change the military and warfare the way that the Internet changed business andculture. The consortium established to build the “war net” includes a who’s who of military contractors and technology innovators: Boeing, CiscoSystems, General Dynamics, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Northrup Grumman, Oracle, Raytheon, and Sun Microsystems. According to the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, this system will allow every member of the military to have “a God’s eye view” of thebattlefield.[12]

According to Virilio, the real time interface has replaced the interval that once constituted and organized the history and geography of humansocieties. Problems of spatial distance have been supplanted with problems of the time remaining.[13] One could say, then, that operational media is motored by the need for an instantaneity of action, where time delays, spatial distances, and“middlemen” are reduced through computational systems that facilitate the sharing of human and machinic functions. One can see the emergence of“unmanned” vehicles in this light, especially those that are armed: they are constructs that are shaped, in system and in material form, by the driveto collapse the distance between sensor, analyst, and shooter, through various systemic adjustments and relocations.

A new form of agency emerges within this coordination and command network, spanning spatial distance and merging information from multiple sources. A combinatory field of perception arises within a distributed field of shared functions.

This intertwining of human and machinic capacity, in the generation of a combinatory field of perception, is part of the historical development ofmedia itself. In cinema, the spectator and the cinematic apparatus are mutually dependent in the act of conducting representation. One must betrained to behave and see in accordance with the conditions of the device. The viewer is immobilized and sensitized to a language of movement throughwhich an extensive world is understood. The human becomes reliant upon the apparatus that populates its field of vision, adjusting to the rhythmiccodes of its conveyance, as the apparatus is reliant upon the sensorium of the viewer for its actualization. A perceptual capacity and a signifyingapparatus emerge through an integration of human and machine.[14]

We can say that, in a spectatorial situation, a subject is “distributed” within a field of engagement determined through technological systems ofcommunication, storage, sorting, and retrieval, contoured under the social and institutional construction of knowledge. A viewing subject is linkedor inserted into larger networks of seeing and linguistic meaning, and a decentered or multi-nodal self emerges. It is accompanied by experiences ofdisembodiment and incipient presence; experiences of mobility and translocality; experiences of prosthetic extension and liberation through machines. One can regard the history of popular media in terms of such technologized perception and presence.

As Ryan Bishop and John Phillips write, the integrative history of military technology – a history of prosthetic extension, especially that ofsight – has been paralleled by the rise of mass media and its manipulation of vision to create illusions of simultaneity, movement, and depth. Eachhas produced instruments designed to collapse distance and time, aiming to close the gap between the perceiving subject and the visible world. The“problem” proposed by the gap of perception is solved by a return to a mythologized time of unproblematic perception.[15] But the fundamental problem remains.

These histories are intertwined with that of automation, but they connect to a still larger migration of cognition. By the 1960s, for example,television was already on its way to becoming, as it has today, a machine for the automation of thinking. Reflecting the viewer’s own thought process,it develops its own conventions of simulated deliberation, absolving the viewer of the labor of decision-making [16] – as when a laugh track allows one to maintain a relaxed composure while the machine assumes the labor of chuckling. At theextreme end is the figure of the “couch potato”, whose body is hollowed out by the apparatus as the televisual “smart image” assumes control.

Consider a recent news broadcast. A pilot is flying an aircraft during a combat situation in Iraq. It is flown jointly, by an operator in thecockpit as well as by operators on the ground. We are watching the scene as if through the cockpit window. Computer calculations are arrayed on theimage-field. We see through the pilot’s eye, but we also see through the viewpoint of the larger command network in which the pilot is embedded. Thepilot is one actor within a distributed agency that combines humans and machines. Our viewpoint is momentary converged with that of the pilotingagency. The clip ends, and a zoom out frames the image within a newsroom stage. A news anchor appears. She meets our gaze and addresses us in termsof a collective “we.” We are placed in position, momentarily aligned with this combinatory operator, sharing its perspective, hailed as subjectswithin its operational world.

