Sousveillance is a mouthful. It's Friday afternoon, and downtown Madison resident Phil Ejercito is talking about CRASH Madison, the text messaging service that he is in the midst of organizing for Halloween on State Street. When it's up and running, Ejercito plans on broadcasting text messages about everything a Halloween reveler on State Street would want to know: weather conditions, crowd size, stage times, and dangerous conditions created by both partiers and police, everything provided by people in the midst of it all. This, he says, is an exercise in sousveillance.
The word is clearly a play on surveillance, but sporting the French prefix for sub- or under- (as in sous chef). It's like a personal Panopticon, Ejercito explains. That ten-dollar word originally described a form of prison designed by the 19th Century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, but has recently been popularized as a term for ubiquitous and inescapable surveillance. Ejercito suggests consulting the Wikipedia page for sousveillance, where the word is described as "watchful vigilance from underneath" by Steve Mann, the Canadian academic and cyborg enthusiast who coined it.
Ejercito elaborates on the concept, explaining that sousveillance is practiced when participants in an event document and subsequently share their experiences with others. More specifically, it occurs when this documentation is conducted by persons who are themselves under surveillance. It's a the concept of turning the tables on and cameras towards those holding authority, the best-known instance probably being the 1991 Rodney King video.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?," queried the Roman satirist Juvenal early in the Second Century. Turning attention towards and cameras on all is a 21st Century attempt to answer this question. Ejercito hopes his texting system will realize this vision, and ultimately serve to deter dangerous behavior by all parties spending Halloween on State Street.
The Daily Page spoke with Ejercito about CRASH Madison and his plans to promote sousveillance on Halloween. Both questions and answers follow below.
The Daily Page: Where did you get the idea for setting up this system?
Ejercito: My original inspiration for using text messaging in this context was from when I attended the Coachella Music & Arts Festival in 2004. The festival organizers had set up a great system for keeping people updated about weather conditions, band and stage line-ups and start times, and other helpful info for festival goers. Since then, I've had similarly positive experiences with the text message updates at Bonnaroo the past couple of years, and have heard the same about the set-up at Lollapalooza.
Why do you oppose the city's Halloween plan?
First off, I think it's hilarious that certain people seem so terrified of anyone who dares speak ill of the current Halloween plan. I see what I'm doing as both my right, and my duty, to oppose a plan that I believe threatens the safety and happiness of myself and my fellow Madisonians.
Second, I'm not a fan of just grousing about how bad something sucks, and then not doing anything about it. I sincerely do want Halloween in Madison do go smoothly, which is why I'm doing what I'm doing (and I encourage anybody who feels the same way to join the cause). Of course, there are differences between the City's primary concern - control -- versus my primary concerns -- the safety and happiness of all present. My opposition stems only from those concerns, and I intend for CRASH to be free from any political motivations or marketing bullshit.
What can a person who subscribes to CRASH expect to see on Halloween?
In addition to seeing their sex appeal boosted by 3000% because they're a member of CRASH, they can expect to see clear, useful, and timely information about the situation on the streets. You know how the police all have earpieces or radios that they're all plugged into? CRASH is the people's version.
We're tentatively working on some other goodies too -- a blend of mobile, online, and real-life fun and games and contests -- that will enhance the CRASH member's Halloween experience. Think MMARG -- Massively Multiplayer Alternate Reality Game.
What kind of information will you distribute? How often will you do so?
Prior to the festivities, we'll be distributing the basic information -- ticket info, fencing and gate locations, band lineups, etc. -- as well as plenty of information that, inexplicably, the official Halloween organizers neglected to include. Such information might include safe transportation options, safer sex resources, sexual assault awareness information, harassment reporting options, guides to surviving a police encounter, etc.
During the festivities, we'll be focused on delivering whatever timely information is needed to keep people on the streets safe and happy. That includes mundane basics, like weather forecasts, band times and locations, and how fast which lines are moving; it could potentially also include more emergent information, like dangerous crowd behavior locations or dangerous police behavior locations.
How do you plan on soliciting information? How will you gauge its credibility?
