Draft: The style of state surveillance: Mediations of the NSA as a public secret (Shepherd and Hogan)

The style of state surveillance: Mediations of the NSA as a public secret

[download here]

Created to gather and analyze intelligence during the Cold War, the National Security Agency (NSA) is a key arm of the US surveillance state that relies on protective secrecy around its activities. Yet in June 2013, Edward Snowden famously leaked a trove of internal NSA documents showing the agency’s expansion into blanket surveillance practices since 9/11. The Snowden leaks precipitated a period of revelation concerning the NSA as what Michael Taussig has called a public secret. In this article, we consider how the public secret of the NSA is mediated through its visual styles, in particular through the promotional communications of the NSA’s public website, the internal communications of PowerPoint slides among the Snowden cache, and the material communications of the agency’s physical buildings. A semiotic approach to the way the NSA mixes romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles shows how the binary ideology of the Cold War continues to permeate the NSA’s mediations of its public secret.

Keywords: surveillance, secrecy, NSA, Snowden, semiotics, ideology, bureaucracy

Continue reading “Draft: The style of state surveillance: Mediations of the NSA as a public secret (Shepherd and Hogan)”

Publication: Making and Doing

This volume brings together a range of papers that fruitfully engage with the theme of the 2017 Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, held in San Diego, California: Interventions. Here “intervention” points to a range of communication practices that engage with a political event, social phenomena, industrial or socio-cultural practice, in order to alter and disrupt events and the norms and practices that contribute to their occurrence. Interventions prohibit events from proceeding in a “normal” course. Interventions approach or critique practices and phenomenon resulting from tensions or absences occurring in: events, structures, (institutional governmental, media industry), discourses, and socio-cultural and subcultural events. Intervention presents the opportunity to explore boundaries, assumptions and strategies that appear to be different or irreconcilable, viewing them instead as possibilities for productive engagements. Communication interventions-in both research and practice-insert insights from diverse voices, marginal positions, emerging organizational practices and digital technologies, to broaden and enrich dialogue. Interventions bring complex reframings to events and phenomenon. Interventions seek to alter a course and effect changed practices in a range of spheres: governmental and social institutions, cultural and nongovernmental groups; industry and organizational life, new media and digital spaces, socio-cultural environments, subcultural groups, health environments, affective and behavioral life, and in everyday life.

SCMS 2018 Toronto “Everywhere Infrastructure: The Systems, Structures, and Ideologies of Big Tech”

(March 14, 3PM )

D23 Everywhere Infrastructure: The Systems, Structures, and Ideologies of Big Tech

Chair: Andrea Zeffiro, McMaster University

Respondent: Rena Bivens, Carleton University

  • Mél Hogan, University of Calgary, “Templating the Body, from Eugenics to Storing Digital Data onto DNA”
  • Sophie Toupin, McGill University, “Preliminary Thoughts on African Hacking Practices”
  • Sarah Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Commercial Content Moderation (CCM) and Social Media’s Logic of Opacity as Infrastructure”
  • Andrea Zeffiro, McMaster University, “A Methodology of Failure: Decoding the Data Infrastructural Regime”


Data Centers: Investigating Socio-Technological Assemblages of the Cloud (Stockholm Workshop: Nov 30-Dec 1 2017)

Data Centers: Investigating Socio-Technological Assemblages of the Cloud
16-17 November 2017, Stockholm University

Organizer: Dr. Asta Vonderau, Assistant Professor Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University 

“Engines of the cloud,” “brain of the beast,” “archives of digital capitalism,” “factories of the 21st century” – these and similar metaphors are frequently used to describe industrial scale data centers, and the “cloud” itself. Data centers are highly securitized buildings, located out of public sight, that hide a fast growing industry for storing and processing data. While most internet users still might not be aware of the actual significance of data centers, IT infrastructure providers and other experts have come to realize the complex entanglements of the data center industry with social life. After a recent data center failure in the UK, for instance, which grounded hundreds of British Airways flights, even industry representatives urged for transparency and for an independent investigation of the incident, stating that “it’s only a matter of time before a data center failure will be associated with human fatalities.” Within the social sciences and the humanities, scholars have discussed data centers in regard to their architectural form, for instance, which has been read as that of digital control society, or by problematizing their energy consumption, profit orientation and low contribution to the local labor market developments.

