Surveillance society: artificial lighting for a policed public

“The history of artificial intelligence surveillance is rooted in the genealogy of public lighting,” says Mona Sloane (TCS), senior research scientist at the NYU Center for Responsible AI and author of this article. In this piece, Sloane covers the history of public lighting, and its intrusive nature that continues to impact us today.

Sloane explains that “In the past, the point of torches, the only ‘public lighting’ in place at the time, was to ‘make their bearers, the forces of order, visible’. Later, and similarly, private houses were mandated to be identifiable by mounting a light at night, extending the torch-mandate to dwellings. Today, though, when you walk into a social housing estate at night anywhere in London, you may quickly feel uneasy. The severe light pollution marks the space as dangerous, in need of both control and policing. In contrast, if you go to wealthier neighborhoods in the same city, you will be enveloped by a pleasant darkness that feels not threatening, but private."

Sloane argues that polarization between the aesthetic and social coding of these nocturnal spaces is fueled by the pervasive urban myth that more light prevents crime. "Entangled with this is the oppressive idea that poor people, people of color, immigrants, sex workers and other communities who have historically been marginalized and criminalized commit more crimes and therefore must be constantly under surveillance," she adds.

"This throws into sharp relief that today the unequally illuminated city is everywhere. We carry it around in our phones, we interact with it when stepping out onto the street or onto public transport… the design inequality that becomes so apparent at the intersection of light and AI is a major social phenomenon of our time," says Sloane.