. The symbolic information scavenged by intelligent cameras and flowing into data structures worldwide is potentially very long-lived. Unlike the data cards in our digital cameras, symbolic information in databases is never discarded: rather, ever more sophisticated techniques are developed to store and access it whenever the capacity of our systems is exceeded.
Technically, formidable problems remain in developing image analysis software that could be employed routinely to identify individuals from facial characteristics with complete reliability, although commercial software already achieves this in a controlled environment. Cheap intelligent cameras are already being used for the identification of gestures either for use in more natural human-computer interfaces or to determine when to register events or record images. Although we are aware of the multiplicity of cameras around us and of the conspicuous control room screens and operators in environments such as public transport, we do not know if we are merely observed or whether the imagery is recorded; or if the recordings are discarded periodically. Here the logic of the Panopticon is extended temporarily by the persistence of information and the ensuing possibility of its future use against us.
We are less aware of the trade in information about us which is derived from transactions such as credit card purchases. Nagging doubts might pursue us when a personally addressed invitation to take out a loan arrives while we have cash flow problems, but the trade in such information, its currency and continual analysis, is not so prominent as to influence the behaviour of many people. Less obvious still, is the increasingly automated agency by which this data is manipulated. It is not clear who has access to which elements of our information fingerprint at a given time. Corporations, states, institutions and individuals all hold and exchange information about us, but so do independent software programs - fugitive artificial intelligences instructed by potential beneficiaries of information, but which search networks and databases hindered only by other programs - data defences - until they fulfill their goals. Few viruses have yet appeared which gather and manipulate information about individuals, but it is possible that such agencies might be created which specifically seek to conceal the beneficiary of their activity or indeed, themselves become completely autonomous. The field of genetic algorithms which actually synthesise new software without human intervention is beyond this discussion, but it seems that autonomous software agencies will increasingly become the only means of determining the location and accessibility of personal information. Once again science fiction has already visited this territory - here William Gibson, who describes precisely such an eventuality in Neuromancer  .
With the advent of ubiquitous intelligent cameras we have departed completely from the logic of Bentham's Panopticon. Instead of a spatial design ensuring the possibility of observation, we are inextricably woven into the fabric of a virtual information space. Surveillance no longer operates according to a clearly defined logic. Rather, the complexity of the virtual space and the speed with which information is created and manipulated within it is now forever beyond our direct comprehension.
1 Jaques Derrida, Of Grammatology, reprint edition, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, January 1998. Some far-sighted observations about information technology arise in Derrida's Of Grammatology which, concerned with the science of writing, was published in the same years as the first geographic links between computers were developed. Derrida identifies the writing of »theoretical mathematics« as being »where the practice of scientific language »challenges intrinsically and with increasing profundity the ideal of phonetic writing and all its implicit metaphysics ...« and speculates that »the theory of cybernetics is by itself to oust all metaphysical concepts...«. He proceeds to observe that »development of the practical methods of information retrieval [which] extends the possibilities of the 'message' vastly, to the point where it is no longer the 'written' translation of a language, the transporting of a signified which could remain spoken in its integrity...« ^
2 Bob Shaw, Other Days, Other Eyes, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1972. ^
3 Wolfgang Welsch, Undoing Aesthetics, trans. Andrew Inkpin, Sage publications, 1997. In Artificial Paradises Welsch discusses the phenomenology of electronic worlds and in particular addresses the ontology of computer-readable information. ^
4 William Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace Books, 1994. ^