PLEASING OUR DIGITAL MOTHER June 6, 2015
Putting a Face on the Mask of Surveillance and Control
by Stafford Smith
Presented at the 11th Social Sciences Conference of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Croatia
This paper grew out of my investigation into how digital technology has changed photography. The real issues are not about film vs. digital but rather about distribution, audience feedback and expectation as well as changes in our culture. Photography has always been about creating a façade that closely mimics reality and allows viewers to project their own beliefs on to it. Looking behind the façade is an obsession of mine and what I'm finding are mechanisms of surveillance and control that develop and metastasize as our attention is diverted elsewhere. As is often the case with humans, the conflict between our emotional and rational sides is being exploited to our disadvantage. One of way of approaching this is through an examination of the venerable genre of science fiction.
"SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER..." intones the voiceover at the beginning of each episode of the old 60's serial, Star Trek. Outer space, the future; vague unquantifiable zones where anything is possible, allowing us to suspend belief - as long as everyone speaks English and the good guys look like they came from central casting for a Marlboro ad. Science fiction sparks our imagination, lighting up the whole emotional spectrum from hope to fear. But the genre is old enough that some of those imagined futures lie in our past - allowing us to examine their predictions - often finding them way off the mark.
Let's take a closer look at Star Trek. Recent additions to the old TV show are stuck fumbling with tropes from a pre-digital age. Hopeless devices with only a single function clutter up the utility belts of the intrepid crew. A communicator that is nothing more than a walkie-talkie is laughable by today's standards. Gene Roddenberry, the series' author, couldn't even predict the camera phone. And speaking of cameras, there doesn't even seem to be one on the Enterprise. A five year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before and no one remembered to bring a camera? Isn't the prime directive of exploration to send back photos of exotic realms to encourage exploitation, colonization and tourism? There are 500 crewmembers on that starship and not a single photographer.
This oversight becomes even more ridiculous when one considers the character of their captain, James T. Kirk, whose personal definition of galactic exploration is informed by his unquenchable lust for female aliens. Kirk's Facebook, or perhaps Spacebook, page would be replete with selfies taken with his latest conquests from Uranus to the Trojan Astroid. Could it be that in the future documentation will no longer be more important than the event?
But this is not really about space; Kirk has a special place in the American ethos. He is the rugged individualist that is endlessly reincarnated as Teddy Roosevelt, George Custer, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. Americans worship these fearless alpha males who lashed out at perceived threats beyond the bounds of our culture. Kirk, who no longer has a place on earth, where all lands have been discovered and civilized, sets off for the final frontier. His need to act outwardly and boldly has no place in an environment where the only direction left is inward.
Kirk needs a place with no rules, no codified behavior, in which he can live by his wits and be his own judge, jury and executioner. The Federation, of which he is an officer, is in a race with the totalitarian Klingons for control of the galaxy. Time is up for these virgin worlds. They must choose between the suave clean-shaven lotharios or the rapacious lumpy louts. There is no other option. Their moment of deflowerment is at hand.
The optimism of Star Trek's narrative is countered by the pessimism of George Orwell's 1984, in which the dark side of an administration of the future is explored. Control is enforced through the ominous and omniscient Big Brother: A bully who figuratively threatens with his ubiquitous gaze to pummel his younger siblings into submission should they stray from the strict regimen of Orwell's society. The population has been reduced through fear to a childlike state in this dystopian futuristic scenario. Written in the Stalinist era, Orwell created a first born for Papa Joe, who lurked around the house while dad was off defending the realm from external threats.
But, Orwell's fears of an omniscient and brutal police state seem unwarranted today, at least for the technologically privileged, now that the dreaded year came and went with little disturbance in our lives. Even our Stalinist adversaries of old have mostly gone over to capitalism and our fears have moved on to other perceived threats. Still, Orwell's prediction of round-the-clock surveillance in the form of a household appliance did come true, albeit not exactly in the way he imagined it. And it is not Big Brother, but another member of the family that has usurped the throne, one that does not rely on fear and coercion to keep us under surveillance and control.