For both the military and the civilian observer, there is no “time” for reflection. In the military realm, reflection adds time and space in whichthe target might slip away. It expands, not lessens, the gap between detecting and intervening, sensing and shooting. In the popular realm, slowness– the stuff of reflection and deliberation – is to be avoided, instantaneity prized. American media culture is one of impatience and immediacy. Reflection is distributed and automated – or as some would say, evacuated. We are however talking about a symbiotic relationship: both subject andobject are mutually intertwined within the combinatory human-machinic realm.


The Distributed Interactive Simulation [17]

Already in the 1950s, researchers were using the technology developed for SAGE to create computer graphics programs that allowed direct input bytouching the screen. The most famous of these was “Sketchpad,” designed in 1962 by Ivan Sutherland. It was at this point that the real time screenbecame interactive.[18] Simulated three-dimensional worlds were subsequently developed in which userscould “virtually” embody themselves, whether via a stationary screen or a movable head-mounted display.

Sutherland founded the first computer science program to focus on graphics and graphical interfaces in 1965. There were three standards that heset for this work. First, the display screen was to be considered a window, through which the user looks into a computer-modeled universe. Thisvirtual world was to become so realistic that it would eventually become indistinguishable from a real world. Second, other sensory modalities shouldbe included so that users find themselves fully present in a virtual world through sound, touch, and realistic sensations of embodied movement. Third, abstract representations should be able to be superimposed on an object, as in cartography, where information overlays a realistic depiction.[19]

Right from the beginning, industry played a large role in the development of interactive computer graphics. The entertainment industry, along withthe military, has been a major stimulus to its development. If there is a “military-industrial-entertainment” complex to be theorized, it was alreadyat work in the 1960s. The desire for realism in computer graphical effects comes from a variety of sources, no less film, television, and fiction. It is no secret that developers of both videogames and military flight simulators have been influenced by films like The Terminator and novelslike Snow Crash. It has been said that military funding has driven technological development, but it could also be said that it is theentertainment world that drives them both. Or, more accurately, they are both driven by a cultural imaginary, which is a composite of multiplenarratives whether fact or fiction.

Abstract strategy games were always necessary in the history of warfare, providing important tools for testing operations and tactics. During theCold War, increasingly powerful modeling and prediction technologies were needed in order to reach into the future and anticipate events. They wereof vital importance since actual outcomes were too catastrophic to consider. Simulation was actively used in contrast to actual weapon technologythat could not be used.

The 3-D simulation technologies developed before the 1980s were understood as stand-alone systems. Since the advent of large-scale information andcommunications networks, interactive computer graphics have increasingly been integrated into networked “distributed interactive simulations.” DARPAfunding has been a major player in this work. One of the largest distributed interactive simulations was the DARPA-sponsored SIMNET, which began tobe developed in 1983 and went operational in 1990. With such distributed battle-engagement simulations, virtual theaters of war are created that linkmultiple actors in real time. With the rapid development of this technology during the 1990s, content and compelling narrative development haveaccelerated in their importance, leading to an emphasis on “back-story” and the development of databases of historically- and geographically-accuratedata.

This drive for realism, compelling content, and back-story has come from both imagined and actual warfare scenarios. In the summer of 1990, forexample, a computer-based war game called Operation Internal Look was used by General Norman Schwarzkopf and his staff at the U.S.Central Military Command to run through scenarios of potential conflict in Iraq. Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait, the function ofInternal Look changed from virtual to actual: it was now used to run variations of the real combat scenario. Lessons from Internal Looksubsequently shaped the defensive plan for Operation Desert Shield. Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoirs that “the movements of Iraq’s real-world groundand air forces eerily paralleled the imaginary scenario of the game.”[20] Actual intelligence reportswere so similar to game dispatches that the fictional reports had to be stamped with a prominent disclaimer: “Exercise Only.”

