Consider a peculiar reversal—BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING has been replaced by watching Big Brother.
YouTube commands: “Broadcast Yourself,” and we obey enthusiastically.
At Universal Studios, visitors are informed over the loudspeaker that someone is watching. They are comforted by the message.
We thrive on exposure and visibility, deriving pleasure from the constant, repeated revelation of the banal facts of people’s everyday lives. Hidden cameras and mobile recording technology have been appropriated from the realm of surveillance and employed to project these mundanities. Reality television shows, online webcam streams, and social media not only provide a glimpse into the lives of others, they create a powerful and enticing outlet to share our own. The formation of communities around this public revelation of people’s everyday activities is a dramatic departure from a culture that claimed to value a strict division between the public and private.
Today, the desire for visibility is powerful. The second season of Survivor had so many applicants that Federal Express had to temporarily halt deliveries to the producers doorsteps. During one season of Big Brother, the producers offered $50,000, the value of the show’s third place prize, to anyone willing to leave the show immediately. None of the participants took the offer—not even one of the three up for elimination that week—arguing that the experience of the show was worth more to them than the money. In the case of JenniCAM, a college student named Jennifer Ringley installed a camera in her dorm room that broadcast a live, 24-hour feed of her daily activities to the internet. At one point Ringley took down the device. She reinstalled it soon after, claiming that she “felt lonely without the camera.”
...it is irrelevant to get upset with talk shows or reality shows… For they are only a spectacular version, and so an innocent one, of the transformation of life itself, of everyday life, into virtual reality… we are moving around in the world as in a synthesized image. We have swallowed our microphones and headsets… We have interiorized our own prosthetic image and become the professional showmen of our own lives.
- Jean Baudrillard, “The Virtual Illusion: Or the Automatic Writing of the World”
Modern surveillance has developed in tandem with media technology—from the printing press came the novel and its imagined national community; the camera captured the streets of Paris like a crime scene; the closed circuit camera maintains a perpetual watch on urban space. Yet, surveillance has transformed once again: the gaze is no longer a function of pure discipline and control—it functions as a democratic tool, politically and socially liberating.
Reality television is the archetypal genre of this era of surveillance—participants desire and compete to become the objects of absolute observation. Audiences are engrossed by the spectacle of everyday life.
...the possibility arises that, for a growing number of people in contemporary Western society, surveillance has become less a regulative mechanism of authority (either feared as tyrannous or welcomed as protection) than a populist path to self-affirmation and a ready-made source of insight into the current norms of group behavior.
- Vincent Pecora, “The Culture of Surveillance”
In 1971, PBS destroyed a family. For seven months, producers with cameras followed the Louds, a wealthy family from Santa Barbara. They had intended to chronicle the Louds’ daily lives. Instead, the 1973 television documentary An American Family broadcast the family’s slow disintegration—through the separation and ultimate divorce of Bill and Pat—into living rooms around the country. We cannot know the counterfactual destiny of the Louds without PBS. We do know, however, that this was the first reality television show on American airwaves.
In the age of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real World, the details of our digital personalities—often radically distinct from our actual personal worlds—are disseminated through cyberspace to reassure ourselves about the pseudo-drama of the everyday; a lonesome wish that fights with my mom aren’t so different from those of Kim and hers.
The desire for exposure is not limited to reality television and their participants. Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm reverses the threat of visibility, leveraging instead the threat of disappearance. EdgeRank determines the order that posts are displayed on a user’s newsfeed. The algorithm decides what content is rendered visible and invisible, all for the sake of promoting participation on the social media platform. The algorithm is based in part on users’ ‘affinity’ for each other, where likes and other kinds of quantifiable engagement help Facebook determine which relationships, and which people, matter most. The more active a user is on Facebook—meaning the more people a user interacts with—the more people see their posts, and the more visible their posts become. Facebook mobilizes the threat of invisibility to encourage participation.
In 2014, Facebook and partnering data scientists published the results of a study they conducted on over 700,000 active users in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study revealed that for a week in January 2012, Facebook altered the newsfeeds of these users, blocking positive, uplifting content for some users and negative or upsetting content for others. Though the user agreement that all account holders are required to sign before using the web service maintained the project’s legality, the manipulations revealed what we had suspected to be true all along; that, as the Atlantic reports, our computers and phones are “not a perfect mirror of the world.”
Whereas visibility as a consequence of the panoptic arrangement… is abundant and experienced more like a threat imposed from outside powers, visibility in the Facebook system arguably works the opposite way. The algorithmic architecture of EdgeRank does not automatically impose visibility on all subjects. Visibility is not something ubiquitous, but rather something scarce.
- Taina Bucher, “Want to Be on the Top? Algorithmic Power and the Threat of Invisibility on Facebook”
Reality TV is pop-ethnography. The genre attempts to reveal the sacred and primitive elements of our communities. To that end, it has transformed the digitized world into a real time social-psychological experiment, isolating sets of subjects and meticulously recording their behavior under controlled conditions. The experiment, however, is not confined to the studio. We are all implicated, placed on both sides of the microscopic camera as both subjects and observers.
...the desire for surveillance has had a paradoxical side effect, inexorably transforming the world not into the stage immortalized by Shakespeare but into a real-time social-psychology experiment in which we are increasingly both test subjects and detached clinical observers.
- Vincent Pecora, “The Culture of Surveillance”
Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process. Reality TV performs the perfect dissection of our everyday workings. We trap ourselves in a museum of the present, where no secret escapes examination. Absolute illumination is a subtle extermination—the abolition of mystery, the plunge into indifference and monotony, the terrifying resignation to existence stripped of all significance.
Where is the secret of banality, of nullity that is overexposed, lighted and informed on all sides and that leaves nothing left to be seen because of its constant transparency? The veritable mystery becomes the mystery of this forced confession of life as it is… It is both the object of a veritable dread and a dizzying temptation to plunge into this limbo – the limbo of an empty existence stripped of all signification...
- Jean Baudrillard, “Telemorphosis”
An impossible question: how real is Reality TV? The uncertainty of surveillance demands the assumption of its presence; in Reality TV, the certainty of surveillance requires its denial. This demand to act as if the camera isn’t present is an absurd paradox. The imitation of authenticity is meaningless. It is a system of social deterrence. Television does not manipulate us or inform us; television is the genetic code of social relations whose truth is now indecipherable.
Against this artificial paradise of technicity and virtuality, against the attempt to build a world completely positive, rational, and true, we must save the traces of the illusory world’s definitive opacity and mystery… The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and problematic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic.
- Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion
We must be like that which searches for its shadow—In the face of the extermination of illusion and profusion of positivity—an artificial utopia of technicality and illumination—the role of the intellectual is to defend opacity and mystery. Even if humans are doomed to disappear, we can practice disappearance artistically. Renounce pure verification; embrace enigmatic thought. We must encourage systems to implode into their own absolute systematicity, affirm them in a radical form that highlights their absurdity.
ROBIN MANLEY B’18 genuinely loves Cutthroat Kitchen.