2.12.2012

The web is an always on camera, or No wonder the kids today are so anxious


Picture this.  You're sitting around your living room with some friends and someone comes in, an acquaintance perhaps, and starts filming you. You're not sure why. Do you do exactly as you were doing before the camera entered the room? Or has your behavior changed — what you say, do, how you interact with others in the room?

Cameras necessarily shift social dynamics.  How can they not?  They are eyes, after all.  Only they're the weirdest eyes ever in that they are the potential eyes of everyone, everywhere, from now until eternity. That's gotta have an effect, don't you think?

Now take the digital camera which is at once camera, processing, screen, and distribution: the time from click to world wide viewing is nearly instantaneous. Well, that's gotta have some strange effects.

The social web is a kind of always on camera, ceaselessly capturing text and image — capturing imprints of ourselves — our likes and dislikes, the pages we view and how long we linger, the Yelps, the tweets, the reposts and shares and retweets and so on and so on.

Suddenly, we are all actors, all writers, curators, critics, and photographers who relentlessly publish and distribute.  We are all actors on the screen that is the web.

Think about it: We update our FB status with an insight, link, image, or report on the song we listened to or game we played. We comment on others' insights, links, and images. We Yelp and comment on others' Yelps; we tweet and retweet. We write emails and texts, mini-essays and haikus. We imprint ourselves on the collective social film which is a distributed, networked cinematic event.  

And then we await judgement from an unclear, and at times unknown, audience: applause, boos, or indifference that take the form of page views, likes and dislikes, comments, shares, reposts, retweets, deletes. Google Analytics is an applause meter. I got 193 uniques today! 17 people liked the photo of my Halloween nurse slut costume!

This happens all day, everyday: we publish, we perform, we are seen and we are judged by an audience with unknown extension — and anything we do could suddenly "go viral" and be seen by millions. This is not just life in a panopticon as we are not only always being watched.  We are always being commanded to perform — and then are judged for that performance.

No wonder the kids today are so anxiously and constantly checking their phones: Did they like that post? Did I do good? No wonder that the 25 year old girls who swarm our cities on Saturday nights are dressed like prostitutes: Gotta impress — and fast!

Indeed, there seems to be a very strange desire amongst the 20-somethings of today. They fancy themselves individuals — Look at me! This is my taste! — while at the same time they fear individuality: Do they like me? It's a crippling anxiety that leaves these 20-somethings stuck between safe sweetness (don't want to offend anyone) and merciless judgment (everything's a threat and a thin veil of anonymity affords casual nastiness).

While my generation, so-called Gen-X, has its own anxieties, this is not one of them. I may be happy or sad because some post of mine gets good or bad comments but, fundamentally, I don't give a shit. Like most of my actual friends, I have a life that precedes and exceeds my online identity such as a kid who doesn't yet check my status updates. I live in the old world where I don't interact with my real world friends online. And, like the anachronism that I am, I continue to publish to the web as if it were a printing press. Which means I don't publish pictures of myself at parties or eating breakfast.

This is not to say that I have a life and you don't.  This is just to say that the web plays a different role in my life than it seems to play in the lives of the kids today.  I can turn off the web. But the kids today can't, not really.  They're like Neo, born inside the matrix: they were always already turned inside out, always already enmeshed in the ever-emergent text that is the social web.

It's the anxiety of being filmed or being an artist but now played out through all facets of life and identity. Artists have the relative luxury of only being present for their art work; the rest of the time, they can live more or less free of scrutiny (the paparazzi, of course, is the first Facebook wall). But the kids today don't have that luxury; they must produce just to participate in society. 

The very conditions of identity, then, are the acts of being seen and judged by an audience of unknown scope and power.  

8 comments:

Nathan said...

"How light power would be, and easy to dismantle no doubt, if all it did was to observe, spy, detect, prohibit, and punish; but it incites, provokes, produces. It is not simply eye and ear; it makes people act and speak."

Just read this in Foucault's essay "Lives of Infamous Men," and, perhaps succumbing to the provocation myself, felt compelled to share it here. No need for exegesis, of course; you expressed this double nature of power quite well.

But there's another point to be made about power, one which relates to the different ways that it produces resistance. A good friend of mine has a sister who's going through middle school. You can imagine, or try to imagine, what that hormonal nightmare of peer-pressure and peer-oppression is like with the tools of social media thrown in the mix - take young adults at their most sadistic and insecure and give them the communication and surveillance powers of the Stasi. What was interesting to me, however, was that my friend's sister had chosen, quite intentionally, not to join facebook. Furthermore, she had a pretty sophisticated argument - somewhat reminiscent of Marcuse's in One Dimensional Man, actually - for why she refused to participate. She's no social pariah either: well met, lots of friends, etc. But the point is that she wasn't un-reflexively swept up in the social media apparatus; she saw the operation of power within and through it and said "no thanks."