What does bind Orwell to Roddenberry though, is the notion that technological advances will actually enable or enhance physical male power. Both Kirk and Big Brother rely on brute strength to either subdue enemies or intimidate their charges. This speaks more to the fantasies of the adolescent male audience that the work is in part geared towards than an accurate analysis of the effects of technological advancement.
Power has become more sophisticated and nuanced as brutality gives way to warm embrace. It is a soft power that operates on the premise of love and exploits our narcissistic tendencies with encouragement and approval for the slightest of efforts. In short Big Brother has turned out to be Big Mother.
Rugged individualists and alpha-males make for great sci-fi characters, but are hardly relevant to a population that has become increasingly complacent. It's fear that makes a father figure relevant. I've noticed with my daughters that they prefer their mother for almost everything from homework to shopping to advice on friends and careers. But when they get scared, whether when kayaking in the ocean, during tornado warnings or the appearance of spiders, it's dad they cling to. However, these moments are the exception to the norm. With technology making physical strength and aggression obsolete and food readily available without the hunt, we are reverting to an infantile state with a preference for the comfort of mom's warm breast rather than the protection of dad's hairy chest.
Even the military, that last bastion of alpha males, is phasing out the need for human combatants. Drones are replacing boots on the ground and the F-35 fighter plane, currently in production, is predicted to be the very last to need a pilot in the cockpit. It's ironic that as women are finally being allowed into combat positions the need for anyone at all on the frontline is in danger of disappearing. Soldiers of the future will conduct missions from home in real-time on Facebook, garnering "Likes" for their kills, in between re-postings of someone else's cat videos. Technology has made it possible to accomplish much with little effort, while simultaneously receiving positive feedback from a large audience. And it's the combination of an easy sense of accomplishment and continuous positive reinforcement that sucks us into a narcissistic whirlpool with little chance of escape.
At birth, the world is just a giant breast. Suckling away, the infant looks up and bonds with its mother's face. The face at the end of the boob returns the gaze and all is well. Capturing our mother's attention, according to Sigmund Freud, is a healthy form of narcissism that we eventually, and somewhat painfully grow out of, but never forget deep down.1 Never again, for most of us, will we receive that unconditional love, admiration and attention. Never again; until now. Today, social media has made it possible for us to have an audience at the ready that rewards our most trivial accomplishments with acknowledgement, encouragement and approval. Social media has made it possible to return to the security and comfort of our infancy when our favorite meal, attention, was served up on demand and nothing more was expected of us than eating it. We long to return to that phase of life and narcissistically gaze into our mother's eyes. Is it a coincidence then that selfies are often taken looking up?
Freud even credited this narcissistic instinct as the reason why we create religion. We may grow out of the physical need for the unconditional love and protection of our parents but we still crave it on a deep emotional and psychic level, inspiring us to create omnipotent beings to protect us. Social media is also fueled by this powerful predisposition for narcissistic behavior. Narcissism can only exist when it has external support, constantly applauding and affirming this behavior. Technology has made this privilege, once reserved exclusively for celebrities and the wealthy, possible. Think about why we share our photos and videos. Would you continue to post them if no one was "Liking" them? Aren't you disappointed when no one "Likes" your post? With Facebook commanding more than 50% of time spent online by some estimates2 they must have hit upon the right formula.
Social media has replaced the mirror as our object of devotion. Our real mothers have been pushed aside by our new digital mother. The smart-phone camera has replaced her loving gaze, and thumbs up icons, her approval. She is omniscient and omnipresent. She is not just your mother, but everyone's mother. Think of Facebook as an infinitely breasted Goddess with 800 million children suckling at her digital teats. She asks for nothing but your participation. In return she passive-aggressively mixes endorphins with anxiety. But don't worry. I'm not here to wean you off Zuckerburg's binary booby beast. This present day version of Artemis of Ephesus may provoke or titillate, but it does bring the Goddess back into our lives. We gather at her temple, several times daily, and sometimes late into the night, making offerings, confessing our sins and worries, while extolling our triumphs.
