Computer Architectures for Personal Space
First Monday

Computer Architectures for Personal Space: Forms-Based Reasoning in the Domain of Humanistic Intelligence by Steve Mann

I always found it strange why individuals so willingly acquiesce to the mechanized invasions of privacy caused by video surveillance, yet the same people become angered when overtly photographed by an individual wielding a handheld camera. To resolve this seemingly strange paradox, I have experimented with making myself into a corporation, with its own body-worn video surveillance cameras, for the protection of its body's property. What I have learned is that if I can abandon (or appear to abandon) my autonomy, by becoming a corporation, I have much greater freedom. In particular, I discovered that if I am bound by external forces of policy and procedure (as is typical of a corporation), I can be, in some ways, much more free.

To explore this concept, I recently founded a federally incorporated company - called the EXISTech Corporation - and appointed myself as Assistant Mailroom Clerk, so that I could be bound to certain freedoms afforded by self-demotion from President and CEO down to the level of Clerk.

But let me start from the beginning. Back in the 1970s I came up with what seemed, at the time, a crazy invention, comprised of a body worn photographic computer apparatus.

During my more than twenty years of wearing this invention, I have gained some interesting insight into how people regard photographic ideology, especially in places that:

  • use video surveillance extensively throughout their establishment; and,
  • prohibit any kind of photography or video capture by persons entering that very same establishment.

See, for example, ShootingBack. In particular, what struck me most oddly, was that I could often get away with taking pictures in places such as department stores and shopping malls where photography was strictly prohibited, even if I could not conceal the apparatus of the invention. The apparatus has evolved over the past 20 years in various embodiments and has only been made completely covert in this past decade.

The early cumbersome versions of the apparatus were far from covert; in fact they looked somewhat hideous by today's standards of miniaturization. They certainly attracted far more attention than even a large hand-held camera. Yet they facilitated something I came to call incidentalist image capture.

Incidentalist image capture is image capture that appears to be occurring merely by chance or without intention or calculation. My camera apparatus was wear-operable (e.g. worn in a manner that it could operate at any time), so that a person such as a department store security guard, could not readily discern whether the apparatus was actually taking a picture. This raised some very interesting questions about the surveillance society we live in, especially among undercover department store security guards who came running from their cover to ask me why I was wearing such a rig.

To ask such a question, the security guards at times seemed paranoid, and in fact posing such a question began to scratch the soft underbelly of something very interesting indeed.

Recently, in 1995, I built a version of the apparatus having the appearance of normal sunglasses. In 1996 I built a full color version of the apparatus having appearance of normal eyewear, and finally in 1998 made a version that was reproducible by students in my Personal Cybernetics class.

What's next?

So the apparatus is totally covert, and I had great fun shooting my documentary video in gambling casinos, department stores, and other places where video surveillance is used by the regime, yet photography and video are prohibited by individuals. Such establishments amount to what Simon Davies refers to as totalitarian regimes. Simon Davies, in his writings on democracy and freedom, defines a totalitarian regime as one in which the regime would like to know everything about everyone and yet reveal nothing about itself. By the Davies definition, it would appear that most department stores are totalitarian regimes.

So what's next?

I've been recently experimenting with deliberately making the cameras more visible, so that they are very obvious, while at the same time fashioning cameras that echo the decor of the establishments and organizations that become my experimental subjects.

What I found most remarkable and interesting about these experiments is that if I further incorporated the apparatus into a company uniform, or externalized the locus of control, I could be empowered even more by this form of self-demotion. Thus, in addition to an incidentalist nature of the apparatus, if it were seen as a corporate uniform (e.g. so that I was just a clerk running errands and stopping off at a department store), I could, in plain obvious sight, capture images, and even have a wearable flash lamp to make it very obvious I was doing so.

The result of this research has been to produce a set of forms that can be used by others to reproduce some of these results.

These forms represent a kind of reflectionist philosophy in which the individual mirrors the establishment (e.g. holding up a mirror to society), while at the same time creating a kind of symmetrical structure in reverse.

Thus employees of EXISTech Corporation are required to photograph everyone they have business relationships with, and at the same time, ironically, require permission from Head Office prior to allowing themselves to be photographed by others (e.g. for ID cards or the like).


  • EXISTech's employees who appear in the media (television, newspaper, etc.) must obtain a signed Subject rights(s) Agreement Form from content creators prior to their interview;
  • The Accountability Theatre required adherence to the Health Accountability Policy;
  • Subsequently, a new form was prepared for all employees of EXISTech Corporation. As an Assistant Mailroom Clerk of EXISTech, I am required to follow policy and procedure with respect to administering this new form;
  • As an employee of EXISTech Corporation you will be required to photograph anyone that you do business with. If anyone objects to having had their picture taken, they may file a Request for Deletion Form 698;
  • Employees of EXISTech Corporation are forbidden from being photographed without prior authorization from Headquarters. Your EXISTech Corporation Employee ID Card should suffice for most business interactions. If you are required to obtain additional identification from others, they must agree to be bound by the Terms and Conditions of EXISTech's Humanistic Property License Agreement (HPLA);
  • Employees of EXISTech Corporation are not permitted to expose themselves to radiation above a certain level. In particular, devices at the exits of many department stores expose persons to large quantities of radiation causing malfunction of wearable computers and other related equipment. Even when not wearing computers, the exposure is not allowed. Employees of EXISTech Corporation are required to walk around the devices. If a department store security guard or staff requires an EXISTech employee to walk through such a device on exit of the department store, that security guard or department store staff person must sign a Radiation Exposure Request and assume personal liability for any damage that might result, real or perceived, to the EXISTech employee or his or her body-worn apparatus.

Here are three forms (forms A, B, and C) pertaining to being searched:

  • Request for removal of visual memory prosthetic, visual filter, or other protective or corrective eyewear;
  • Request for inspection of visual memory prosthetic, physiological monitor, or other body-worn processor or monitor; and,
  • Request for X-ray inspection of visual memory prosthetic, physiological monitor, or other body-worn processor or monitor.

All three forms are available at

Editorial history

Paper received 2 April 2001; accepted 20 July 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Computer Architectures for Personal Space: Forms-Based Reasoning in the Domain of Humanistic Intelligence by Steve Mann
First Monday, volume 6, number 8 (August 2001),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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