The flow between simulation and actuality also moves in the other direction. In the drive for realism, back-story, and historical accuracy,actual battle scenarios are subsequently virtualized – in other words, they are recreated for use in simulations. A case in point isthe “Battle of 73 Easting” between the U.S. and Iraqi forces, which took place in the Iraqi desert on 26 February 1991, just three days into theground war. One month after the battle, work on gathering data for the simulation had already begun. The battle was essentially re-staged: troops(many of whom fought in the actual battle) reconstructed the action moment-by-moment, vehicle-by-vehicle. Diaries, written logs, and personal taperecordings were used to introduce subjective experiences – the fears and emotions of the soldiers as well as their actions. Tracks in the sand gaveprecise traces of movement.[21]

Flowing back and forth across imagined and actual warfare scenarios, the drive for compelling narrative development in simulations influencespopular news and entertainment programming. In terms of ideas, personnel, and products, there is already a continuous flow back and forth acrossthe military and news-entertainment realms. Military planners now work closely with industrial partners in team fashion, and in the process, militarycontracting units have become business organizations. Through increasing alliances with the entertainment industry, research work for high-endmilitary products can be seamlessly integrated with systems in the commercial sector.[22]

The Department of Defense has been the major source of long-term funding for high-end computer graphics, visualization technologies, and networkinfrastructure for over 30 years. Yet since the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, the DOD has increased its reliance upon theacquisition of commercially-available items and components, many of which have already been developed in the videogame industry. Since then a deepercollaboration has set in among the military, commercial designers, the entertainment industry, and academic researchers. The mandate of STRICOM(Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command) – the organization that was founded in order to manage and direct the military’s simulation efforts– is to leverage non-military industry resources.

The military now develops its own commercial games designed as recruitment devices. A new gaming genre called “serious games” has arisen to fillthe gap between entertainment, training, and public relations. Including such games as America’s Army: Operations, released in 2002, andUSAF: Air Dominance, in 2004[23], so-called serious games are government-funded promotionalproducts, developed in the commercial sector, that are intended to be used as promotional vehicles, recruitment tools, and educational experiences.

Military simulations are adapted to the commercial game market as commercial videogames are adapted for military purposes – as the videogameindustry on the whole is in ascendance. It is now the commercial videogame market that drives the development of graphics and processor hardware. Thegame industry is reaching (or has already reached) the level of film and television in its importance as a popular entertainment medium in much of thedeveloped world. One could suggest that film and television are fast on their way to becoming special cases of a much larger simulative field.[24] It is urgent, then, to understand the extent to which the content of news media is drivenby the demands of simulation.

Since 1980, the two-cycle (AM/PM) basis for news delivery has been gradually replaced by a relentless 24-hour news delivery cycle that seldom looksback. It is a profit center that demands new and constant dangers for reportage and commodification. It fuels a constant battle for attention-space,where the whole of reality is transformed into a dramatic stage for alluring catastrophe. Here there is no time to remember, because the next crisis– always imminent – demands our full vigilance. Battle simulations, television shows, and interactive games inhabit a mutually-reinforcing systemof marketable threats and protections. There is nothing outside of this system, and especially as it is increasingly able to tap into the affectivedimension, where danger is eroticized.

As simulations flow back and forth across the commercial sector, in various combinations of serious use, entertainment, recruitment, promotion, and proprietary engagement, perhaps “simulation” is becoming less a modality of representation than a mechanism of translation – or at least, a form of incipience or potentiality, moving across various stages of enaction. In new training scenarios, live units are connected to simulation units,allowing a switching back and forth between virtual and real situations – a process that will have analogues in the civilian realm. We are here in the territory of what John Armitage, after Virilio, calls the “logistics of perception management”[25]– the realm of spin and “reality control,” where facts, interpretations, andevents are mutually shaped to conform to strategic doctrines; where reality ispositioned as something that is inherently pliable; and where the public becomesa surface for the production of effects.

The issue is not simulation per se, but the larger historical transformation of the spectacle, in which the processes and forms of simulation have played a role.


A Mobilized and Vigilant Perception

The logics and forms of the real time tracking interface and the distributed interactive simulation – as these are shaped under the demands ofwarfare and production – have been integrated into all manner of graphic displays, whether used for entertainment, communication, or locationing, bythe military, policing, and civilian sectors. They have been integrated into new regimes of entertainment and spectacle.