We discuss and share our latest trivialities with long lost friends, vague acquaintances and extended family members. It might be overreaching to say we are consciously worshipping a pagan goddess, but with nearly a billion subscribers, Facebook would displace Buddhism as the 4th largest religion on earth.
Facebook rival Instagram adds nostalgia to its mask to lull us into a sense of security and drop our guard. Using the faded, yellowy tropes of the disco era as its aesthetic, it calls to mind ludicrous double knit suits and wide lapels to amuse hipsters born decades after the fact. Instagram pushes an alternative view of our recent history that never existed. The photos faded years later, not when they were made! What were the 70's really like? Who can be sure? But nostalgia is already an illusion. Memory distilled through filters of forgetfulness and cinematic hyperbole becomes as much of a fantasy as sci-fi scenarios of the future.
So what is the appeal of mimicking the inferior products of a failed company? Is it that the bar needs to be set so low for today's youth to succeed? Or does it generate a downward social comparison with their parents' generation? It reminds me of a conversation I overheard between students picking through a pile of cast-off video tapes. "Ahh, VHS, the way movies were meant to be seen!"
The distractions of narcissism and nostalgia serve as masks that are necessary to allow the most sophisticated form of surveillance ever created to seamlessly insert itself into our lives. Much of the effort goes to avoid triggering our primal instincts that warn us of predators checking us out for their next meal. Most people recoil if they catch a stranger taking their photograph. It feels like one is being violated. Street photographers know this and have developed ways of dealing with it. Garry Winogrand relied on his 6'3" frame to intimidate his subjects, Diane Arbus used her innocent and disarming demeanor to relax people she happened upon, and Philip-Lorca di Corcia used a long telephoto lens and surrounded himself with lawyers.
The Big Brotherish gaze of the ominous phallic lens is sure to raise anyone's hackles. But most people don't react in a hostile or defensive way even when they know they're under surveillance when surfing the web, making Google searches, shopping with credit cards or using ATM's. There's a disconnect that makes it too easy to believe that no one is really paying attention. We count on our instinctual herd mentality that we are too boring to stand out. The Japanese aphorism, The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, comes to mind. This may have worked in the past with human observers but our digital mother, with her godlike omniscience is actually paying close attention. No need to just have faith in her power. Freshly baked cookies await when you're done looking at that porno site.
Our Digital Mother organizes party games and fun quizzes to wheedle out even more personal information from us. She already knows quite a bit about us in the present, but not so much about us in the past. What about life before the internet? How can she get us to talk about that? It's common knowledge that every photograph that we've posted has become part of an enormous facial recognition database. You have probably already experienced posting new photos only to find that Facebook already knows who the people are. Is it paranoia to suspect that Throwback Thursday and Sibling Appreciation Day have been invented to add to these databases. We laugh as we post old photos from our zany college days not thinking that we are adding a temporal dimension to our files. What we looked like then, has been added to what we look like now. Maybe our "permanent records" from high school are being sold off to make up for budget shortfalls. Posting images of us with our siblings, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing incident, adds cross-referencing capabilities to the billions of files.
Nostalgia and sensory familiarity cloak devices that resemble tools from our stupid past. Yes, stupid, we all know you were wearing platform shoes and rhinestone studded bell-bottoms. We've seen the faded photos. The telephone, the tv, the keyboard, the camera, the video game, the computer and even the car all bear strong resemblances to devices that once just served us. We forget that they are no longer the same things they once were. In an eerie echo of 1984, Samsung warns that its latest televisions eavesdrop on personal conversations. These are no longer tools we exclusively control, yet they sure look like it. Their familiarity keeps us from considering their real purposes. We can no longer rely on instinct to warn us, as all the visceral clues have vanished. We keep expecting that new technology will be like the movie, Transformers, physically changing into spidery robots that run off to report on us when our back is turned. We don't seem to get it through our thick skulls that as we stare at our toasters and radios waiting for them to grow legs and sprout eyes, they're already conducting surveillance without the physical change. We drop our guard and relax at the same time we download, share and consume data at ever-faster rates. To paraphrase Svetlana Boym, technology is the opiate of the masses.