Now I'm not saying that she's going to grow up to be Bernadine Dohrn, but, for a 13 year old girl, she has a surprisingly sophisticated critical attitude toward the spectacle - certainly more sophisticated than my own at that age. If it weren't for facebook laying that spectacular logic bare and confronting her with the command to participate, I have to wonder whether she would have that critical attitude at all. Granted, she is, as was explained to me, a convicted Christian, which makes this a bit more complicated - and, of course, more interesting.

But, all this is to say that social media, while dominating and provoking a generation, is also producing subjects of resistance who are not just outcasts or luddites. Power may surreptitiously compel complicity through manipulation and the appropriation of desires, but it also develops counter-positions which become more sophisticated and virulent in response to its advances. This, at least, is my hope for the coming generation.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Excellent call — and something I definitely left out of this discussion. I saw this in my students at Cal — when they were cool, they were so fucking cool. They understood media and life and history and allatonceness in a way I probably never will.

Rabino said...

Hey Daniel, did you read this?

http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708

umpolung said...

This will be multi-part, and perhaps, shoddily, performative. This reminds me a lot of Roland Barthes' fantastic Camera Lucida. In it, he writes:

"I don't know how to work upon my skin from within. I decide to 'let drift' over my lips and in my eyes a faint smile which I mean to be 'indefinable,' in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual: I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy."

A bit funny that he continues, "Death is the eidos of that Photograph. Hence, strangely, the only thing that I tolerate, that I like, that is familiar to me, when I am photographed, is the sound of the camera."

I remember reading some of your other posts on photography, particularly about the "preview" screen on a digital camera...it's taking pictures without the Operator even clicking the shutter release, as many pictures as is the refresh rate of the camera. To me, there's something vaguely obscene about this notion. Almost a pre-Photoshopping to make reality more aesthetically appealing...the method isn't any longer composition (for silver halide emulsions are expensive and almost impossible to prepare in the field) but trial-and-error. Instead of artist striking canvas, the artist sits back and awaits a "striking" image...it's a fundamental inversion of the role of the artist (whether amateur or professional) in forming images. For less than $100 and a quick trip to Wal-Mart, anyone can have their own digital camera with a preview window: a small butcher's block that can slice up reality as thin as a breakfast salami. And Homeland Security can't be bothered! Real problems to deal with! Can't bother with these existential triflings of morale. Low morale? More ale, and ail no more!

So, of course detached, young, and high-on-a-trust-fund (ambiguity intentional) 20-somethings like myself feel this weird otherness sometimes, at least if you're not part of the .0001% who is a non-internet user. For me it's not that I know I'm seen or feel that I'm seen. It's the idea that it's now possible, that an other (that I might not even be able to see all of — how strange is that, that you might "come across yourself" — The Double is no longer an enemy but a welcome friend —! All this is to say is that we're now interconnected in such a drastic way that the means by which we interact and share information and establish an online "culture" and see how it comes up against our offline cultures, and that there's room for entropy and randomness and error. Back in the day you might ask someone to deliver a message for you and they'd do it. Now, you send out an e-mail, and it's thrown into a meat grinder and flung out over the internet with a little tag on it that somehow makes its way ("at the speed of thought" to paraphrase the Epicureans I'm currently enraptured with) to the sender and is assembled and re-read. What is trust, per se, in a system like this? We all scoff at the notion of our living in a Matrix and assert our "free will" and indeterminism. Yet step on to the internet, and you are putting the tiny spear into your own skull and plugging in. Willful acceptance is even more frightening, I'd say, than forced conformity. When the guards have been so dropped that they are no longer, how can we help but seeing things as they are in their singing and raw natures? Corollary to the Heraclitean River Theorum: "One can step into the same shit twice, for the unkempt stable ever festers."

umpolung said...

To stand in front of a lens is to be in a position of submission; being photographed is an act of surrender, even if that surrender lasted 1/500th of a second. It means something, I think, to be always surrendering, especially when one does not know whom is behind the camera, or when it is firing. To be under the scrutiny of oneself by oneself, under scrutiny by others for oneself, by others for the other of ourselves, including those ourselves that we know and that we don't — that is tiresome.

Consider the internet as an informational DJ: you find yourself posing but for situations in which you are not even in yet. How should I pose? In what way? Where will it be in relation to other images, to other subjects-made-object? If I stand here grinning with hands outstretched around my coffee mug, is it going to show up next to a Viagra advertisement on someone's Facebook? Not only do I pose without knowing what I in fact, ever look like — for I cannot objectify myself to myself —, but also I pose not knowing where it might end up — what it might end up on. "I don't want my face on that," I exclaim petulantly. And yes, "exclaim" is the appropriate verb here, for I did indeed have an ex-claim on that which was now stolen from me. Not stolen, but "re-appropriated without consent." If I were a library, he'd be an upstanding patron. A borrower.