The workshop brings together scholars from a broad range of disciplines such as anthropology, architecture, media and communication studies, or interaction design who have engaged with data and cloud infrastructures in their academic or artistic work. Taking data centers – a characteristic technological and aesthetic form of the digital era – as its starting point, the workshop aims to discuss the cloud’s social and environmental impact and maps the diverse socio-technical assemblages which emerge in the course of cloud infrastructuring processes. How do the infrastructures of the cloud integrate into local political contexts and industrial landscapes? How do the cloud’s techno-logics relate to the emergence of specific forms of subjectivity, sociality, and urbanity? How can the barely visible and secret industrial spaces of the cloud be made visible and opened up for the broader public? And what does the study of data centers tell us about our current social moment? An interdisciplinary approach will help to grasp and better understand the cloud’s material/virtual, global/local, or human/technological dynamics. A publication of the workshop’s results is planned.

The workshop will be financed by The Swedish Foundation of Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond) and is the concluding event of the research project Farming Data Forming the Cloud. The Environmental Impact and Cultural Production of IT Technology (2014-2017).

Tung-Hui Hu (English Language and Literature, Michigan)
Kazys Varnelis (Architecture, Columbia University)
Matt Parker (Sound artist, London)
Emma Charles (Film maker, London)
Alexander Taylor (Anthropology, Cambidge)
Julia Velkova (Media, Södertorn)
Mél Hogan (CMF, Calgary)

NCA, Dallas 2017: Visibilizing Surveillance and Control Infrastructures

Visibilizing Surveillance and Control Infrastructures

Thu, 11/16: 8:00 AM  – 9:15 AM 
Room: City View 2 – Fourth Floor 

Most forms of technological surveillance evade scrutiny because their operations are hidden from view. Through the integration of algorithmic functions into built form, attention is deflected from pervasive surveillance protocols and the unequal ramifications of control infrastructures. The papers in this session seek ways of rendering such processes and effects visible–of tracking the emergence of new regimes of visibility, challenging their politics, and creating spaces to imagine more just social and cultural configurations.

Chair Torin Monahan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Activism and Social Justice Division
Critical and Cultural Studies Division


Confronting complicity: Surveillance art and the interpellation of viewing subjects

Critical artworks about surveillance introduce compelling possibilities for rethinking the relationship of people to larger systems of control. This paper analyzes a number of art projects that strive to render surveillance visible and cultivate a sense of responsibility on the part of viewers or participants. Some of the projects invite participation as a way of producing discomfort and reflexivity on the part of viewers (Dries Depoorter’s “Sheriff Software”), others use tactics of defamiliarization to draw critical attention to everyday surveillance that has become mundane (Jakub Geltner’s “Nests”), and still others show the human costs of surveillance-facilitated violence and urge viewers to take action (“#NotABugSplat”). By fostering ambiguity and decentering the viewing subject, surveillance art can capitalize on the anxiety of viewers to motivate questions that might lead to greater awareness and open a space for ideological critique. 

Author Torin Monahan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 

Light industry

In the development of the Stanford Industrial Park, one land use report referred to the corporate campus’ design as one that would attract “light industry of a non-nuisance type.” Silicon Valley would go on to attract a whole range of light industry, with the manufacturing that term originally referred to giving way to software, networks, and an industry defined by and contingent on the secure transport of light through strands of glass. 

