Visualizing Security: Remote Sensing, Visualization Technologies and the Making of Risk and (In)securities

— Nikolaus Pöchhacker —

The talks at the panel ‘Visualizing Security: Remote Sensing, Visualization Technologies and the Making of Risk and (In)securities’ came together well. They focused on the political and the epistemic assumptions going into the production of visualizations and maps in security agendas. As Latour already argued: the map is not the territory. Reductions, specific interventions and a situational gaze produce different ontologies of security, and thus build the very basis for subsequent security-based interventions. Yet, what paper city is created and how can we make sense of it?

This question was explored by Jens Hälterlein in his talk on the politics of smart CCTV as a technology that identifies deviant behavior independently of human operators. In his analysis, he comes to the conclusion that the study of new forms of technological governance of (state) security demands the bridging of criminology, surveillance studies, and STS. In a similar way, Thomas Linder raises the question how we can understand cell site simulators, surveillance devices to track cell phones, from an ANT perspective. Compared to CCTV, this technology does not translate pre-existing visibilities; instead of simply rendering patterns of communication, movement, etc. visible, cells site simulators enacted new objects of surveillance into existence, forcing us to rethink visibility, power and knowledge production for an age of machinic vision.

In this translation, however, the politics of visualization, as in doing visibility, need to be discussed. Contrary to reducing invisibilities, Ann Rudinow Saetnan asks in her presentation how invisibilities are being accounted for. Maps and visualizations are normally show what we take in consideration and what seems important to the makers of these maps. However, the things we do not account for also show in our maps – through their absence. In creating visualizations, the absence of something is made visible. This question of absences was also tackled by Francis Lee, exploring in his talk how maps of diseases are being created by different forms of data production and an entanglement of algorithmic and human judgment.

Absences are defined by different regimes of making things matter through practices, institutions, and infrastructures. Samantha Jo Fried argues in her talk that the interpretation of visualizations is contingent, and depends on a larger set of actors, values, and specific sense makings. The stability of the map, composed of pixels, is an achievement of the field and not inherently given. This ontological insecurity was then, in the last presentation, also tackled by Natalie D. Backer, arguing that war journalists and their reporting practices can be conceptualized as a hauntology, conflating temporal and spatial dimensions disturbing our predictability of the world by raising questions what could be and what different perceptions of the past, the present, and the future are possible.