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The Steganographic Image

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s the Conspiracy week at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and I was asked to write a short text on what lies inside the image (code). In other words, I wrote a short text on the Steganographic Image, and hiding messages in plain sight, although in this case, encoded “inside” a digital image. The image that tricks, the image that operates behind your back, or more likely, triggers processes front of your eyes, in plain sight, invisible. As I was reminded, this is also an idea that Akira Lippit has in a different context developed through Derrida. To quote Lippit (quoting at first Derrida): ‘”Visibility,” he says “is not visible.” Invisibility is folded into the condition of visibility from the beginning. There is no visibility that is not also invisible, no visibility that is not in some way always spectral.’One would be tempted to argue that this is where this consideration of the visual meets up with the history of cryptography, or ciphering and deciphering. Or as Francis Bacon put it in 1605 in ways part of the longer media archaeology of the steganographic image too: “The virtues of ciphers are three: that they be not laborious to write and read; that they be impossible to decipher; and, in some cases, that they be without suspicion.” It is especially this third virtue that remains of interest when looking at images without such suspicion: the most banal, tedius of pictures; a spectrality that conjurs up hidden passages, triggers and operations.

My short text can be found here online. It’s only scratching the steganographic surface.

A short preview of the text.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Steganographic Image

Who knows what went into an image, what it includes and what it hides? This is not merely a question of the fine art historical importance of materials, nor even a media historical intrigue of chemistry, but one of steganography – hiding another meaningful pattern, perhaps a message, in data; inside text or an image. This image that is always more than. More than what? Isn’t it obvious from the amount of work gone into art-theoretical considerations of the inexhaustible meanings of the photographic image that it has always been a multiplicity: contexts, fluctuating meanings, readings and the insatiable desire to look at things in order to discover its depths.

As such, a steganographic inscription is neither a depth nor the plain surface but somewhere in between. In contemporary images made of data it refers to how the image can be coded as more than is seen, but also more than the image should do. The steganographic digital image can be executed; it includes instructions for the computer to perform. Photographs as part of a longer history of communication media are one particular way of saying more than meets the eye, but this image also connects to histories of secret communication from the early modern period, to more recent discussions in security culture, as well as fiction such as William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003). Were J.G. Ballard’s 1950s billboard mysteries one sort of cryptographic puzzle that hid a message in plain visual sight?

Continue reading – link to full text

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No Such Agency: Kittler on the NSA

February 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Friedrich Kittler’s words seem prophetic, telling the story of metadata and its politically sustained unreachability: “Maybe Jagger was wrong. We can always get what we want, from CDs to cable TV. Just not what we need: information on information. The fact that currents of media desires flow camouflages a situation in which information technology is strategy.

Paul Feigelfeld has done a great thing and translated Friedrich Kittler’s text “No Such Agency” from 1986 into English. What seems a rather visionary move – to talk of the NSA technological surveillance activities in the 1980s already – is just a proof of the German media theorists ability to perceive the intimate link modern forms of intelligence and technology have. Below our short intro to the translation, written together with Paul:

Introduction to Kittler’s “No Such Agency”

by Paul Feigelfeld and Jussi Parikka

German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s short text on the NSA (National Security Agency) titled “No Such Agency” was originally published in 1986. The German newspaper and online publication TAZ  decided to publish the piece from its archives in January 2014, after months of heated discussion about the NSA after the Snowden leaks. What the piece reveals is less the idea that Kittler should be branded a visionary, but that the NSA has a long technological history.

The text is a sort of a review of, or at least inspired by, James Bamford’s book The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1983) and its German translation, NSA. Amerikas geheimster Nachrichtendienst, which came out in German in 1986.

At the time, Kittler had just fought through Aufschreibesysteme: 1800-1900 as his habilitation, and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was looming. More significantly, however, he had just bought his first computer and taken up programming. Like Kittler, the Arpanet was slowly switching to UNIX and C as a technical standard, before the internet of the 1990s.  In Germany during the 1970s, BKA chief Horst Herold had implemented “Rasterfahndung” or dragnet policing as a countermeasure to the RAF (Red Army Faction) threat. And as Kittler demonstrates in his text, the NSA’s role of power in information infrastructures was not a reaction to the internet, but an act of design within those systems.

The piece shows Kittler’s interest in secrecy and the military basis of media technologies – but significantly, it reminds us that the media theorist was always as interested in institutions as their technical networks of knowledge.

NSA-photo-by-Trevor-Paglen-2013Photographer Trevor Paglen, famous for his photographic mapping of networks and sites of power in the post 9/11 US, and recently his NSA photography, argues how “secrecy ‘nourishes the worst excesses of power’” . But for Kittler, one could say that secrecy is power: the technically mediated possibilities of circulation, restriction and gathering of information way before the Internet and much before Edward Snowden was able to give us a further insight into the extensive contemporary forms of surveillance excessively interested in us humans. For Kittler, however, this already marks the possibility that the information gathering and processing machines are at some point not anymore even interested in human targets: “With the chance of forgetting us in the process.”

Read Kittler’s “No Such Agency” here.

