If anyone other than artist Jonathon Keats said he wanted to set up 100 surveillance cameras around Berlin, the city's vibrant privacy nerd population might have revolted. But Keats's surveillance cameras are a little different from your run-of-the-mill CCTV systems. And that's because no one alive today is going to see the images from them.
Keats is a philosopher who runs his thought experiments in the real world. In the past, he's copyrighted his own mind, created a braintrust for cyanobacteria, and run a quantum ATM, among many other projects.
A handful of years ago, he came up with a pinhole camera that developed a single exposure over an agonizing 100 years. This past week, he teamed up with Berlin's Team Titanic Gallery to lend 100 steel-reinforced versions of these cameras to locals. In 2114, long after the temporary owners of the cameras are dead, their children will be able to return the cameras to the gallery (if it still exists), retrieve a €10 deposit left by their forbears, and view the resulting images.
Keats says he first became fascinated with the idea of ultra-long exposure times when he started observing some of the rapid changes to his hometown, San Francisco. Even amid some of the city's most radical physical transformations, his brain got used to his surroundings quickly. In order to capture change on one single frame, he started toying with photography techniques from the 1840s. Then, for an experiment with Good Magazine, he discovered that by using black card stock instead of film, a pinhole of light could super-slowly fade the dark away over time.
As you can imagine, a 100-year exposure doesn't really capture fleeting moments. Instead, it will superimpose shapes that take time to develop in the city. A single building that doesn't get torn down or built up might not change very much at all, but the skyline around it could leave ghostly traces of a century's worth of development.
But surveillance is a funny term to apply to a camera whose images only future generations can see. And with the scale of the changes it documents, Keats's surveillance doesn't quite stoke the same privacy fears as, say, the NSA tapping Angela Merkel's phone.
"Maybe this is a surveillance of hope," he explains. "It becomes an opportunity to interact with the next generation, and to show the next generation who and what we can be. But where it gets interesting is where the project gets really large. What if it were to become a UNESCO project, where every child in the world, upon being born, as a birthright would be responsible for placing one of these cameras and conveying this information to the next generation?"
"This way, it would constantly be communicating to the future in every sense of the word. And that would leap to a fundamentally different place societally," Keats continues. "In the way that we talk about prosthetics having an impact on us, the cyborg being something new psychologically, maybe there's a way these cameras as extensions of ourselves and of whole populations also enter into that realm extends us biologically to become a different sort of being."
A tool that communicates with future generations makes you think: Maybe grappling with issues like climate change would be easier if we considered our progeny part of our current selves. Keats couches the idea in terms of immortal celebrity. He asks: "Can we reach a monumental sense of self-worth that goes beyond any biological need?"
So maybe Keats's project has less to do with actual surveillance, and more to do with an awareness of how the present can extend into the future. But Keats wonders if something as primitive as his pinhole cameras could also inform the way we think about big data—the practice of picking up and analyzing millions of incredibly granular pieces of information about individuals and a populace as a whole. Maybe, because his cameras aren't even able to record much about an individual's action, there's a way to install similar "privacy by design" principles into other data collecting systems, too.
But he doesn't plan on stopping at a limit of 100 years. Now, Keats is working on a 1,000-year camera, perhaps to be installed on every continent to document bigger, more glacial changes in the nature of the planet. The material challenges, to say the least, will be enormous, but Keats thinks he can find a way. "[That's] an even more important consideration to make in 1,000 years," he says. "We could be in a society which might be comparable to the society that existed a thousand, or 10,000 years ago, or even longer than that."