Cyborg Assaulted at McDonald’s: a review

Steve Mann may be the self-titled “father of wearable computing,” but having worked alongside him for several years in the late 90s and at least tangentially followed his work since I’d say his biggest contribution to the field has been as an artist. At the Paris McDonald’s Dr. Mann has returned to the core theme of his performance art, namely the idea of the common man (represented by Mann himself) forced by powers beyond his control to invade the privacy of those around him. This harkens back to one of Mann’s early pieces called “My Manager,” where he would arrange for store employees to confront him about blatant recording of video in their store and then explain that his “manager” insists he wear the device to ensure he doesn’t lollygag. As Mann describes it, “Just as representatives in an organization absolve themselves of responsibility for their surveillance systems by blaming surveillance on managers or others higher up their official hierarchy, the artist absolves himself of responsibility for taking pictures of these representatives without their permission because it is the remote manager(s) together with the thousands of viewers on the World Wide Web who are taking the pictures.” []

In his latest incarnation the lack of control is physical: Dr. Mann can literally not remove his Eye Tap camera without special tools, and thus is powerless to stop it from snapping the picture of any hapless bystander he sees. The note from a medical doctor explaining the device further presses the idea of nameless and remote authority figures that holds the actual power. As always, the unwitting antagonists here are not random passersby; they are low-level employees at institutions that engage in their own unsolicited picture taking, either through ubiquitous security cameras hidden by “ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity” or more directly, as was the case when Mann insisted that the TSA allow him to go through airport security with his full cyborg-styled gear that he claimed was necessary “for medical reasons.” (As with the McDonald’s incident, that confrontation ultimately resulted in Mann being “assaulted” when agents forcibly removed his gear.) In setting up confrontations with the rank-and-file, Mann very effectively acts as a mirror. In effect he’s saying “Oh, you can’t stop taking my picture because those are the rules? That’s funny, I can’t help but take your picture for the same reason!”

Dr. Mann is quite experienced at playing the press, and even before the days of viral cat videos he knew how to tell a story that would spread far and wide. Unfortunately, I feel both this latest work and his previous run-in with the TSA lost their deeper themes in transmission. Mann’s previous confrontation was largely interpreted in press reports and online-discussion either as an example of TSA bullying or a case of medical augmentations becoming outlawed. Judging by the initial reactions, it appears his latest stunt is again being interpreted primarily as an example of a hate crime against a new protected class, the cyborg. While transhumanism (and the critique of it) has always been a secondary theme of Mann’s work, it’s disappointing that he has chosen to highlight this over what I see as the deeper and more interesting theme of empowerment. It also seems that Mann is recycling his previous works without saying a whole lot that is new. The world has changed a great deal from 1994 when he did his Wearable Wireless Webcam, and the idea of security cameras as a threat seem trite in today’s world of online profiles, social networking and ubiquitous cellphone cameras. I, for one, hope the next time I read about Steve Mann in another altercation my initial reaction won’t be “oh no, not again” but rather “oh, that’s interesting!”

What may be the world’s first cybernetic hate crime unfolds in French McDonald’s

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