Surveillance and Selfies

obama-selfieWe have a wired world that exhorts us to reveal ourselves. Of course, this didn’t start with the web. It was brewing since we said goodbye to our Victorian reserve. Early celebrity magazines like “Tattler” and “Hello” both served and punished those who featured in them; congratulating the rich and famous on their weddings, and publicly pillorying them for their excesses and social faux pas. But the exposé talk shows of the 80′s, with their cast of families falling apart, people coming out on live television, the spectacle of humanity in its ugliest moments, etc. brought this push for full public disclosure to a fevered pitch. The formula being that if celebrities are people whose lives are fully exposed, then we can all be celebrities if we fully expose ourselves. And this is formalized in the structure of reality TV and taken to its limits in the spectacle of self-made amateur porn.

Meanwhile, the tragedy of 9/11 and the growing sophistication of electronic means of surveillance, allow states, in the name of keeping us safe from harm, access to our communications, data transfers, stores of privately held information. Edward Snowden’s revelations about what the NSA has been doing have been met with, for the most part, ambivalence. For every person who complains that they no longer have privacy, five people respond that ‘If you don’t have anything to hide, this shouldn’t bother you.’

It’s for our own good. Our safety. We are told, patronizingly, that public confession is good for our souls. Get it off your chest. Tell us all about it. Blog it, tweet it, put it on Facebook. Reveal your innermost secrets, desires, dreams and we will… marketize them. The internet runs, financially, on user-generated content. And so we must encourage users to generate content and we do it by making self-exposure a civic duty.

I’m sorry Michel Foucault is not alive. I think he would have some valuable insights on what has happened to our culture in the last 20 years. He had some interesting things to say about surveillance; extrapolating the ‘panopticon’ model of Victorian prisons to the culture at large. For the most part, it is not necessary for those in power to keep us in line. We watch and judge each other. We model correct behaviour to each other, and never more so than now that we do it online.

We continue to protest that our sexuality is repressed, and yet we talk about it constantly. We flaunt our fantasies and our desires, and our self-exposure is reinforced by the accolades we receive for doing so. And the more extreme those desires, the more attention we get for having them. As long as we perform them publicly… and someone makes some money out of it.

For those who don’t expose themselves, there is always the shadowy, pseudo-legality of ‘those who keep us safe from terrorists’ who can pry into our emails, our telephone calls, our servers and our harddrives. If you refuse to be a public spectacle, we will ensure you know that you are still watched, still overseen by those who purport to have our best interests at heart.

No matter how anonymous you try to be, no matter how much think you’ve covered your tracks and separated your ‘real self’ from your online persona – I feel very confident in assuring you that you are not safe. If it is of benefit to someone to discover your real name, your home, your job… they can and they will.

Perhaps, truly, there is only one great transgression left. That of obscurity.




  9 comments for “Surveillance and Selfies

  1. December 14, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I’m nobody! Who are you?
    Are you nobody, too?
    Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
    They’d banish — you know!

    How dreary to be somebody!
    How public like a frog
    To tell one’s name the livelong day
    To an admiring bog!

    Emily Dickinson, 1891

  2. December 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

    If you want privacy, never ever post anything on line. Obscurity, on the other hand, is a bit easier, being a self-published writer is a very good start ;) As for selfies . . . My last picture was taken over twenty years ago, and even that isn’t posted on-line. Once again, you made me wonder if I should just retire from the internet altogether, then I remember that I, truly, have nothing worth hiding.

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Every time I think deeply about this, I get the itch to delete everything I’ve ever written on a blog, delete my twitter and facebook accounts and go dark. The problem is, once you’re there, you are there for good. There is no ‘erasing yourself’ completely possible.

      This wasn’t really any kind of call to action, but just a framing of a reality for discussion. We live in the world we live in. And we negotiate it, on a personal basis, as best we can. I guess the point of the post was to remind people of an evolving paradigm and what that paradigm entails. It gives them a chance to consider that the personal stuff they post IS spectacle and does play into that schema, and does benefit – even if only marginally and laterally – a system that thrives on self-exposure and surveillance.

  3. TFP
    December 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Who was the guy they built the pyramids for…. I forget.

  4. December 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Great piece. And yes, from your comment above, there is no going back. I think our educators are letting our children down by not being entirely clear about that. I would not enjoy a crossover of my identities but equally if there were I do not think I will have hurt anyone maliciously, only the revelation that I had another side they do not know might hurt some. People would gossip, titter, judge. They do that anyway. Having grown up in villages I am aware how small minded people can be, how cruel if a person does not fit into the right box. The internet is an infinite magnification of those human traits. It is also a wonderful and kind community I would not wish to be without.
    If I wanted to improve anything it is in this pragmatic approach. Accepting that once information is online it is fair game, it is no longer private or controllable. And by ‘online’ I mean all digital information. I have had experiences recently that have taught me that even my utility providers, inexplicably, hold data that links me to my ex-husband. They fucked up big time but it was a good lesson to know that it was possible. Whatever we are told, it is safe to assume we don’t know the half of what data is stored about us and I for one feel entirely powerless to affect that. If we campaign against it and ‘win’ they will simply continue to do so secretly. It is wise to live accordingly. Even if that is to accept that one’s job may be in jeopardy, one’s family may be alienated. Because at any point, there is always the possibility of a reveal, whether those secrets are online or not. Our actions have consequences.

  5. December 15, 2013 at 1:53 am

    David Brin has some interesting thoughts on this; he believes that personal privacy, being an essentially unretrievable ideal, should be replaced by radical transparency.

    He figures with people like Anonymous on the outside, and Snowden on the inside, governments will have a harder and harder time keeping secrets. If we build a society built around transparency, we can still have freedom and justice.

    • December 16, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Wow, this is rich stuff. I never knew he wrote so extensively on current affairs!

  6. December 15, 2013 at 1:53 am

    You know, I’m finding that, other than employers or people who might give a rap, nobody else really cares. Why? Because they’re “Selfies.” They don’t care about you; they care about themselves. I think all the stuff we spam people with fall on deaf, digital ears. Most of the feeds I see on my site, I just ignore. I keep scrolling, scrolling down the page until I find something more newsworthy or educational. But I agree, proceed with caution.

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