Fundamental contradictions remain. Brian Holmes embodies these contradictions in his figure of the “flexible personality”: the contemporaryindividual embedded in a network culture that is a synthesis of, on the one hand, a communicative opportunism, bringing labor and leisure together ina dream of disalienation that stretches back to the 1960s; and on the other hand, an underlying architecture of surveillance and control, madepossible by the spread of new technologies.[26] With the seemingly boundless opportunity, safety, andconvenience that comes with these new technologies, their user is increasingly able to targeted and managed within new control regimes – a mobilefocal point of a distributed Panopticon.

As Foucault[27] and others have shown, we internalize the condition of surveillance. It enters intothe logic of perception, directed at ourselves or at others. We are both origin and object: the one who tracks and who keeps track. Theseconduits are not particular to the domain of policing, for they not only compel a watchfulness of the state, but a civilian watchfulness, where asuspicious or concerned eye is cast upon one’s self and one’s fellow citizens.

Think of the way that one is compelled to assume a position of extreme vigilance – to “track” or scan rather than simply see – in the reportingof “suspicious activity” at an airport. Looking for such “suspicious activity,” I suddenly realize the most insidious part of the drill: What aboutme? With this realization, I am transformed. I am one the person at Sartre’s keyhole, caught in the act, who knows that he is seen at themoment that he sees. I have now become an object for the gaze of another. Looked at, I look at myself. Concerned that I could be “suspect,” Imodify my actions accordingly.

In media-saturated societies, surveillance has gradually been made “friendly” and transformed into spectacle, to the extent that it is no longer acondition to be feared. Rather, it is a condition to be courted: witness the phenomena of reality television, blogs, and webcams, and the rise ofthe media mise-en-scene as the primary form of social authentication.[28] In recent cyber discourses,this “friendly” control is often regarded as self-regulating: we are integral part of systems that self-adjust through market dynamics or adaptivebehaviors, allowing for the emergence of new forms of maneuver and masquerade. Within new ecologies of mind[29], we benefit from machine-human interactions all around us, a pervasive web of shared resources that offers boundlessopportunity for identity refashioning. Further: in a database-driven culture of accounting, one needs to appear on the matrices of registration inorder to “count.” To be accounted for is to exist.

Perhaps nowhere have the contradictions of communicative opportunism/surveillant precision made more palpable than in new portable wirelessdevices, especially those that are increasingly “location-aware.” These technologies, along with their semiotics and uses, are serving to weavetogether degrees of temporal and spatial specificity, against the grain of much of the “delocalized” orientation of virtual discourses duringthe last decade – but perhaps more true to the strategic origins of the cybernetic tradition, which was, after all, concerned with the precisecalculation of position.

“Locative” technologies rely on connection to the global positioning system (GPS), launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1994. Aconstellation of 24 satellites that circle the globe, the system works through radio signals sent from satellite transmitters to ground-basedreceivers, through which precise positions on the earth are determined. The system is continually fine-tuned by US Air Force monitoring stationsacross the world. GPS capability can now be integrated into a device as small as a wristwatch. When your navigational device has access to ageographic information system (GIS), content items that respond to your location can be retrieved. Such technologies blend the tradition ofinteractive computer graphics, tracking interfaces, and handheld communications devices. The technology is already visible in new on-board automobilenavigation systems such as ATX and OnStar, who can even operate some of your car’s functions remotely (including turning on the speaker phone toeavesdrop). Currently about a quarter of all vehicles at U.S. car rental agencies use some form of GPS technology. And of course, it is alreadybeginning to sweep through the mobile phone market: By the end of the year, the FCC is requiring all U.S. mobile phone providers to be able topinpoint the exact location of all customers who call 911, and most of these companies are already beginning to roll out GPS-equipped phones in orderto be the first to offer new positioning features.[30] In the tradition of heads-up displays, variouskinds of visual and sensory augmentation will also be possible through new devices that overlay information and graphics on objects and spacesdirectly in the user’s line of vision.