These "smart" items are still thought of by many as tools of empowerment. And in a sense they are. The New York Times reports that young Saudi's live in an "environment of apps," finding employment, social engagement, transportation and Western entertainment in their smart phones, while adhering to strict Islamic rules concerning the visible public face of their lives.3 The stability achieved by this Digital Mother of the Middle East outweighs the bending of the rules for the technologically privileged.
However, these tools have simultaneously become devices that neatly package us for sale. We are now the commodity. Merely by participating in everyday activities or worse, by wallowing in self-affirming narcissistic purchases, posts and time-wasting games we are generating digital clones that are sold in a virtual slave market to the highest bidder. These digital doppelgangers are much more than portraits as they live and relive all our trackable activity since we first logged on.
Imagine a modern day Odysseus descending to Hades, not to visit the ghosts of comrades lost in battle, but to commune with the ghosts of still-living friends perpetually making late night purchases on e-bay, watching the same Japanese prank video over and over again or face-timing with other ghosts as spiders and worms tear out their intestines. The 19th century French writer Balzac believed that with each photograph taken one would shed part of their soul like layers of an onion. We used to laugh at his naiveté, but perhaps he wasn't so far off the mark. Ghosts used to be traces of the dead, now they are traces of the living. After we die future generations may bring us back, not from DNA trapped in amber, but from the records of our digital footprints.
But is there really any way, short of going Amish and churning our own butter, to avoid this? It seems that we can't help but undergo surveillance and keep on generating data. Even the search for data generates more data. This data is a commodity that is mined and processed for profit. . An exposé on the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, in 2014, revealed that tracking your searches and purchases online and physical movements through apps on your smart-phone is a billion dollar industry.4 One's searches for information on high blood pressure medication are worth money to insurance companies. Political leanings may be of interest to employers. The popular game Angry Birds even tracked players' whereabouts throughout the day through the GPS system on their phones. It turns out that information generated in a transaction can be worth more than the transaction itself. If you've ever wondered how a company can turn a profit by selling things for almost nothing, you now have your answer. Your very act of purchasing supplements the price of the good.
A Marxist would certainly call this exploitation; perhaps alienating a surfer from his data. We get no royalties from our labor of posting selfies, watching cat videos or searching out the latest diet fad or yoga retreat. But is it fair to think of it as exploitation? We don't get money in exchange for our "efforts." But we do get information, entertainment, connectivity with friends and family and storage for all our files. So in a weird turn of events the digital age has brought us back to a barter economy. Instead of exploitation, perhaps we should think of this in a different way.
By some estimates, about a kilogram and a half of bacteria live in a healthy adult's intestines. Their population of 100 trillion outnumbers the cells in your body and even makes China's population look paltry by comparison. Gross! Maybe. But we can't live without them. This symbiotic relationship is somewhat analogous to the relationship we have with data miners, creating a smorgasbord of information. It's not a "if you can't beat them, join them," situation. They've already moved in and become indispensible.
For those considering a thorough colon cleansing at this point, former employees at Google have created Disconnect, an open-source software program, that makes data miners visible and blocks many of them as you conduct your activities online. It has a pop-up screen that identifies who is trying to monitor the user on every site one enters. I was fascinated with this at first and somewhat outraged, but eventually I became complacent and stopped using it.
So, I have good news for you; sort of. Did you know you're famous? Well, actually what you are, if you actively engage with social media, is virtually famous. What comes to mind when you hear the word, "fame?" Is it limos, champagne and red carpets? How about scrutiny, surveillance, or judgment? In short, it's lots and lots of attention. But we forget that attention is not always an ego booster. We don't think about the tabloids exposing every bulge, every wrinkle, every awkward pose and expression, or those infamous bouts of regrettable behavior. Fame means you're a public figure. Fame means everyone gets to stare, scrutinize every pore on your face, and gleefully discuss and judge your every flaw.
The photograph, once about memory, has been reduced to an invitation for attention and flattery but is also an opening for criticism and ridicule. It is about the here and now. No one cares about yesterday's post. Photos have value only for as long as they are getting "Likes." Once a photo drops out of the timeline it's worthless. Whether a photograph is "Facebook-worthy" or not is a part of normal conversation. Photographs used to be for our immediate circle. Now with an audience, we have other concerns, our fans.
Back in the 60's, Andy Warhol predicted that one day everyone would get his or her 15 minutes of fame5. Social media has made that possible at last. Your digital mother has made you the star of your own reality show! Yes, you can be your own version of Kim Kardashian! Constant attention used to be the exclusive purview of the rich and famous. It afforded them an audience who cheered them on as they indulged their whims and eccentricities. Their infantile outbursts were given national attention. Technology has finally made it possible for all of us to experience this in our own lives. We may not reach millions, Facebook caps the population of our friends at 5,000, but in our own small slice of fame we each have the possibility of our very own Lindsey Lohan moment.
The high resolution imagery and infinite distribution capabilities that are in the hands of even very young kids 24/7, is having devastating impacts on people's lives. Cyber-bullying and suicides have become all too familiar news items. It should come as no surprise that as depression and anxiety have increased as a result of this pressure, so has plastic surgery. One unexpected advent though, was the increase in plastic surgery for women's left hands. It's the thing to do now to show off your 3.9 carat, princess cut diamond ring with the platinum band. The ring may be awesome but your wrinkled, spotted, bony claw of a hand is not. That's what your friends and relatives will be talking about when you post your hand-selfie.
According to an article in the New York Times6, for the low, low price of $3000.00 you can get six intense light pulses and chemical peel treatments with two syringes worth of a miracle serum known as Juréderm Voluma XC to make your hand worthy of wearing that ring.
$3000.00 is a lot to pay when retouching the photo would be far less of an expense. But that would mean the photo would be a lie. Better to build the lie into the real so at least its representation will be honest. It's not clear which is the better foundation for a marriage.
Andy Warhol would've loved Facebook. He pointed out that the great thing about America is that everyone can have the same experience no matter how poor or wealthy they were. A can of Coke was a can of Coke. A million dollars wouldn't buy you a better one. Warhol was completely tickled by hearing that President Eisenhower bought Queen Elizabeth a hotdog at a Yankee's game. He noted that's the same 10-cent dog that everyone gets!7
Facebook is no different. Everyone gets the same account. The smart phone isn't quite the same as a can of Coke, but it's ubiquitous enough that people in various income brackets use it.
Everyone is taking the same pictures now. We all take selfies. The difference is the background. Rich people pose in front of more expensive backgrounds. The word, "wealfie," has even been coined to refer exactly to these status-conferring backgrounds. But whether taking selfies at Walmart or Wimbleton, both rich and poor are narcissistically crying out for their digital moms to notice them.
And so Captain Kirk hurtles through space in that timewarp of nostalgia for futures past. We watch him longingly from the safety of our belly button window. There is no room for his untamed id on earth anymore. Far away from the comfort and convenience that only Digital Mother can provide, Kirk boldly goes where no man has gone before and most likely never will.
1 Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996
2 Alexis Madrigal, The Fall of Facebook, Atlantic Monthly, December 2014, page 34.
3 Ben Hubbard, Young Saudis Find Freedom on Smartphones, page 6, International Section, New York Times, May 24, 2015
4 Steve Kroft, The Data Brokers, 60 Minutes, March 9, 2014
5 Exhibition Catalogue for Andy Warhol, Stockholm, Sweden, 1968
6 Abby Ellin, Raise Your Hand for an Engagement Selfie, Sunday Styles, New York Times, May 25, 2014
7 Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B, and Back Again), Harvest, New York, 1977