Blog Post

How to Avoid Becoming a Signature: An Educational Tutorial on How to Preempt Preemptive Strikes

How to Avoid Becoming a Signature: An Educational Tutorial on How to Preempt Preemptive Strikes

An effective design fiction exists to interrogate the plausibility of not-so-implausible futures.  We create concepts, models, and prototypical creations that serve as tiny cross-sections of previously unimaginable worlds.  A single object can have the power to beg a myriad of questions, ranging from “where did this come from?” to “what sort of world does this exist in?”  We are given a breadcrumb, and we are asked to follow the trail and to make our own deductions.

This is what the Anti-Preemptive Strike Kit (APSK) aims to accomplish.  A prototype above all else, the APSK appears as a deliberately computer-generated image to invoke both a curiosity and a hyper-awareness of the state of the world from whence it came.  We see an industrial metal case with a bright red Predator drone rendered on its side, and are asked to try and understand why we would need such a device in the first place.  Overall, what can be gleaned from an initial glance is that the kit is meant to protect and prevent – a form of antidote against some larger (perceptive) threat.

This is where the tutorial comes in.  Framed as a video essay, the curiously titled How to Avoid Becoming a Signature: An Educational Tutorial on How to Preempt Preemptive Strikes helps to construct the world in which the APSK exists. A computer text-to-speech narration details the back-story for this otherwise enigmatic device.  “Part 1: The Signature” gives us a general yet ominous overview of how patterns and algorithms have changed the way surveillance is conducted.  For the computer voice, the problem is embedded in a growing emphasis on routine analysis and the distillation of individual signatures.  The datafication of the bodies of the surveilled is underscored as the means to an end that has yet to be determined.  We are left with only impersonal aerial stock footage, yet this is meant to resonate with the larger themes of persistent watchfulness that define the creation of signatures.  From there, we move on to “Part 2: The New Futurism” – a more pointed criticism of how systemic prejudice and cultural misconceptions have changed the way that war is conducted.  The term “futurism” is here meant to invoke the uncanny similarities between this targeting logic and classical dystopian modes of depicting technology.  The reasoning for why it is imperative to avoid becoming a signature becomes clear with a few statistics and the bizarre logic of preemptive warfare.  Depictions of computer vision and algorithmic representations provide a pointed accompaniment.

The third and final section of the video essay aims to provide a solution to the given dystopia.  “Part III: Becoming Invisible” takes on the hybridized tone of an advertisement crossed with a science fiction novel.  The Anti-Preemptive Strike Kit glides into the frame with a ghostly sheen – here to solve all of our futuristic problems.  It rotates as if in a window display, and opens to reveal its inner promises to the viewer.  Importantly and somewhat paradoxically, there are no concrete representations given for the solutions to the problem of algorithmic, signature-based targeting.  We only see short animations and .gif representations – actual objects that might be included within the APSK cannot be distilled into singular representations.  For example, even if we could produce a successful device that hacks into the video streams of remotely piloted vehicles, the conceptualization of hijacking surveillance infrastructure is more important in the long run than the tool’s actualization.  The power of the APSK lies not in its physical existence in the world, but rather in its foundation as an object that aims to make visible the nefarious logics of targeting and algorithmic capture.  It is only a prototype, and a computer-generated one at that.  Yet the aim is not to actually jam the signals of military drones; rather, the APSK is designed to undermine algorithmic prejudice by revealing a little more about how that bias actually operates in the world.

In this sense, the Anti-Preemptive Strike Kit and its associated video materials exist in a world apart.  Grounded within a larger discussion of the ethical and civil dilemmas that have precipitated from our current surveillance state, the APSK belongs in a world where society has already come to terms with the nature of the deep state.  This post-drone world is one where the quotidian is saturated with targeting and algorithmically constituted subjects.  In another sense, this world is a bit of an improvement from the one we currently inhabit.  As unpleasant as it is to live within an entrenched security state, an imagined future where people 1.) have come to terms with this algorithmic, preemptive surveillance and 2.) have the heightened awareness and the ability to take action against governmental hegemony can be viewed as a bit of an improvement over today’s ambivalence.  With that being said, the target audience for the APSK exists in two separate yet interconnected worlds: the first being a fictional (not entirely implausible) universe where people are aware of the stakes presented by signature killing; the second being the online space of today.

Yet on a very concrete level, the Anti-Preemptive Strike Kit aims to address the growing need to understand and alleviate the plight of the thousands of people living under aerial surveillance.  There have been a variety of attempts to disrupt the unparalleled panoptic that the US drone program in the Middle East has maintained during the War on Terror, yet to my knowledge these efforts have been mainly employed to “shield” or to “hide” the subject from exposure to aerial surveillance.  For example, works like The Drone Survival Guide or Adam Harvey’s Stealth Wear aim to neutralize and deflect the act of targeting in order to save civilians from being mistakenly identified as combatants.  These objects exploit the inherent weaknesses of the infrared camera technologies employed by most forms of military-grade cameras, and operate as a subversive tool in the ongoing fight against entrenched targeting.  The APSK tries to take this subversive logic a step further by addressing the unspoken, invisible nature of algorithmic targeting that structures decisions to perform preemptive strikes.

Formally, this project would not have been possible without the amazing video work of Hito Steyerl – specifically her recent video essay How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.  I would be amiss if I did not acknowledge the degree to which her style, tone, and overall (in)delicacy has influenced the development of this production.  I was mainly inspired when I discovered that I had access to the bizarre computer voice that she used in her own work – the “Daniel” UK English speech library that is downloadable through all Apple computers.  The instructional format for her work provides a parodied affect to what would otherwise be written off as a hyperbolic take on the surveillance state.  Moreover, the aesthetics of her work proffer a harmonious blend of bizarre computer vision and militaristic security mantras.  It seems complicated, but everything works beautifully.  In addition, I drew a lot from Oliver Laric’s Versions series.  The Siri-esque narration coupled with the uncanny, often nostalgic visuals are stylistically disparate yet seamlessly operate in parallel.  These are video essays that have taken the form of the digital and made it uncomfortably visible – an act that I’ve tried to replicate with my own work.

This project was developed with the immense support and help of Angela Guo, who served as a consultant and 3D modeling expert.  The learning curve for Maya is pretty steep, but she made the process of rendering and shading the Anti-Preemptive Strike Kit a nonissue.  Other than that, the video backgrounds were all ripped from YouTube, particularly the PixelBloom VFX channel.  The full video project along with a transcription of the narrated text can be viewed at http://www.danfethke.com/apsk.

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