The Playtime of Surveillance

“Types of machines are easily matched with each type of society—not that machines are determining, but because they express those social forms capable of generating them and using them.” —Gilles Deleuze

“All play means something.” — Johan Huizinga

When I was growing up, a boy in the upper midwestern United States in the final decades of the Cold War, I loved spies, secrets and the gear that when along with them. I locked what childhood secrets I had in a small metal toy safe with a red combination dial. Although it wasn’t a word that would have been in my vocabulary at the time, I once hacked an old pong TV game, using a Radio Shack electric eye kit to make a motion detector so that an alarm would sound if someone walked into my room. James Bond. The toys that hid my secrets mimicked aspects of the world around me. Had I been born a few decades earlier I would have, no doubt, desired my own secret decoder ring


“Toy” guns.

Toys and the meanings of their play change across time and sociocultural context—the conquest of the West embedded in the “cowboys and indians” of yesteryear, become the war of good and evil of “G.I. Joe” become the toy tools of the cold war spy trade, become the allegory for dealing with superhuman problems suggested by the play with hero action figures.

Toy guns.
Toy bows and arrows.
Toy kitchen sets.
Toy soldiers.
Toy computers.

For both the working class kid fantasizing about building something with toy “blocks” and the aspiring middle class child on the toy “cellphone,” play is a meaningful practice. I don’t mean this in a deterministic way—playing with toy guns doesn’t make one a gun owner or a killer—but it does make using or owning a gun imaginable.

Take away the modifier “toy” and the play ends.

So imagine my surprise last weekend, while walking through a Brookstone store, when I came across the toys of surveillance—a miniature spy tank and flying drone. Both toys could be remote controlled from an iPhone and were outfitted with HD video and Wi-Fi enabled. Both marketed the shareability of their video recordings, and one was even YouTube ready. The drone was advertised flying over a city, its camera-eye observing from above. The tank, enhanced by “night vision” encouraged me to “drop in on my friends!”

On the surface the tank and the drone, curious wonders of remote-controlled technology, amazed the twelve-year old in me. My first impulse was to put them into the same lineage as my childhood toys—the safe and the motion detector. I think, however, that I was mistaken. While the magical novelty of being able to control the vehicles by remote-control with a cell phone, is fun. That they are outfitted with surveillance equipment and explicitly marketed as spy tanks and drones—military gear—suggests something more.

The tank and the drone are not really toys. They are not play versions—plastic guns or mock cellphones—that mimic real things. They are arguably “real” spy gear designed for play. The 1080p HD video of the drone, for example, is of higher quality than the VGA resolution of most “real” surveillance cameras installed in shops and stores. How about if GPS tracking, originally a military technology, is added? Combined with the power of Internet-enabled web sharing, the video capture of the “toys” could be shared across the world. In fact, DARPA’s latest super surveillance drone, which can see details “as small as six inches from an altitude of 3.7 miles” gets its incredible resolution from a network of 368 smartphone camera sensors. The usage of the word “toy” here is only a matter of degree.

In his discussion of contemporary “societies of control,” Gilles Deleuze observes that we can match our machines with our societies. What we think or imagine to produce and can make sensible use of, reveals much about the type of society we are. Hacking Deleuze a bit, couldn’t we insert the adjective “toy” to make a statement about our chosen objects of play—that the logics and mechanics of toys, and the play that animate them, express some aspect of the societies and cultures that have generated them?

If all play is meaningful on some level, then what does it mean to play with real surveillance equipment? The toy’s marketing encourages me to subject my friends to surveillance and share the results publicly on the Internet—to play at divulging the secrets of people I care about. Of course, for this to not result in negative real world effects I would have to either engage in play spying or not use my real friends. If I really spied on my real friends I would be in real trouble. The remote-controlled drones, however, could be used for either purpose.

Does play spying on real friends rehearse making others into the subjects of our own technologically enhanced gaze? Does this then make the play use of these (toy) drones simply an extension of the habits that social networking has already begun teaching us? Could playing drone operator with an iPhone in one’s own home or neighborhood make other drones and other operations in other theaters more imaginable? What about the temptation to use them for real spying on people that are not our friends? I am sure that somewhere someone has already been mischievously “playing around” with the possibilities. What does it say about us that we make these toys and play with them? I find it unsettling that when I see videos like this, the kid in me still desires the drone and tries to imagine uses for its formidable technological abilities. It is as if we cannot think of anything more useful or creative to do with the massive, geometric increase in computing speed, digital storage capacity and increasingly miniature technology than deploy it on ourselves and others.

It appears we are living in the playtime of surveillance.


**UPDATE, August 2014**

While visiting the local Apple store last week I spotted some new toys! So, I snapped some photos to add here.


  1. Pingback: The Playtime of Surveillance « memetic shift

  2. Pingback: The Playtime of Surveillance « memetic shift

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