We have grown to love the veneer of surveillance. Who would have thought! Technology has finally caught up with the discontent of scrutiny, with the Big-Brother scare, so now we're doing it in our own terms: over and over again, watching and liking it so much; partaking in an orgy of clandestine looks.
We install surveillance cameras on our properties. We record, we pile up raw data, we generate footage. And we love it. It gives us power, we say. It gives us piece of mind. It gives us the oomph to deal with our other daily routines. But wait. That's exactly how state-sponsored surveillance motivates its curiosity. Power. Reassurance. Vigor. This, though, is not a state-sponsored craze. It's not a paranoid state of mind. We aren't doing it because we're afraid. We're doing it because we like it.
Reply to sender
What a wonderful tool something like HubSpot Sidekick is, for instance! How smoothly it satisfies our scopophilia! With it, nobody can throw us the usual excuse, “I'm sorry, I haven't seen your email,“ and expect us to believe. The same concept used in Wikipedia or Google Docs, which allows collaborative work and the use of a text's history to search through versions, is employed here to track emails. Sidekick manages metadata and shows exactly how many times a given email has been opened, at what times, by whom. That gave me, the other day, enough information to know when a student of mine circumvented the truth by giving me the usual lie: “I haven't seen your email until right now. Can I have an extension?” Sidekick showed me, click by click, access by access, how many times she had, in fact, seen my email: twice from a personal computer, and twice from a mobile device, at exactly the times when she said she was unaware of my message.
I wonder if this is likely to become an interjection du jour.
Imagine, also, the urgency of replying. Once you've opened that email you cannot postpone your answer unless you are prepared to admit that you were lazy, or scared, or unsure as to how to formulate. I believe new waves of sincerity are currently coming our way, and we stand no chance in trying to avoid them. Or else we'll have to invent new techniques of deception. We need to devise new fictions around ourselves, motivated purely by the need to escape the pressure of being constantly under a magnifying glass.
The look of the many
Let's say it again: the perpetrators of this constant surveillance are us. No longer the state. Not the state as an active performer of this game of peeking, peering and eavesdropping. As Thomas Mathiesen (1997) has pointed out, we're no longer in the era of the Panopticon. We are now under the more widely accepted version of the Synopticon: the looking done by everybody.
With the good old Panopticon the game was relatively simple. There was always someone at the centre (a figure of authority), who did the visual checking, undisturbed, safe and majestic in his authority. The referee in a game of soccer, the priest in the church, the teacher at the lectern, the prison guard in the “inspection house.” If anything, Bentham wanted a scheme where the authority over everything funneled down a central siphon. It worked for a while (a pretty long while), as long as power followed the model of the singular chief. But all this is soooo twentieth-century now. Soooo dependent on computers run from centralized server rooms, where data was collected to the point of saturation.
|Source: Misha Rabinovich|
The Synopticon is no longer about the singular bully. The Synopticon is multiple and complex. The poor little bastard who used to watch over everything is an object of scorn. What can he see, really? How much can he be aware of? How far can his vision penetrate? He's become a local joke. What do we need a teacher for when YouTube can teach us the heaven and earth? What do we need a teacher for when we can learn so much from Beyoncé and Dr. Phil?
Power to the perverts!
The look has been reverted from the one to the many. The one is no longer the viewer but the viewed, and that's because he/she is a sight worth seeing.
We now love the flow of data, its refusal to stay put, its mocking of the server room. We now scorn stasis. Synopticon is a thing of the cloud: never stable, airy, globular, fluid, global, adaptable, liquid.
Our synopticist pleasures, once limited to the reach of a telethon or the eavesdropping pleasures embodied in a radio show, are now everywhere: from crowd sourcing to wiki-writing, from blogs to Twitter, from Facebook to reality tv. Show me something airing these days, show me something that's gone viral: it will certainly have one form of synoptic aspect to it. The Bachelor, the Kardashians, American Idol, Britain's Got Talent. They're all about individuals being placed under a magnifying glass, to be seen, to be gazed at, to be visually gulped down. They're all about us taking good pleasure in watching. But us not as individuals – us as collectives. The multitudes of voyeuristic monsters.
Perverts from all countries unite!
The union of visual depravity is here!
Power to the debauchee!
I can think up a million slogans of this type. They would all describe perfectly well the state of affairs in the kingdom of collective voyeurism.
With this synoptic vision we are at the same time participants in the surveillance game and targets of the same. We partake in the pleasure of watching others knowing full well that we too are being watched, and not by state apparatuses, but by individuals like us. We live under the threat of showing up on Facebook or YouTube against our will, simply because we just happened to be where the camera was. But the camera is everywhere. It is not one camera but infinities of cameras. So many of them, we no longer have time to prepare for the show, to put makeup on, to comb our hair à la mode. So many, it becomes impossible to oppose them on the premise of individuality. Even if I have the possibility to sue the person who recorded me, I am completely impotent insofar as the mechanisms of spreading and sharing are concerned. Once the content has been mirrored, it is virtually unstoppable.
What a Sartrean situation we are in! Peeping at a keyhole and being startled by the creaking of the floor behind us: watching others while, at the same time, knowing that we are ourselves being watched. What complicated mechanisms of subjectivation, of self-formation, what technologies of the self we are employing, what rituals of disclosure and concealment!
But then the hope. Don't forget the hope! Writing on a blog (like this one or like any other) is writing in the hope of being noticed. We write ourselves into this synopticist madness, this flirting with glory, this brush with eternity. What concealment? To hell with concealment! Let the multitudes come. Let them see us! Let them stare!