Imagine taking the language-game of Burroughs cut-up to the surgical theatre to invent some new, phantasmic, pseudo-scientifical 21st century phrenology-by-scalpel. Bins line the walls of the refrigerated room; breasts by size, suppleness, qualities; barrels of sinews and tendons, bones of all shapes and sizes, hammers, awls, chisels to reform them with such skill that they trump Brunelleschi or the David. Surgeons avidly oscillating between chiseling and scalpeling away and checking their three-dimensional, hologram projecting computer-netic-information-consciousness-webmachine-integrators that are blasting life updates of twitter feeds and celebrity kitsch-trivia at lightning speed. The surgeons have adapted to this lightning speed, their attention spans being gradually shortened with intense sessions of electro-shock and cognitive behavioural therapy. Countless hours of training with their significant others and having wives share their "feelings" (sadly, this resulted in a few break-ups in the program). Then, we put them into scenarios in which they had to master great deals of information or suffer horrific consequences. Thusly, we taught them — or, rather, aided a shift in their comportments — to be, essentially, gods. Every day we sample approximately 1% of the population and cut them all up. You can see that at the entryway, there. Yes, today we have some kids from the local middle school coming here for Career Fair. One can hear snippets of conversation as one walks about the ball pit outside where children wait for their parents' to finish their "doctor's appointments," and the vacated rows of chairs outside the Chuck-E-Cheese-esque façade is almost marginally tragic.

umpolung said...

What was tragic, wait— what were we saying again? Or talking again about —. Oh that new, yes. That. Oh, that's an artery Tim. No, Tim. An ARTERY.

Meet Tim. Tim is new to the surgical team and is displaying a bit too much "gung-ho" aptitude for his job. Tim was hired to cut and grab. That's the name for the ones that wait by the loading docks, and in between shipments engage in full-contact Brazilian Ju-Jitsu with half-frozen calf carcasses hanging from mechanical hooks that swing with the relaxing regularity of a grandfather clock's pendulum (or, grandfather's clock pendulum — cf. a pocketwatch on a chain and a wooden box-clock apparatus just sitting there). Well, wait, where were—we...

OK, back to reality.

What's that?

Oh, you mean like the postal service? But, why? We have e-mail!

There's something else to be said for the aesthetics of information. Informational aesthetics: how does the way information is presented to us affect our judgments and perceptions of it, our comprehension, our preservation, our synthesis of it with our pre-existing conceptual fermata?

That was a non sequitur, but there is nothing wrong with those. I quite like them. They give you something to chew on, a bit of pith that if you have not grasped anything else, you can at least sit back and ruminate with satisfaction on the fact that they're wrong and you know it.

Oh, and about the whole surgical team...well, they severely trunkated their logic lessons such that when they were taught Galen's maxim to "First do no harm" that they took it in the truth functional sense and said "good = ~harm, First, ~ harm, so, First, good." But, taking advice from popular "gangster-rappers" and "holo-whores" to be like "I'm good, yo, It's all good, baby babehh," the surgeons, most certainly, went astray.

And I think that's all there remains to be said, perhaps, about the topic of existent beings in need of liposuction. (Cf. Governments and corporations are not beings, hence we will refer to them in the following week). And, if not, not.

I'd rather be under the gun then in front of it. The latter is the way of the camera, the FaceTime, the instagram, the news feed, the tumblr twitterdom, this quant-essence of being. And how can it change? The more we connect the less we need be. By reductio ad absurdum (is it specified whether the argument or arguer runs into absurdity—?) —, then, QED.

umpolung said...

*Pressing refresh every five minutes, waiting anxiously for someone to judge the objective worth of my existence.*

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Rabino: Great article — thanks for that.

@ Umpolung. Wowzer. You're lit, and thank you for it. Here's my all too brief reply:

We need to learn to be seen. You say the camera subjugates us, which is true, but it also asks us: How will you go? How do you go? Before whose or what eyes? It is merciless and generous.

I, for one, cam nervous in front of a camera. But I'm also nervous in front of dogs and for similar reasons: they sense my weakness. They are my god avatars; they judge me.

But this is my weakness and they, in their way, ask me to rise to the occasion, to let myself be seen and sensed, to go with them not as subjects per se but as bodies in motion.

It's funny how we tend to read the change in environments (a la McLuhan) as bad — people read McLuhan as a prophet of doom when, in fact, he was saying the opposite: the electronic age is the global village.

And so the always on social web: a change that makes us anxious but only because we have yet to learn to be seen.