Tiny transponders or RFID (radio frequency identification) tags – which can be embedded in just about anything, including humans – allow preciselocationing of objects within flexible production and distribution systems. They are what allow customers to precisely track the trajectory of theirFederal Express package. Gillette has already embedded them in cheap disposable razors, and retailers such as Wal-Mart are requiring all of theirsuppliers to embed these RF tags in their shipments for decoding. A recent ad for IBM On Demand Business reads: “Tens of thousands of parts, allperfectly choreographed. Every single day, an integrated wireless tracking system helps Audi plants respond in real time to shifts in globaldemand.”[31] The military was of course an early pioneer of RFID.

The potential of GPS-enabled devices, ubiquitous transponders, and other locationing technologies present a world where every object and human istagged with information specifications including history and position – a world of information overlays that is no longer virtual but wedded toobjects, places, and positions, and no longer fully simulative since it facilitates an active trafficking between model and reality. Suchlocation-specific technology combines information, movement, and precise positioning – knowing “where” as well as “what.”

These technologies and their discourses aim to increase productivity, agility, and awareness, yet they vastly increase the tracking capabilities ofmarketing and management regimes. You are able to get what you want faster, but your behavior is tracked and analyzed by marketers who also canprovide this information to police and military sources, who increasingly depend upon the business sector for a large part of their intelligence.(After the carnage of the Civil War, the U.S. military was prohibited from future interventions into the domestic realm. Since most of the spysatellites are owned by the military, the military “outsources” some of its domestic intelligence needs to commercial satellite providers, while relying on data gathered through the private sector on a number of fronts, especially to meet the sudden growth in intelligence demands after 9/11.)Information from buying habits, travel locations, and audience demographics can be integrated into one comprehensive system, which aims to targetconsumers at the one-to-one level, offering individually-tailored enticements. Tracked, the user becomes a target within the operational interfacesof the marketing worlds, into whose technologies state surveillance is outsourced.

The paradigm is already in place in new regimes of production, which aim to narrow the intervals between conception, manufacturing, distribution,and consumption. Aiming toward instantaneity in shopping and media-entertainment development, they shrink the delays between detecting an audiencepattern and formatting a new enticement that can address it.

Such technologies arise out of, and facilitate, maneuvers of strategic positionality – maneuvers that dervie from the tradition ofoperational media. With such impulses, one needs to account for a moving self or object in the most precise terms as to assert control over it, tomanage it, lest it become unruly, unproductive, unsafe, or inconvenient. It is to assert power, whether over ourselves or others: it is to endeavorto know more than the other; to put the other in a position of subservience; to have the “edge” over the other or the self (self-discipline). Propelled by a libidinous, suspicious, and supervisory gaze, the object is that which is to be managed or owned. It involves escalating timepressures contoured under an economy of desire and vigilance, moving toward a reduction of the intervals between detection and engagement, or desireand its attainment.

This form of operationally-driven form of mobilized and vigilant perception – which we can refer to as tracking – reifies what Viriliocalls the “being of the path.” It is a pathway that is wholly identified with the subject and the object in motion.[32] However, unlike Virilio’s emphasis on its lack of referentiality, this tracking-path is filled with signification: it servesto invest movement with meaning, as both a surface of action-inscription and an activity of action-inscription. It offers a semiotics that engageswith continuity, understanding a moving object not as fixed but in formation – an “inform” on its way to coalescing as a determinate thing, and whichexists in a dynamic between passage and construction.[33]

Yet at the same time that tracking is occupied with movement and its quantification, it is occupied with precise categorical location – aprecise positionality on a geo-temporal-identificatory grid. The viewer-consumer is targeted within a demographic or marketing database. Thetracked object is placed on a geographical grid, a temporal grid, or an identity matrix – one or another classification scheme or database-drivenidentity assessment. Following Foucault, these logics coalesce into regulatory mechanisms. They carry with them a way of modulating and constructingdiscourses that define a field of objects and a subject adequate to know them. They help form a model for thought and identification and provide asource of new concepts and metaphors. They constitute a form of self-reference, or self-medialization, which is defined in response to a desired andfeared Other. Internalizing such logics of classification, the tracking/tracked subject replaces a subjective evaluation with an economic or threatindex, for example, or reifies positionality in order to conform to access demands. It is a calculus of ontological division.

