stephen yang

Stephen Yang / Sun Columnist

April 1, 2020

YANG | When Cities Are Under Mass Surveillance, In What Space Can Subcultures Survive?

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Pardon me for postponing the second part of my series Marxism Lens on the Digital Age, in which I summarize the emergence of the fringe philosophy Accelerationism that coincides the neoliberal shift in the digital economy, but I feel the urgent need to direct the same critical lens to the rapid changes happening around us. I simply cannot unsee or unfeel the intensity and the uncertainty surrounding the unprecedented circumstances. Perhaps things only become clear to most when they are pushed to the extremes. The current situation is definitely out of the ordinary. This is also when the control of the state becomes the strictest and the pushback becomes the fiercest.

During my self-quarantine, I constantly gaze at the street to look away from my screens. Where I live, such precaution is mandatory and legally enforced by the state for all travelers. I was told that I will get fined if I leave my house — what I wasn’t told is how they’re going to track my location. I receive calls every day that check in on my health conditions. I have also heard stories of police knocking on people’s doors when they turned off their phones. Am I monitored through my phone’s location data? Is it a form of ubiquitous surveillance? Who are the imagined “they” in this scenario? Or is this a panopticon, an architecture that enables a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched?

I was pondering these questions when I was blasting apocalyptic industrial techno in my room. Yes, I rave in my room. I have been doing this long before social distancing became a relevant concept. (Here’s the link to the music for you to reproduce the setting in your own room.) Though still intricately perplexing, things became more apparent to me as I directed my attention to music. This is a column in the arts section, after all, and this is not meant to be a subpar essay on Foucault written by an undergraduate student for their liberal studies requirement. I perceive music as the most apparent manifestation of people’s responses to changes in our society. Music is the beacon when it comes to forming subcultures. As I attempted to sort out my thoughts, the notions of space, mobility and subcultures are recurring themes that stood out. It led me to the question – how can subcultures survive when people stop going out?

Don’t overlook the significance of space — live music is a very spatial form of art. We need a space to blast music and gather a crowd. And we need a space that is accessible, a space that is within reasonable distance to those who resonate with the culture. Urbanization enabled the flourishing of subcultures. Urban spaces have been designed to serve as platforms for social networks. Think of the physical infrastructures of apartments, plazas, roads and subways, but also the virtual webs supported by copper wires, optic fibres and antenna towers. Cities are where encounters and interactions take place.

Yet in most cases, it is only the state, or people affiliated with the state, that own the spaces that are big enough to host a crowd. As if rightfully, the dominant culture has claimed and occupied the most apparent urban public spaces. Such spaces are directly linked to the public sphere of civic life. In such a space, people are expected to abide by the norms set by the institutions and the state and act in a civilized way.

Such expectation has pushed the deviant out of sight. This is why traces of subcultures are nowhere to be seen in the center of urban spaces. They are also unlikely to be seen in daytime. For the stigmatized or the marginalized, it often requires a space that is free from surveillance. Think of the abandoned warehouses, the discreet basement parties or the self-autonomous districts. This is why the diverse expression of subcultures almost solely exists in our nightlife in borderline neighborhoods that are out of sight of the institutions of control. Since we never truly know when we are being watched, I believe it is not too far-fetched to claim that the social architecture of cities are analogous to large-scale panopticons.

When cities are in quarantine, with no access to space outside of one’s own dwelling, subcultures are banned in a de-facto fashion. Bars and nightclubs are closed, large gatherings are prohibited and surveillance is ubiquitously enforced. When every single corner of the city is being monitored, there is no room for mobility when it comes to resistance to the dominant culture.

But what about cyberspace? Is that a simple solution to the subculture crisis? The formation of cyberspace did give rise to new sociality. It has expanded the possibility to connect and has extended the limits of staying connected. Just look at how we “network” on LinkedIn and how we remain close to friends back home during college. With the decentralized internet, our social networks are no longer confined by the centrality of urban networks. A lot can be accomplished with interactions that are mediated by new technology, but there’s one thing that it still cannot provide — physical contact.

We all got excited by the mere possibility of physical contact. Oftentimes, people network online with the intent to eventually meet up afterwards. Affect and emotions that come along with physical contacts somehow satisfy our perplexed minds, verifying and validating our physical being. This is why most of us are willing to pay to go to concerts yet are hesitant to spend more money on music than our streaming subscriptions. We commodify the live, spatial, physical and sensual experience but not the sound itself.

The current ban on physical gathering thus has a catastrophic impact on the economy that sustains most subcultures. Artists and musicians are left with no venues to perform. For those who had already been struggling to book their gigs before the pandemic, this means an utter disruption to their major source of income with no foreseeable comeback in the near future. Online music marketplace Bandcamp recently waived its revenue share on sales to help sustain the community. In addition, a lot of artists have been attempting to stream their performances online to replicate the live-streaming model of gamers. Yet these people are not getting paid enough to pay their bills. This sheds light on how our neoliberal gig economy has rendered cultural workers extremely vulnerable.

I have to clarify that this is by no means an argument against the precaution of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders. I genuinely believe it is urgent that we take all feasible measures to flatten the curve. And on a more personal note, I don’t mind staying at home and raving in my own room. I’m not whining because there’s no party to go to. Even if subcultures survive the quarantine — which they most likely will — what comes after that? The real crisis of subcultures will emerge after the pandemic. We’re currently having a glimpse of the post-apocalyptic future.

The expansion of surveillance makes me extremely worried about the health of my beloved subcultures. The digital age gave rise to the emergence of smart cities, adding the digital skin full of sensors to our urban landscape. Such development was framed as ethically acceptable under the rhetoric of advancement. The current state of mass surveillance especially points to the omnipresence of sensors in all forms all over the cities. Not just monitored through CCTVs, but our location data shared on the Internet, our wireless signals transmitting between the towers, and even our body temperature are potentially being tracked. Up to this date, I am not aware of any humanly possible way to cease being a warm-blooded creature. Smart cities can also function as strict cities and surveillance cities. With the ubiquitous collecting of data, I believe we are accelerating this move toward a society of panopticons. When we reach the ultimate form of a society of ultimate control, we will be at the point of no return and with absolutely no space for subcultures to survive.

 

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.