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Sydney Skybetter Asks Computer Scientists To Consider The Choreography Of Surveillant Systems

“You’re going to be in a room someday,” says Sydney Skybetter, Lecturer at Brown’s Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. “Where your colleagues are designing technologies intent on targeting other people’s bodies, with the aim of manipulating them, and potentially causing harm. As a computer scientist, you will have a voice in that room. When that happens, I want you to be able to speak in the interests of broader civic good, not institutional inertia or surveillance capital.”

A choreographer, speaker, and producer, Sydney is the founder of the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces, and he’s giving a talk (“Dark Elegies: The Choreographics of Surveillant Systems and National Defense”) at Brown CS on October 4. His interest in the relationship between choreography and surveillance dates back to 2015, when, while teaching at Harvard University, he learned about “Marauder’s Map,” a web browser extension that revealed the extent to which the Facebook platform was tracking users’ movements and physical locations. 

“I was getting ready to teach students about seventeenth-century pirate dances, as you do,” Sydney remembers, “and this just blew me away, the social gamifying of private location data. Who was watching this? What was the platform gleaning from it? A precondition for most dances is an audience, and with Facebook we had human movement being mined for meaning not only by people, but machines.”

Before long, Skybetter was deeply engaged with what he calls the intertwined histories of computer science and contemporary dance. Examples abound: Bell Labs scientist, A. Michael Noll, created the first digital dance in 1965 after seeing the New York City Ballet in concert, and several commonly-used motion capture systems contain movement data obtained from choreographers Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham in context of the AIDS crisis of the 1990s

As a recent case study, Sydney mentions the Apple Watch: “The scientists who created the product weren’t just trying to track bodies, they were distinguishing between the intentionality of certain gestures. They tried to define what certain, supposedly universal movements meant, but meanwhile, lots of folks weren’t (and aren’t) invited to contribute their embodied experiences: folks of color, folks with disabilities, folks with varying cultural expectations pertaining to bodily expressiveness.” 

Given what Sydney sees as a troubling history of people’s bodies and movement being seen as objects, as data, he sees great value in computer science students thinking of the body specifically not as an abstraction. “We’re in a moment where CS is reconsidering its relationship to the arts and humanities,” he says, “and choreography frames this eloquently. What happens when we put bodies first?”

Which brings us to his talk (“Dark Elegies: The Choreographics of Surveillant Systems and National Defense”) on October 4, which he hopes students will see as an opportunity to broach questions of bodily ethics but also as a doorway into a line of study that can be social and fun. “Dance and choreography,” he says, “are unlike what many students have seriously studied before. They help us understand the tangible ways the world affects our selves, and develop an understanding of our own embodiment that contributes to understanding others.”

Some of his best students, Sydney notes, have been those with CS experience. “There are specific kinds of research problems,” he says, “that people with backgrounds in computation and dance are uniquely able to address.” Monica Roy is a sophomore with experience in ballet and modern dance who is concentrating in CS and serving as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant for CSCI 0170. “Over the summer, Monica helped parse some of the technical papers from the Snowden leaks, and kept specific tabs on how the NSA understands time, space, and body movement. This material is uniquely legible to her because of her background in dance and tech.” 

Sydney hopes that Brown CS students will also be interested in the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces, which will take place on March 6 and 7. “We’ll have people there working through questions of bodies and emerging technologies, representing an incredibly wide spectrum of expertise. Every year we facilitate conversations between artists and computer scientists that value equally the expertise of both. It’s a dorky fun nerd gaggle.” But also deadly serious, he says, as the participants at times consider the dystopic possibilities of their work. 

“None of this is easy,” he says. “But scientists need to be able to talk about bodies. It’s something we can practice. Dance helps us rehearse these negotiations. As a future participant in a room where decisions about surveillant technologies will be made, you can either go with the sway of the group, or you can force consideration of how your decisions affect others. This kind of tech moves fast. Chances are good that if you don’t add friction in the moment, nobody else will.”

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.