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Keeping the real world at bay
January 25, 2002

Keeping the real world at bay
Peter Lynch's Project Grizzly showed the inventor of a bear-proof suit. Cyberman takes the concept further

Barrett Hooper
National Post
MANN AND MACHINE: The subject of Peter Lynch's documentary Cyberman is an unassuming university professor.

The world's first cyborg is not some Uzi-wielding assassin from a future ruled by machines, but a meek little man from Hamilton, Ont., with half of RadioShack wired to his body.

His name is the ironically anthropic Steve Mann -- scientist, mathematician, inventor, social activist, performance artist and futurist -- who has spent the last 20 years living "on the border between cyberspace and the real world," as he puts it.

If you live in Toronto you may have seen Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, sticking out as he does as much as any leather-clad Austrian bodybuilder. He wears a pair of not unTerminator-like wraparound sunglasses and headgear, to which are mounted miniature cameras and computers which record and transmit his vision of the world to any number of Web sites for all to see.

The ultimate techno-geek, Mann is the subject of a documentary by Peter Lynch called Cyberman. And, Saturday morning cartoon title aside, Cyberman is actually a fascinating and often funny story about this very real, very strange person who prefers to live life through his filtered cyber-world.

"I became fascinated by his necessity to work out what I would call personal issues through a prosthetic extension on his body," says Lynch, who calls Mann "a cross between [documentarian] Michael Moore and Inspector Gadget."

Mann created a proto-Walkman when he was a boy to "tune out the Muzak of the outside world," and as a teenager he became fascinated with the idea of fully mediating his reality. He built machines and early computers in the basement of the Hamilton TV repair shop where he worked after school. He went on to earn a PhD from MIT in wearable computing, and when he travels he's been known to climb to the roof of his hotel to rig his room with an antenna and Internet connection.

To take us inside Mann's world, the film uses video and photo images taken directly from Mann's recording equipment. We see him creating lightshow art on the streets of New York City and teaching himself to swim by calculating the vectors involved in the strokes.

Most interestingly, we see Mann taking a video camera into a Wal-Mart only to be told that while it's OK for their hidden security cameras to tape us, it's not OK for him to tape the store.

"He's a good vehicle to discuss the ethics of surveillance," says Lynch. "It's very primal for him about personal space, but at the same time he is a walking surveillance camera."

"This raised many of the issues in what I call sousveillance, inverse surveillance," says Mann. While surveillance is watching from above, sousveillance is about watching from below. "I don't just mean mounting the cameras on the floor rather than on the ceiling. [It's about] when passengers photograph taxi cab drivers, when citizens photograph police officers, when customers photograph shopkeepers."

In effect, Mann is posing the question: Who watches the watchmen?

Lynch is best-known for the documentary Project Grizzly, about another oddball -- obsessed anti-bear-suit inventor Troy Hurtibise. But it wasn't until filming had begun on Cyberman that the director made the connection between the two marginalized eccentrics.

"As I was learning about this mediating device Steve uses, I realized that in a way it's much like [Hurtibise's] bear suit," Lynch says. "They're both keeping the world at bay, in a way. I'm sympathetic to the fact that they're characters that try to create their own sense of duty in a world where territory is very laid out and prescribed."

What wasn't prescribed was the way in which Mann would try to influence or "police" the filmmaking process. It began in small ways, such as when Mann provided not only extensive notes on the script that he'd been given but also notes on an earlier draft that he'd hacked into a computer to retrieve without permission.

Things grew more difficult once shooting began. Scenes had to be negotiated with Mann in advance, and access was a matter of constant debate between Mann and Lynch. Occasionally, filming had to be suspended until an agreement could be reached. And because Mann constantly wears his recording equipment, he had in effect begun making a documentary about the documentary before Lynch had shot any footage.

"He hates being interviewed because he thinks it's acting," says Lynch. "I'm sure it would have been easier to interview Bill Gates."

But Lynch says the biggest obstacle was getting Mann out of his lab for more than two hours at a time.

"Steve can be very opaque and very difficult to penetrate," he says. "The technology is a kind of mask he wears to be in control of his environment, so my quest was to find a human element in him."

Lynch doesn't like documentaries "that become a real love-in with the subject," but he still wanted to convey a sympathy toward Mann. "I could easily have made fun of him. It's a very tricky balance. You have to set up what his world is, what his views are, show where he fits into the world and get inside how he experiences the world."

And while being able to use Mann's own footage as part of the documentary helped achieve that, Lynch says "it's quite disconcerting, because he's doing what we are doing back at us."

- Cyberman (Rating three), which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, opens theatrically with limited engagements at the Royal Cinema (Jan. 25-27), the Paradise Cinema (Jan. 28-Feb. 3), the Music Hall (Feb. 4-5) and the Fox Theatre (Feb. 6-7). It has a national broadcast on the CBC on March 26 on The Nature of Things. bhooper@nationalpost.com

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