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“I always feel like somebody’s watching me”: On surveillance culture.

August 27, 2010

This past Sunday I had a client in my chair whose job is to work with various companies and corporations to help them get a foothold in the world of social networking as a way to expand the reach of their various businesses. In talking about her work, we discussed our usage of and simultaneous reticence around social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. During the course of our conversation we touched on the subject of applications like Foursquare that people use to let the world (or their social network) know where they are “checking in” – restaurants, bars, clubs, the gym, etc. She then informed me that Facebook had added a feature that automatically allows you to be “checked in” to places by friends and that you have to go find it and disable it or it can automatically inform anyone and everyone of your location at all times. And I found myself thinking, for the umpteenth time, why the fuck do people “check in” to places to begin with? It baffles me to no end. But I think it’s a symptom of something that’s been taking hold of us ever since the first season of The Real World reared its ugly head in 1992.

I was really resistant to reality TV for a very long time. I watched a little bit of the Real World when it first aired and it bored the crap out of me. I didn’t care about these random assholes and was far happier getting my entertainment from the realm of fiction and unreality. As the genre began to take over television programming like a virus, I would find myself tuning into some of the competition oriented shows like Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model, but really could not do the whole group-of-people-living/fighting/drinking/fucking-together scene at all. I don’t for a second think any of that makes me a better or more cultured person, don’t get me wrong. But at least there seemed to be some point to all of it – a prize or a chance to do something slightly cool with your life besides just being a complete dickwad on television. But even that world lost its luster for me and I find that I still prefer professional actors doing their job on the small screen in my apartment. I’d rather watch Buffy stake vampires or see Wonder Woman spin her way to truth and justice than watch a bunch of real people act like real morons. I find the enterprise of reality television stars to be one of the most loathsome cultural creations currently in existence. The fact that generations of kids are growing up wanting to be like the Kardashians or the kids on The Hills makes me weep for humanity at times. Or, at the very least, it makes me wish I had a lot of free time and skill to become a celeb-reality serial killer.

But lest you think I’m digressing, I see a direct connection between the explosion of “reality-based” (not enough air quotes for that, really) entertainment and the incessant need of so many folks to “check in”, “tweet” and otherwise over inform the world of their every move. Reality entertainment has totally distorted people’s sense of self-worth to the point where we all think we’re important enough, interesting enough and worthy enough of such constant attention. But look, I don’t even want to know a truly famous person just ate a sandwich or took a shit or walked into a restaurant unless one or all of those things somehow directly impact me.  And while I clearly like a certain amount of attention – I wouldn’t write a blog or be in a band or post the occasional self-indulgent photo of me in a cute outfit on Facebook if I didn’t – I don’t want people to know my every move and action every second of the day; that’s just some 1984 level shit that I am not down for. But is it just that so many folks are preparing themselves for their 15 minutes of reality TV fame or is it something else? Are we all just so worried that, as our next door neighbors become more recognized names than some award winning actors, if we don’t make our presence known as constantly as possible that we’ll be forgotten among the real regular people? Are we scared that “reality” will overshadow reality so we just sign up to be watched, to be totally stalker-enabled, so that we won’t fade into the distance of the unknown and the un-special? Is this our new way of trying to be recognized or make an impact? Will the future of memoirs just be a series of Facebook status updates, location check-ins and the most interesting of our Twitter entries, making the whole blog-to-book phenomenon (don’t get me started on that) seem like a quaint notion from a simpler time?

Yes, I realize that last statement could be gilding the lily a bit, but as much as I participate in elements of this culture, I am equally perplexed by it. I don’t know why anybody wants everybody to be able to access them all of the time. I don’t know why we bellow about privacy rights stripped away by things like The Patriot Act and then can’t let a single sneeze go uncatalogued. I know I am not coming up with any grand conclusions or answers here, but it is something that both fascinates and troubles me. I like a lot of what technology has given us. But I still love fiction and anonymity and secrets. I don’t want to wake up in a world where entertainment is simply the whole populace walking around with cameras pointed at us 24/7 while we all decide which person we want to watch that day. Because, if nothing more, most of us aren’t fucking exciting enough for that.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 12:53 pm

    Well reasoned, articulated and written. You’ve casually summed up some of my biggest complaints about what our modern culture has become. I get secondhand embarrassment thinking about it… now if you’ll excuse me I have some tour pictures to upload in real time.

    • August 27, 2010 1:37 pm

      I totally get you on the “secondhand embarrassment” thing. It’s like I see someone from Jersey Shore or The Kardashians on the cover of some gossip rag and I am like “This is why terrorists hate us and want to kill us.”

  2. August 27, 2010 1:03 pm

    And this is why I love you.

    I find it either really attention-seeking or…I don’t know. I get the feeling it’s less a “social” tool than a “lack of social skills” tool sometimes? It strikes me as filterless and NEEDY, and that makes me cringe. I post to a blog but it’s very specific and topically limited and I barely post to FB unless it’s work-related and that is sparingly.

    I think I have a bad reaction to this kind of stuff because, years ago, I had a horrible filter. And to see that so rampantly online now makes me really uncomfortable.

    It also seems to speak to never being able to be in the minute and yourself without needing to “3rd-person” yourself.

    • August 27, 2010 1:36 pm

      This! Yes! You totally expanded on what I said and voiced some things that I wasn’t quite able to put into words. It’s very similar to why I stopped doing zines and more personal based blogs. It was like I had to process my world through these certain filters all the time and, in turn, had not many filters myself.

      And I think the neediness is major too. The need to always feel like someone is checking you out – emailing you, texting you, responding to your status updates or tweets, etc. I get it, attention is nice and, like I wrote, it’s not as if I don’t want any. But there’s a line that seems to get pole-vaulted over by a lot of people. And I think, as a result, we see people in real life who are much more demanding of attention, praise, and overall affirmation than they maybe really need or deserve. It creates a lot more entitlement.

    • August 28, 2010 1:07 am

      P.S. I am currently having a stupidly guilty moment over wanting to hide someone on Facebook whom I adore but who checks in EVERYWHERE he goes.

  3. jimmy permalink
    August 29, 2010 8:18 am

    Your night mare future:

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