This essay appeared previously at Pop Matters, September 2011
There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal.
Here’s a statistic which, at first glance, packs a Pac-Man visual wallop. YouTube receives 48 hours of uploaded video every minute. That’s right. Two days worth of stuff happening (though not necessarily hap’nin stuff) arrives every 60 seconds. Clearly the digital world is gobbling up the known world at a remarkable clip. How much more voracious can it get? Well conceivably, if all seven billion earthlings were armed with camcorders, seven billion minutes of available ‘per minute’ video would result—and we haven’t even counted Big Brotherly surveillance cams and other unmanned video devices.
Indeed at some point, if we haven’t reached it yet, pre-Internet “legacy” video will have been entirely subsumed. Of course copyright issues are a current sticking point. But these will be ironed out in time through one payment regime or another. Viewed in this context, 48 hours per minute represents a tiny fraction of observable human reality. We have barely scraped the opening credits of this movie.
We seem headed towards a videosphere that captures and subdues the totality of human activity like some goopy, billion-eyed, grass-roots-driven surveillance cam. Perhaps the social utility of eliminating torture, reducing human rights abuses, locating lost children, etc., will mitigate the intrusiveness of mounting a camera on every earthly noggin. That may well be how the Hobson’s Choice is posed when the government arrives to affix your Halliburton-issue mandatory head-cam. We are already affixing windows into our souls, certainly our beliefs and buying habits, by tossing out the welcome mat to Facebook’s obsequious advance.
Talk about putting lipstick on an Animal Farm pig. One can imagine George Orwell expressing bemusement at the inroads social media has managed to achieve. Have civil liberties ever been handed over with such eager abandon and at such a bewildering rate of speed? Somewhere in the patriot-wing of Heaven, Johnny Tremain is bemoaning a lost, misspent youth as, across Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia every day, nearly 400,000 people join Facebook—an apparatus that will almost certainly be turned to more nefarious ends once some unforeseen (to our eyes) tipping-point is attained. Taken at face value, smiley-faced emoticons are, well, blank-faced bits and bytes. So I wouldn’t put much credence in the fluffy social veneer. It’s merely the enticement that frames a gambit of far larger ambitions.
When I think of Facebook, I can’t help but picture that scene in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the nice candy man entices the children onto his wonderful candy truck only to have the confectionery facade collapse and the child-catcher’s black cage appear. By that time, the children are captives of the cage. Off they go up the mountain to face their fate at Castle Google.
Betting on the continued geniality of social media seems a high-stakes gamble, and for what, the convenience of connecting with high school sweethearts? In the unconnected days of yore, the ‘barriers to discovery’ made it easy to let sleeping flames lie. Often gumshoe detectives were needed to track down the faraway objects of our adolescent affections. There’s a recent statistic, offered up by someone in a white lab-coat, suggesting 20 percent of all divorce petitions in America today cite Facebook as a contributing factor.
I’ve met three couples over the last few months who are reunited childhood sweethearts. They credited their rapprochement to the Internet, in one case classmates.com; the other two are indebted to Facebook. I’m suspicious of idealized childhood sweethearts only because I have a hunch they grow up to be garden-variety pains-in-the-asses just like regular people. The point is folks are harking back to a gauzy, bygone era, splitting from real lives and real families to chase interludes that in most cases are best left in the mists of time and 10th grade study hall. Think well my friend, before you accept that friend request from the high school prom queen.
But suppose these retro-lovebirds are on the cusp of a broadly based, dump-reality trend? Though resembling unhappy middle-aged adults on a sentimental, adolescent tear, they are in fact a vanguard of cyberspace Amerigo Vespucci’s. Idealization can be a real high-bar bitch. Are pixels on the verge of overwhelming primates? Speaking of the agony of da feet, what chance do a husband’s smelly socks stand (yes, some socks can actually stand) against the odorless, tasteless, colorless sublimity of a match.com Prince Charming with a 20-year-old profile pic? People, the real kind, better clean up their acts fast or it will be curtains for the quiet desperation of real life. Then who will stock the ponds of our Internet soul-mate searches?
Nothing that happens in Vegas will ever stay in Vegas again. Future social status will be measured by how many hours of video down-time an individual is allowed. In a clandestine take on Club Med, there will be ‘black-resorts’, holiday locales where, for a substantial fee, head-cams can be left in a locker. This privilege will be reserved for the extremely well-connected. It will also necessitate some level of government approval. (You wouldn’t want well-heeled terrorists vacationing off-cam with you.) People will relish unobservable moments like gourmet coffee breaks. Tomorrow’s Castaneda’s will descend into the world of the unobserved reporting back on a spirit-realm beyond the videosphere. Children will giggle over their grandparents’ tales of getting lost for six hours in a forest or slipping away to get married. By then, there will be an embedded sensibility that the videosphere is reality. The state will use its police power to enforce this sensibility. But there won’t be much need for enforcement as the populace will have embraced it.
This is why video ubiquity is so prized by the powerful. Shadowing reality’s every move, it supplants, and in a very odd sense, repeals the need for a first-order reality. Observation will become the new action. Virtual reality games will become so compelling that authentic action will seem tame by comparison. Venturing outside has always been fraught with small nuisances: inclement weather, the chance of a fender-bender on the way to the park, mosquito bites, high gas prices. As virtual reality improves its game, authentic experience will confront fresh, new hurdles. The passivity feedback loop will yield more passivity. Legs will atrophy. Dissent, too.
Sex—a practice once held to be among the most private, intimate of human acts—adorns the Internet like tits-and-ass-print wallpaper. Even if sex is not part of the control paradigm, it’s fun as hell to talk about—so bare with me. In a classic media-informing-message dynamic, the video-ubiquity of sex accentuates its visual, surface features. The camera favors physicality, not spirituality. It charts movement not catharsis. To even the most casual observer of pornography (or so it’s been reported to me), the sexual activity portrayed reveals a dispiriting sameness. After all, two arms, two legs, a smattering of additional anatomical features and what really are the possible permutations?
I mean, since the product launch of the Kama Sutra manual in the 2nd century CE, pigs haven’t exactly sprouted new wings. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous pornography benchmark was, “I know it when I see it.” Indeed seeing it, seeing anything, is the eclipsing sense-faculty of the videosphere. Perhaps the real obscenity of pornography is that it mounts yet another assault on the unseen, as though Lady Gaga wasn’t enough (though I find her better seen than heard.) If observability cannot be produced, the veracity of the unseen will increasingly be questioned. The unspoken intimacies of sex will face an increasing struggle to assert their continued presence. By the way, anyone is free to join this struggle by having tons of sex behind closed doors with the lights out. If you need a partner, there’s always match.com.
In a similar vein, the realm of metaphysics—souls, spirits, Big Foot and the like—will suffer a further cultural blow as an abysmal threshold of observability subjects it to ever-deepening wells of skepticism. The electro-shock treatment should have been enough. However, this trend promises to push the voices in my head right over the edge.
Speaking of insanity, a brisk walk down any main street in America today provides the best argument against grooming further madness. We are awash in it—madness that is. And yet the Internet marries a hall of mirrors to an already-dicey population. There is the apocryphal tale of a lesbian who developed an intense multi-year relationship with a long-distance lady. After months of rejecting opportunities to meet in the flesh, the “lady” finally conceded that she was no lady at all. In fact “she” was a burly truck-driver from Duluth named Matt. It is a special hell to be separated from your soul-mate. It is yet another inner circle of hell to discover that your soul-mate consists of tape, glue and countless lonely hours spent at Beefy Moe’s Truck Stop. The last report of the “real” lady was that she had dematerialized, leaving no forwarding IP address. I’m thinking she’s a forlorn ghost circling evermore the cloud’s infernal machine.
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey dude, it’s one thing to record every human moment and gesture. But it’s quite another to sift that mountain of data and extract actionable information.” First of all, please don’t call me dude. But yes, this would be true except that new computers with astonishing processing power will break the data-information logjam. Huge video-data-mining computers endowed with powerful algorithms will isolate and identify, from scads of home-movie-like material, problematic body language, giveaway nervous tics, gestures of implied criminality, physical features that suspiciously resemble many of my former girlfriends, etc. This will birth a whole new genus of political prisoner. Eccentricity, the very wellspring of human creativity, will be singled out for particular scrutiny, if not hounded out of existence altogether. The poet and artist class will be decimated. Plebeian uniformity will become the new aesthetic.
There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal. The current crop of reality shows are soldiers in the trenches, chipping away at the gauzy veneer and bourgeoisie bad faith of distortive production values. We watch people, celebrities often, brushing their teeth or divvying up household chores without the least sense anymore of a private space being invaded. Besides sanctioning our observation of once-private activities, these reality shows achieve the added benefit of demystifying celebrity-hood generally.
Great money and effort was expended by ‘40s-era movie studios to cultivate a divine separateness among its stable of stars. Since the onset of the television age, we have been eroding this mystique. Power is no longer served today by fostering a coterie of mortal gods. Hollywood was constructed around the rather low-order power model of dream-fulfillment: providing fantasy in exchange for money. Today, power is in the early stages of donning its invisibility cloak. Inducing envy and longing (and selling the products that answer those yearnings) serves no further purpose.
The current phase could be called the Great Leveling Project. This is a social engineering algorithm. By reducing standard deviation in a system, the system approaches stasis. In short, the more similar to one another that we can be made, the closer the perfect control ideal becomes. Disruptive social movements, i.e., trends with the potential to buck the system, vanish; not because they must be suppressed, but because everyone is, temperamentally, of a likeness.
Money was a great entrancement, the ultimate carrot affixed to the ultimate stick. But it was always merely an instrumentality, a means to a moneyless end. Google parlayed the traditional metrics of money, market capitalization, purchasing power, etc., to reach precisely this point. However, at a certain point-beyond, control becomes the new currency. Just as the logic and psychology of money appears to be breaking down, money is bowing out, having served its interim purpose well.
This is where the gold-bugs are mistaken. We are not engaged in the age-old process of currency debasement, i.e., sliding down the credibility curve from fiat currency to hard money. We are vaulting off the venerable store-of-value continuum altogether. Once the threshold of complete control is crossed, money will no longer matter. The motive for it is withering away. There will only be total perfect control. Perfect control won’t feel like control. It will feel like oxygen which is to say, we won’t feel it at all.
How we reach a totalitarian state is the difference between consent and coercion. This is a crucial point, ‘the manufacture of consent’ is a term coined by Walter Lippmann and later developed by Noam Chomsky. For perfect control to claim legitimacy, it must appear as though we have brought the condition upon ourselves. Though no great fan of Orwell, Chomsky expanded upon Lippmann’s phrase as, “an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S., where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think.”
Why, you may ask, must perfect complete control be concerned about its legitimacy? Well, it’s a little tautological, but if total control feels like suppression, it falls short of perfection. We have to build it. We have to embrace it. O’Brien could just as easily kill 1984’s Winston. However, it’s important that Winston’s consent be extracted.
Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.
Manufactured consent is a fascinating, if eerie, concept. Let’s say, over a generation or two, certain media masters succeed in manipulating a society into the enjoyment of only two things: Simon Cowell and Harry Potter. Within these two spheres of interest, ‘libertarian’ latitude is allowed. None of this goes down in an overt or suppressive way. The people have exactly what they want. