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How America learned to stop worrying and love surveillance

This is the world we’ve built for ourselves.


Jared Keller

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 3, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 4:03 am CDT

Last Thursday, New York City’s East Village looked like a war zone. A massive explosion completely leveled two buildings and damaged three others, wounding at least 19. Two people were killed. But oddly, the prevailing story in media circles isn’t necessarily about the free gas scheme that may have led to the explosion, or the deaths of Nicholas Figueroa or Moises Ismael Locón Ya, the two young men who lost their lives. It’s about an app.

The explosion came on the same day as the launch of Periscope, a new app by Twitter that allows users to produce real-time live video streams for their followers. The incident proved a formative moment for the brand new app’s application to daily life. “With the smartphones in our pockets, we’re all citizen journalists now,” wrote the Verge’s Ben Popper, describing how he experienced the disaster through Periscope’s lens.

It’s an understandable technology or “future-of-media” take, but fixating on the medium, despite being the calling of tech journalists, seems insensitive and callow. “Can we forget about tech reporting for one fucking minute and instead have empathy for those affected by an explosion?” tweeted Nature senior editor Noah Gray. But this outrage wasn’t just limited to the media coverage: The New York Post quickly called out “heartless jerks” who decided to pose for selfies at the disaster site.

For many, these relatively inconsequential controversies have a broader implication. The ubiquity of Internet-connected mobile devices and livestreaming has done more than simply make every citizen with a smartphone a “citizen journalist.” It’s fundamentally transformed the way we relate to the world around us. All of our activities, from the extreme tragedy of a building explosion to the mundanity of our daily meals to sleeping, have become subsumed under a behavioral regime of recording, documenting, and sharing. 

Forget the surveillance state: We live in a sousveillance society, where it’s our friends and peers who watch over us instead of the government—and it’s infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

It’s not simply that we have more cameras at our disposal; it’s that we’ve become conditioned to constantly use them. Social theorist Nathan Jurgenson dubbed this change in attention the “Facebook Eye.” Our brains no longer simply enjoy our experiences as they are happening; instead, the modern mind is “always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes,’” as Jurgenson writes. 

Forget the surveillance state: We live in a sousveillance society, where it’s our friends and peers who watch over us instead of the government.

The modern mind, thus, functions in two vaguely separate but complementary and inherently intertwined contexts: documenting the experience offline and sharing it in the online ecosystem we seem to inhabit more and more with each passing day.

“Facebook fixates the present as always a future past,” observes Jurgenson. “By this, I mean that social media users have become always aware of the present as something we can post online that will be consumed by others. Are we becoming so concerned about posting our lives on Facebook that we forget to live our lives in the here-and-now? Think of a time when you took a trip holding a camera in your hand and then think of when you did the same without the camera. The experience is slightly different. We have a different attachment to our present when we are not concerned with documenting.”

This logic doesn’t just apply to Facebook. It also applies to networks like Twitter, where we pour not just own own formerly internal monologues but our short observations on the world around us. It applies to Instagram, brimming with food photos and vacation selfies not just to show off the amazing lives we live but to reinforce how we see ourselves. And it applies to the suites of livestreaming apps that have exploded into the popular zeitgeist in the past few weeks, from Periscope to its torpedoed competitor Meerkat

Sociologist Erving Goffman once observed that social life is very much like performing on a stage at a theater: The actor wears different costumes and wields different props, depending on what the performance requires. But with our modern social lives continually lived in a suite of colorful apps, we’re now required to live in a constant state of documentation and self-presentation.

This is no accident: All of these apps were designed this way in the first place. The architecture of these sites, from Facebook to Periscope, were designed to induce you to share and to pour more and more of yourself into the narrow rectangles of meaning. After all, these sites make money by monetizing your attention; the more you share, the more you power an app’s present and future sustainability. 

We’re now required to live in a constant state of documentation and self-presentation.

My favorite analogy for how social media works comes from Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character in Inception, during a long conversation about the film’s futuristic process of shared dreaming: “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.” 

In our case, it’s the details of our lives and the world around us—our interest, our desires, our jokes, what we see and what we eat—that become the foundation on which social media sites are built.
That we have a tendency to immediately put disasters like building collapses or natural disasters (or celebrity deaths) into a social context isn’t necessarily a bad or new thing. After all, “where were you on 9/11” has become a cultural trope that will remain embedded in American life for an entire generation. 

But it’s in the documentation of the daily mundanity of life that seems troubling. Consider YouNow, a simple broadcasting platform geared towards teenagers. While the app is populated with aspiring artists and musicians in the same vein as burgeoning YouTube stars, it’s also full of sleeping teens. “On its popular #sleepingsquad hashtag, I can see about 20 sleeping teens at any given time,” writes BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos. “I don’t know exactly why a teen would broadcast themselves sleeping. I can’t ask them. Because they’re asleep.” Livestreaming has become so ubiquitous that it colonizes every moment of our time.

Periscope and YouNow, operating on twin extremes of the spectrum of daily life, remind us of one thing: We have built a society and culture that now fixates on recording and sharing everything we do and see. While libertarians and civil liberties activists train their eyes on the modern surveillance state, the reality is that we’ve created a culture of exposure and invited it into our homes. 

All of that information isn’t just at the disposal of the state (despite refusals to share personal data from companies like Facebook and Twitter), but at the disposal of people, too: for shaming, for career-damaging criticism, and for the threat of force. But mainly, in the case of Periscope, it’s for broadcasting and for watching. Our faces and goings-on end up on the Internet whether we want them to or not. We are like Jim Carrey’s Truman in the worlds we’ve built for ourselves.

Livestreaming has become so ubiquitous that it colonizes every moment of our time.

Those sleeping teens on YouNow are the future of the modern sousveillance society. This isn’t a distinctly American culture; it’s a distinctly Internet-native one and, therefore, a generational one. Research suggests that the privacy threshold for modern generations is lower than others: A majority of millennials are happy to give away their online privacy in exchange for basic economic benefits. Fifty-five percent have posted a selfie on a social media site, according to the Pew Research Center. 

“Online privacy is dead—millennials understand that, while older users have not adapted,” said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, in 2013. “Millennials recognize that giving up some of their privacy online can provide benefits to them. This demonstrates a major shift in online behavior [and] there’s no going back.”

This is the world we’ve built for ourselves on the infrastructure set down by the railroad tycoons at Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, and YouNow. As we pour more of ourselves onto these networks, we begin to see things more and more through Jurgenson’s “Facebook Eye,” and with the Internet and Internet culture now interchangeable with, well, culture, this trend will likely continue. As Cole said in 2013: There’s no going back.

Photo via Al_Hanouf/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 3, 2015, 12:30 pm CDT