We're working on assembling a ground team to monitor various locations on and around State Street, phoning or texting in necessary updates. Anyone interested in helping out should definitely contact us -- expenses would be covered, of course, and we might be able to offer you other goodies as well.
We're also encouraging people to participate in sousveillance -- capturing and sharing the experience from their perspective via cell phone pictures and videos -- both for the fun and entertainment factor, but also to deter dangerous crowd and police behavior.
The challenge we face in collecting and verifying information, I imagine, would be the same as what other media outlets are facing. The difference here is that we intend to deliver our content immediately and directly to the people, not for profit, but for the express purpose of keeping people safe and happy on Halloween weekend.
How did you set up this service?
With a helluva lot of coffee and cigarettes.
How have texting systems like this been used at other events and in other contexts?
There're the kind of festivals I'd mentioned earlier -- Coachella, Bonnaroo, and most notably, the Mindfield ARG at Lollapalooza -- but what's really fascinating is how large-scale text messaging has been used drive major political revolutions, like in the Philippines in 2001, or to organize rallies like those held after the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Obviously, what we're trying to accomplish isn't quite as subversive or revolutionary, but I see Halloween as being the most uncontrolled and challenging situation around here in which to test a system like this. If we can pull this off, I imagine it will have some far-reaching implications for local entertainment and political organizers.
You have a series of Terms and Conditions for persons signing up for the service. Why did you consider it necessary to include these particular terms?
How do you expect the city and law enforcement authorities to react to the service? How do you think they should respond?
Frankly, I expect the city and law enforcement to be pretty wigged out about what we're doing. First off, it's clear that everything the city is doing is geared towards controlling people, and as an independent group, we're not working under their control. Second, while I don't expect anyone to publicly admit this, I think they'll be rightfully embarrassed that they're not the ones providing these services.
I'm anticipating a couple courses of action from the official Halloween organizers. First off, we'll get the canned line that the best thing we can do is to support the plan, and that by pooh-poohing it in any way, we're putting the future of Halloween in jeopardy. The second thing I anticipate they'll try to do is to co-opt what we're doing or try to bring us into the fold and render us as irrelevant as the Halloween Action Committee (HAC) shills.
If the city and law enforcement was a little less concerned with maintaining control over people and a little more concerned about ensuring people's safety and happiness, they might be a little more transparent in their operations. How they ought to react is to open up their command center to members of the media and CRASH organizers so we can help facilitate their communication with the public. Text messages beat loudspeakers and muffled commands from behind gas masks any day.
You list five problems with the city's Halloween plans this year. How could they be improved?
First off, the city needs to either lose the fencing and fees, or own up to the fact that they're throwing a festival and provide the necessary accoutrements to make it a successful one. I'm still fascinated at how the city can keep a straight face while telling people that they're buying tickets ahead of time for a "spontaneous occurrence." I'm similarly fascinated with how the city is telling people the fees are going to cover the public safety costs, while the HAC shills are telling people the money's going towards bands and entertainment.
Second, when the drunk guy asks his drunk pals at 2 a.m., "Hey, what should we do now?," the Halloween organizers need to see to it that there's a better response than "Let's go to State Street and watch the riot!" Providing compelling entertainment off of State Street that lasts into the wee hours of the morning would be the preferred way to send people home with bloodshot eyes and throbbing headaches. (I should mention here, too, that I think it's a shame the university isn't a better neighbor and doing more to help out with this kind of thing.)
Third, the city and law enforcement need to be clear and transparent about how, when, and why they'll be clearing off State Street. Despite repeated direct questions to the city and law enforcement, we're going into Halloween 2006 very much under the same conditions as the year before, that is, with nebulous warnings about unlawful assemblies and clearly defined conditions for failure. They cannot continue to act with unbridled discretion and expect anything other than what we've seen before, and I hope that CRASH can maintain pressure on the city to be transparent and unambiguous about how the night will end.
While there are also lingering concerns about oversight of private security, protection of civil liberties, and application of a sensible drug policy, I firmly believe that the three issues above are the most pressing and potentially far-reaching, and that addressing them head-on holds the greatest promise for improving everybody's Halloween.