On Dignity and Consultancy Services: Pekka Himanen

November 7, 2013 Leave a comment

The final report (to be turned into a book) by the Finnish consultant Pekka Himanen is out. His intermediary report made the headlines already, accused of substandard quality. The project was born in the midst of what were identified as rather dodgy funding practices, commissioned without proper academic evaluation by the Finnish government/the prime minister Katainen.

Now the first news items and reactions (and here) to the final report of the project are out. Suffice to say, the reactions are rather appalled and questioning the quality control mechanisms of the research. As one professor implied, the project report does not really qualify to use the term “research”, which should be about production of new knowledge. Both terms, “new” and “knowledge” were doubted in the case of Himanen’s booklet.

As before, Himanen is a fierce proponent of a discursive turn towards “dignity“. I want to characterize Himanen as a promoter of post-welfare state mode of governmentality. Instead of support for direct and concrete measures towards education and other mechanisms of the welfare state for ensuring safety and sustainability of life, Himanen is geared towards a new society based on discourses (values?) of “dignity” and for instance “trust”. He also talks of “succeeding together” as an anchor point. The post-welfare state of “dignity” is a governance through the abstract power of terms, where the quasi-philosophical consultancy discourse is embedded in a more radical set of political economic reforms undermining any basis for what defined for instance the Finnish model of education, healthcare, and innovation emerging from baseline safety.

Some of the reactions by prestigious  Finnish professors talk of the report in no appreciating terms. After reading it, they evaluate that none of the texts would pass a normal peer-review process of a journal. Any new research is not really present but based on the earlier work of the participants. One professor is rather direct in his judgement: the report leaves the reader with a feeling of pity and commisserating shame for Himanen and the project. Oxford University Press is going to publish the English version in 2014.

(Disclosure: I have not yet read the final report myself. I am only commenting on the discussion around it today, and the earlier research/statements by Himanen).
Categories: academic research, trust

>Trust, Identity, Security seminar at Anglia Ruskin

September 13, 2009 4 comments

>David Skinner pulled together with Claire Preston a very nice event at Anglia on Thursday on Trust, Identity and Security. Even if my particular area relating to software and security was not that much covered, the themes interlinked well with some stuff I have been thinking. In terms of such notions of social “glue” as trust, Marek Kohn kicked off with a very general take on the social basis of trust — although having said “social basis” I need to flag that I was left a bit cold with the too individualized/atomized image of trust that he painted. Too much of the presentation focused on trust outside its historical and institutional settings, using examples that implied it more as a psychological/rationalized/cognitive theme. I disagree with this quite strongly, and was hoping for a discussion more focused on the affective/non-cognitive politics and management of trust in terms of network culture.

In short, my point: a) trust is something guaranteed as a temporal relation in modernity by institutions, b) such institutions have been forced to change and their ability to guarantee the secured future has suffered during what different commentators would call late-capitalism, postmodernity, or for example network culture. This applies to social relations, production and legitimacy of knowledge, economic relations, and huge amount of other key factors. c) Instead of a cognitive relation, institutions have already historically worked on trust as a management of affective states, to put it a bit too broadly. What I mean is that trust works on automation most of the time — its not a cognitive relation of weighting wins and losses. Its an affective relation that involves the management of futurity as something present; a creation of a condition where future seems as if already present and controllable.

In the other session, presentions by for example David Skinner and Greg Elmer touched interestingly also the topic of futurity. David’s talk was on the UK police DNA Database, and very spot on in terms of control through information; not only a creation of “traces” through DNA collection etc., but also through active creation of profiled, targeted “problem groups” — which happens to be very racially loaded practice. The already existing amount of profiles on the database is very much geared towards collecting from the black communities and through “preemptive profiling”, very problematic self-realizing groupings are created. Preempting as a political tool is a good idea/concept that Greg Elmer has been developing (also together with Andy Opel in their book on the topic.) In his video talk, Greg talked about both the concept as one of management of futures, and also on the ongoing online collaboration to create a documentary on the topic. What is preemption? Its about shooting first, asking later — a practice enabled by a range of non-lethal weapons such as tasers; but also more discursively a mode of governing the present through reacting to “inevitable futures” (where risks are treated as if inevitable events, and hence in need of preemptive actions.) This is the logic of the Bush regime in a way, but not limited to a set of tools by the ex-US Government (and also having clear connections with e.g. Richard Grusin’s notion of premediation).

The day ended with Sean Cubitt’s different angle to the topic of databases and security. He gave a brilliant genealogy of management of colors and perception through the histories of the raster screen. The same mode of cutting and organizing perception into discreet units that governs the raster screen approach is apparent according to Cubitt also in the database mode of governing through creating units that are inter-exchangeable etc. In a way, I was after Skinner’s presentation thinking about how modes of racism and racial profile have moved from the visual regime of e.g. orientalism to the informatics of databases and hence non-visual media, but actually Cubitt made me rethink and realize the possible connections between visual and database media. The technicality inherent in modes of management of perception are already hinting towards the logic of computational databases, seems Cubitt to argue and I have to admit his points were quite convincing even if I am not usually the first person to argue for the centrality of the visual in media cultures (esp. technical).

Categories: identity, security, trust