Seizing control?: The Continuous Personal Experience Capture Experiments Of Ringley & Mann

Kerr Ian, Bailey Jane


While the rest of North America was ringing-in 2004, JenniCam, the electronic eye providing the digital window into Jennifer Ringley’s postmodern soul, briefly blinked and was then forever shut. From its inception in 1996, JenniCam provided interested viewers a continuous, uncensored glimpse into Ringley’s home. Every aspect of her domestic life, from the mundane to her most intimate moments, was streamed over the web as a public offering consumed by anonymous viewers in the privacy of their own homes. By exploiting the potential inherent in the new technology, Ringley sought to challenge prevailing social conceptions of womanhood and the position of women within the public/private divide. While Ringley’s live feed has now ceased, the online peepshows cobbled together from downloads and archived sexual excerpts caught by her webcam’s once-unblinking eye are still available. As a result, the critical consciousness that informed Ringley’s self-described “social experiment” has been co-opted into enduring vignettes of sexual objectification that, by robbing her documentary of its context, reinforce many of the messages she may have hoped to contradict.

During the same year that marked the cessation of Ringley’s seven years of relentless recording, the Association of Computing Machinery hosted an international workshop that would give new meaning to the phrase “Seize the Day”. Aptly named “CARPE”, the subject of the workshop was the “Continuous Archival and Retrieval of Personal Experiences”. Inspired by the great vision of Vannevar Bush’s futuristic memex[1], leading researchers from across the globe gathered at Columbia University to investigate the manner in which the continuous archival paradigm fundamentally alters our relationship to biological memory. Professor Steve Mann, the workshop’s keynote speaker, described an invention called EyeTap,[2] a “visual memory prosthetic” that enables Mann to continuously archive and retrieve his entire life by turning his eye into a camera and his body into a web server. In explaining the social implications of continuous personal experience capture, Mann described his notion of “equiveillance”: a state in which the watcher becomes the watched in a balance of countervailing images and perspectives. According to Mann, the ability to capture, archive, and retrieve one’s personal experiences is a privacy-enhancing antidote to excessive state and private sector surveillance. Likening his EyeTap to the blackbox flight recorder in an airplane, Mann claimed that a first-person recording of an activity, where the person doing the recording is a participant, enhances public safety and provides participants with a means to counter traditional power structures. It provides an alternative documentary of events should disputes arise.

Though Mann has sought to distance himself from what he sees as the “puerile” focus of Ringley’s on-line presence, he shares with her a profound sense of techno-optimism. Ringley and Mann both seemed to cherish the unblinking gaze. Refusing to be defined by the intrusive and objectifying gaze of our surveillance based society, Ringley and Mann launched their own projects of self-definition by voluntarily adopting personal experience capture devices as an apparent means of social empowerment. Seizing control of the camera, Ringley and Mann attempt to influence how they are viewed, framing the image in ways that capture a more personal and more subjective truth. The new technology, ideally, offers a means of inverting the power dynamic. It allows individuals access to modes of image production previously beyond their reach. While the practices pioneered by Ringley and Mann allow more people to create more and more images, it is unclear what effect this will ultimately have on the surveillance society. In a world of “equiveillance” or, perhaps more precisely, omniveillance, how do we conceive of privacy and its role in identity formation and collective empowerment?

In this presentation, Ian Kerr and Jane Bailey examine these two forms of personal experience capture and their implications for privacy and identity. While contemplating the value of personal experience capture, the presenters consider its impact on collective and communal interests. Topics to be addressed include: the privacy rights of those individuals unwittingly captured; the limits of consenting to exposure in a context of facile image dissemination and editing; and the ostensible integrity of the image and the role of the viewer in producing meaning. In examining these questions, Kerr and Bailey hope to expose some of the conceptual and theoretical oversights that, if left unaddressed, might eventually result in technology undermining, rather than promoting, self- or group-empowerment.

[1] A device “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” In 1945, Bush famously predicted the advent of this and various other technologies in an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly titled, “As We May Think”.

[2] A recording device that captures each ray of light that enters his retina.