In the past decade, the distinction between technology of personal computing and traditional “heavy industry” has become harder to distinguish. But Silicon Valley’s industrial history is anything but “light”–the twenty-three federal Superfund sites in Santa Clara County make that abundantly clear. This paper will discuss the use of historical narratives and artworks to challenge the perception that software is itself not a heavy industry, and the political and environmental consequences of that light/heavy distinction. 

Author Ingrid Burrington, Data and Society Research Institute 

Surveillance and the spectrum: The globalization of cell phone interception technologies

This paper explores the emergence and use of a technology known as the IMSI catcher. Also known as a “cell site simulator” “StingRay,” or “dirtbox,” the IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher functions by mimicking a cellphone base station. It locks on to cellphones in a given vicinity and intercepts data from and/or remotely reconfigures or operates the phones. Because of its powerful surveillance capability, the technology has been incorporated into the work of military units, state agencies, law enforcement agencies, and criminal organizations. The IMSI catcher is now part of a lawful interception industry that is expected to be worth $1.3 billion by 2019. After describing multiple use scenarios, the talk will address a series of critical issues elicited by the globalization of cell phone interception technology, including the relationship between surveillance and cynicism, surveillance as a technique of democratic governance, and state and corporate suppression of technical information. 

Author Lisa Parks, MIT 

The aesthetics of state surveillance: From secrecy to publicity

The 2013 Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless spying activities seem relatively benign when contrasted against the more overt displays of state surveillance power in recent months. To consider this shift from secrecy to publicity in the NSA’s manifestation of state power, we suggest reading the changing role of the NSA over time from its aesthetics. Specifically, we look at the NSA’s communications through a critical discourse analysis, attuned to the role of aesthetic representation in legitimizing authority. What this analysis reveals is how the agency¹s aesthetic strategies follow useful binaries ­ between public and private, us and them, good and evil ­ that can be mapped onto broader political exigencies. In particular, we focus on how the aesthetics of the NSA are co-articulated with certain ideologies about networked technology in order to rethink the surveillance-privacy nexus as it traverses a path from secrecy to publicity. 

Author Tamara Shepherd, University of Calgary 
Co-Author Mél Hogan, University of Calgary


Genomics, Bioinformatics and the Climate Crisis

Genomics, Bioinformatics and the Climate Crisis

Since the 1970s, governments and industry have promoted the coding and manipulation of DNA as an avenue to fuel, feed and heal the world. The mapping of the human genome in 2003 stimulated the development of other large-scale DNA-sequencing projects for bacteria, plants, and mammals. With the assistance of computer technology and bioinformatics, large scale genomic consortium produce DNA data at impressive rates, making promissory claims about the benefits of this data to inform and improve environment, health and industry. Critics of these applications raise concerns about the unfulfilled promises, unacknowledged uncertainties and unacceptable risks of such ‘techno-fixes’. Public resistance to genetic and genomic applications for environmental issues- voiced through terms such as Frankenforests – can lead to undone and possibly even forbidden science. In many regards, scientific experimentation, industry application and civil society commentary have run ahead of analysis in the environmental humanities. This leaves gaps in our understanding of the social, ethical and legal implications of biotechnology applications for environmental issues.

The group will meet monthly from September 2017 to March 2018 to discuss published research, present work in progress and host guest speakers. Key themes for organizing discussions and readings include: critical studies of climate change; the social history of DNA; reimagining diversity and kinship in a genomics age; and critical analysis of bioinformatics (DNA as data). This working group will identify and explore gaps in existing literature to provide a platform for developing a SSHRC Insight Development Grant on environmental humanities approaches to genomic applications for climate change.


Dr. Gwendolyn Blue, Associate Professor, Department of Geography ggblue@ucalgary.ca
Dr. Mél Hogan, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Media & Film mhogan@ucalgary.ca
Dr. Morgan Vanek, Assistant Professor, Department of English morgan.vanek@ucalgary.ca
Dr. Martin Wagner, Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures & Cultures  martin.wagner@ucalgary.ca