While tracking is fundamentally about the detection and strategic codification of movement, then, it at the same time serves as areaffirmation of positionality and place. It is about a semiotics of mobility, yet is also a fundamental reassertion of temporal andlocational specificity.

Tracking leads to the “arrest” of its object in a matrix of signification – a process we know in terms of targeting. Through thepost-perspectival guidelines of the operational interface, the suspicious and acquisitive gaze fixes its sights on its object-target, toward the goalof its elimination or consumption.

Such a process involves three fundamental needs: security, productivity, and convenient access to commodity. In this way surveillance, efficacy,and consumerism are blended. Networks of pleasure and paranoia are harnessed in order to produce an awareness of endangered enticement andmove a subject to action – that is, to consume material, virtual, or discursive objects, whether positioned in terms of security or libidinoussatisfaction. In the relatively wealthy regions of the world, citizens are compelled to believe in a cause (democracy) and dedicate themselves to a“way of life” (shopping). The expression “defending our way of life” embodies the twin engines of desire and fear, attraction and protection. Thismeans defending the right to acquire as the very means of “freedom of mobility.” It means defending the right to own and circulate objects, and toconstitute oneself as an object to be marketed. Through an interlocking mechanism of selling and consuming, looking and buying, one grazes alongendless arrays of enticements offered up for the desirous and acquiring eye – enticements that are aimed at the replication of desire in the eyes ofothers. Such a mechanism becomes the very condition of mobility. It is a process of defining the self in terms of an unbounded menagerie ofattractions, which leaves it forever lacking.

We can say that whenever there is surveillance, there is shopping, and vice-versa: the consumer polices and the police desires.Conquer/consume/protect, desire/fire: the operational gaze is a complex of offensive and defensive contradictions. Mon désir est la surquoi je tire.[34]

In the end, the workings of operational mediation – borne of a formal programming logic, of the primacy of pattern over presence, and of theagonistic calculus of tactics and maneuver – cannot be understood by formal linguistic meanings alone. It calls for us to recognize a dimension ofaffect: an axis of intensity that underlies the symbolic register, continually confounding politics of representation. To attempt toaccommodate this dimension is to enter the domain of contradictions, where violence can be both horrific and pleasurable, and where surveillance canbe voyeurism. It is the realm where one secretly thrills to the potential spectacle of crime, and where danger is not only avoided but also secretlycourted. It is the realm of the disaster imaginary and the criminal unconscious, played out in the “adventure factor” in military recruitmentadvertisements, immersive games, and extreme sports. It is the “morbid curiosity” we feel when, present in the aftermath of a violent act, we have tolook, but we don’t want to see. It requires the acknowledgement of danger as a constitutive element of attraction: the unpredictable, dangerous webof intrigue that pulls us into the narrative world.

At the extreme case, we are in the dimension of the Lacanian Real: the hidden fantasmatic underside of our sense of reality, which cannot beassimilated into the symbolic order of language or into the domain of shared images. It provides the fundamental support of reality, yet it cannot beincorporated into it. It is the jouissance felt in the catastrophe and in the construction of the sublime object or the impossible-real objectof desire.[35]

In addition to the meaning of a phenomenon, one must endeavor to account for its motivating power. Meaning is often pressedinto service of an even more fundamental intensity of belief. Intensities will always trump semantics – they will mold meanings to their own ends. Although this dimension of intensity and affective engagement is not representational, it is, following Deleuze, “gradated” by representation. Thechallenge is to develop a cultural vocabulary specific to it.[36]

Contoured under the aegis of impending danger and inefficiency, we are talking about a form of perception and codification that arises in the contemporary demand for increased vigilance – but in such a way as to produce the vigilant perceiver as a site for the production of desire. Itsituates the body as a receptive site for new fears and attractions. Such “positioning” andsimulation impulses are visible everywhere, as part of a machine-aided processof discliplinary attentiveness, embodied in practice, that is bound up withinthe demands of a new production and securityregime.[37]

