Policing the Romantic Crowd

Velocipedes and Face Recognition

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This talk considers the use of new technology to police large crowds in the Romantic period. We examine ethical aspects of modern surveillance technologies by looking at debates around crowd control and face recognition in the age that first imagined, and reflected on, the surveillance state.

1819 saw a craze in Britain for German mechanic Karl Von Drais’s Laufmaschine – a two-wheeled, peddleless wooden precursor of the bicycle dubbed “velocipede” or “dandy charger”. As well as recreational uses, military and police applications were quickly proposed for this futuristic technology. On 1 September 1819, The Tickler magazine imagined squadrons of “Dandy Dragoons” being used to police “public spectacles”. There was a serious point beneath the humour. Just two weeks earlier, brutal policing by soliders on horseback led to the deaths of protestors at a public meeting that became known as the Peterloo Massacre. We consider the Drais-maschine as a “hacked horse”, but one that caused public anxiety as well as fashionable interest. We consider Romantic debates around the proposed use of velocipedes for “home service”, since they strikingly anticipate contemporary discussions about drone deployment in homeland security contexts. We ask what light these early debates throw on our own misgivings about the “teching-up” of surveillance agencies.

We look at two “public spectacles” in the Romantic period. The first is the “Triumphant Entry into London” on 13 September 1819 of popular radical politician Henry Hunt to answer treason charges following his participation at Peterloo. The poet John Keats was among the 30,000-strong crowd who lined the streets to welcome him, and from his letters we have an eyewitness account. The second – related – “public spectacle” is imagined in a painting entitled “Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem” by Keats’s friend B. R. Haydon. Haydon included Keats’s face in the crowd, as well as those of other poets and philosophers, including Voltaire and Newton. Critics of the painting referred to the “gross anachronism” of their presence – in another sense, though, they are merely in the wrong place, at the wrong time (Zur falschen Zeit am falschen Ort). Both spectacles offer a bridge to a consideration of ethical aspects to C21 surveillance technology.

The final part of our talk focuses on Romanticism’s understanding of the interpretive role of face recognition. Modern software promises to turn facial features into objective, mathematical space, though arguably fails to move beyond the subjective heuristic space into which viewers of Haydon’s canvas were invited two hundred years ago. Modern face-tracking software’s act of recognition is always an act of imagining the subject’s relation to wrong-doing. The identified face in the crowd summons his or her “unenrolled” Doppelgänger, where individuals occupy a quantum-like state of uncertainty until a measurement is made against a crime – a problem to which Haydon’s painting seems supremely attuned.

The talk as a whole builds on our previous exploration at 29C3 of ways in which post-Enlightenment art, poetry and political philosophy is relevant to C21 discussions about surveillance culture.

Professor Richard Marggraf Turley is Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination at Aberystwyth University. He is author of three books on Romanticism. Blog: @RMarggrafTurley

Anne Marggraf-Turley is Lecturer in Information Computer Technology at Coleg Ceredigion. @matusound

Both live 20k north of Aberporth, Wales, UK, where Europe’s only test facility for civilian and military drones is situated.

This talk will be in English. We’re happy to take questions in either English or German.

Talk ID
Saal 6
5:30 p.m.
Ethics, Society & Politics
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