Of Angels and Uberveillance: The Point of View Continuum in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire
By M.G. Michael and Katina Michael
Abstract: Uberveillance is an omnipresent form of 24/7 surveillance of humans based on widespread electronic devices, and especially computer chips embedded into the body. It is akin to a planetary skin that is able to pinpoint any living (or deceased) individual in near real-time anywhere on the earth’s surface. In its ultimate form it is big brother on the inside looking out. Uberveillance was once impossible given patchy infrastructure- a world without networks and global position systems (GPS) and a world without closed circuit television (CCTV) and smartphones. The integration of innovations such as mobile CCTV and facial recognition, spurred on by Defence and later commercialised, has meant we are living in a “Point of View” continuum. The unfeeling gaze never goes to sleep, and has become a subject of ethical, legal and socio-technical research. In this paper, we juxtapose Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire against the domain of “Uberveillance” as a way to help further explain the technological trajectory. What is it about the qualities of angels that differ so starkly from the machine-like prowess of pervasive CCTV? How is it that angels can see so clearly and so precisely with such deep understanding, and technology that is tasked to surveil and deconstruct can get it so wrong? The varied points of view depicted in Wings of Desire – the view from above looking down, at Street-level, and inside the private thoughts of a human – typify the spectrum of uberveillant capabilities. While it is deemed natural for angels to fly and be up close as guardians and protectors of human beings, there is something unnatural about the physical world being captured for playback in a virtual realm. What do we hope to achieve by this reality TV-style vision? Do we hope to store it all, every aspect and minutiae of life, every person’s eye view, every moment through time, to transcend through screens? Are we in some way abandoning the reason behind our existence, that is, to grow and to learn through experience? And are we forging ahead with an ‘unnatural’ path by seeking to explore and to interrogate our lives as bystanders through our creations? Wings of Desire provides a vehicle for discussing the pros and cons of uber views. Significantly, angels in this cinematic masterpiece are mere witnesses, and cannot intervene in the lives of those they observe, no matter what injustices they see, unless they decide to willingly ‘incarnate’. Machines on the other hand, are indiscriminate or at least subject to some outside input, they can autonomously trigger alerts and force decisions, making judgments about contexts, even if they are incorrect.
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SUFF and Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney are pleased to announce the inaugural “Inhuman Screens” conference, which aims to open a conversation as to how technology has redefined the human. To this end, the conference examines all aspects of contemporary screen ecologies, including frontier technology, social media, theories of screen culture, contemporary art, and other engagements with digital technology and posthumanism.