The challenge is not only to endeavor to understand this operational construct, but to understand the forms of opposition to it that are emerging in the globalized world. For the operational is only one “window” onto reality. There are other orientations that counter it, and for which, by its very nature, it is unable to account. It is powerless to envision terms of engagement that do not operate according to its logics. Itcan only assign them to the realm of the barbaric or irrational: that which lies outside of its license on reason.[38]

The eruption of violence is one result of the lack of political process within which these alternative constructs can be heard.




This text is based on a paper delivered at the workshop “The City as Target” at the National University of Singapore in August of 2004. I wouldlike to thank my colleagues to whom this research is indebted: John Armitage, Ryan Bishop, Manuel De Landa, Paul N. Edwards, Peter Galison, N.Katherine Hayles, Thomas Y. Levin, Lev Manovich, Brian Massumi, and Peter Weibel. Special thanks to Arthur and Marilouise Kroker andthe anonymous reviewers of my earlier draft.

[1] My discussion of cybernetics owes a large debt to N. Katherine Hayles and Peter Galison, whose work is essential on the subject. See N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and InformaticsUniversity of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 84-112, and Peter Galison, “The Ontologyof the Enemy: Norbert Weiner and the Cybernetic Vision,” CriticalInquiry 21:1, Autumn 1994, pp. 228-266. See also Peter Galison, “War Againstthe Center,” Grey Room 04, Summer 2001, pp. 6-33.

[2] Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy,” p. 233.

[3] Ibid, p. 246.

[4] I owe many of these insights to Paul N. Edwards and his brilliant study of the role that computing has played in the “closed world” orientation of the Cold War era and its aftermath. Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politicsof Discourse in Cold War America. MIT Press, 1996.

[5] Hayles, p. 91. Hayles points to James R. Beniger, in The Control Revolution: Technological andEconomic Origins of the Information Society. Harvard University Press, 1986, who shows how technologies of speed and communication precipated a“crisis of control” that, once solved, initiated a new cycle of crisis.

[6] Edwards, p. 1-15.

[7] “Full Spectrum Dominance” is the key term in Joint Vision 2020, the blueprint the United States Department of Defense. See

[8] General Fogelman, speaking to the House of Representatives, cited by Paul Virilio in Strategy ofDeception (Verso, 2000), pp. 17-18, from an article by F. Filloux entitled “Le Pentagone la tête dans les etoiles” in Liberation, 20 April1999.

[9] Hayles, p. 19.

[10] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001, pp. 95-101.

[11] Edwards, pp. 75-111.

[12] “A Network of Warfighters to Do Battle in 21st Century Conflicts,” New York (AFP) Nov 13, 2004, from, 15 Nov 2004. Thanks to Irving Goh for this forward.

[13] Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, Verso, 1997, pp. 10, 19, 30.

[14] Sean Cubitt, The Cinema Effect, MIT Press, 2004.

[15] Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, “Sighted Weapons and Modernist Opacity: Aesthetics, Poetics,Prosthetics,” Boundary 2, 29:2, 2002, p. 158-9.

[16] Eliane Scarry “Watching and Authorizing the Gulf War” in Media Spectacles, Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds. (Routledge, 1993), 57-73, as cited in Margaret Morse, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, Indiana University Press, 1998, 36-67.

[17] I owe a large debt to the extensive research of Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood on the history ofsimulation technology and war gaming and the contemporary synergies between the military and the entertainment industry. Tim Lenoir, “All But War isSimulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex,” Configurations, Fall 2000. Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood, “Theaters of War: TheMilitary-Entertainment Complex” in Kunstkammer, Laboratorium, Bühne–Schauplätze des Wissens im 17. Jahrhundert, eds. Jan Lazardzig, HelmarSchramm, and Ludger Schwarte. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Publishers, 2003: 432-64. An earlier, more expansive version of this essay is available at

[18] Manovich, pp. 101-102.

[19] Lenoir and Lowood, op. cit.

[20] General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, Bantham, 1992.

[21] F. Clifton Berry, Jr., “Re-creating History: The Battle of 73 Easting,” National Defense,Nov. 1991, also discussed in Bruce Sterling, “War is Virtual Hell,” Wired Vol.1 No. 1, January 1993 and in Kevin Kelly, “God Games: MemorexWarfare,” Out of Control, Addison Wesley, 1994. Cited in Tim Lenoir andHenry Lowood, “Theaters of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex,”in Kunstkammer, Laboratorium, Bühne–Schauplätze des Wissens im 17. Jahrhundert,eds. Jan Lazardzig, Helmar Schramm, and Ludger Schwarte. Berlin: Walter de GruyterPublishers, 2003: 432-64. Also at

[22] See DOD Directives 5000.1 and 5000.2, as cited by Lenoir and Lowood.

[23] “Critical Mass Completes ‘USAF: Air Dominance’ Military Action Flight Simulator,” Austin TX(SPX) Nov 12, 2004, from Space War Express, 12 Nov 2004. Thanks to IrvingGoh for this forward.

[24] This statement makes reference to Lev Manovich’s statement that “Born from animation, cinemapushed animation to its periphery, only in the end to become a particular case of animation.” Manovich, p. 302.

[25] John Armitage, “Beyond Postmodernism? Paul Virilio’s Hypermodern Cultural Theory,” in Arthur andMarilouise Kroker, eds., Life in the Wires: The CTHEORY Reader, CTHEORYBooks, 2004, pp. 354-368. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: TheLogistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller, Verso, 1989.

[26] Brian Holmes, “Drifting Through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperialist Infrastructure,”Springerin 3/04, See his writing on “The Flexible Personality” in Brian Holmes, Hieroglyphs of the Future, Arkzin, 2002,pp. 106-145.

[27] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 1977, pp.195-228.

[28] See Peter Weibel, “Pleasure and the Panoptic Principle,” and Ursula Frohne, “Screen Tests: Media Narcissism, Theatricality, and the Internalized Observer” in [CTRL]SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel, eds., MIT Press, 2002, pp. 215-219; 253-77.

[29] See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.466.

[30] See William J. Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 113-127, and Matthew Brzezinski, Fortress America, Bantam, 2004, p. 63-64.

[31] As reproduced in Wired, Dec 2004, p. 43. For explanations of RFID, see Mitchell,Me++, pp. 113-127, and Brzezinski, Fortress America, Bantam, 2004, p. 78-81. Applied Digital Solutions experiments with RF tags forhumans and they are already injected into humans and animals.

[32] Virilio, Open Sky, p. 130.

[33] Reading through Bergson and Deleuze, Brian Massumi offers important new theoretical tools for thinking movement today, at the intersection of cultural studies and science studies. My thinking on tracking, as well as on the role of affect, owes a great debt to his work. See Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, Duke University Press, 2002.

[34] “My desire is where I’m firing at.” Guillaume Appollinaire, from “Desir” in “Lueurs des Tirs,”Calligrammes, Paris, 1918, as quoted in Virilio, War and Cinema, p. 14-15.

[35] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton, 1978. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso,2002.

[36] For an important call for a vocabulary of affect in cultural studies, see Brian Massumi, op.cit. The work of Manuel DeLanda has also been exemplary in this regard. See Under Fire.1: The Organization and Representation of Violence,ed. Jordan Crandall, Witte de With, 2004, p. 68-73.

[37] For considerations of disciplinary attentiveness in Modernity, the seminal work is JonathanCrary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, MITPress, 1999.

[38] See Edward Said, Orientalism, Pantheon: 1978.



Jordan Crandall ( is an artist and media theorist. He isAssistant Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. His current project is “Under Fire,” at the Witte de With center forcontemporary art, Rotterdam ( His most recent books are Under Fire: The Organization andRepresentation of Violence (2004) and Drive: Technology, Mobility, and Desire (2002).



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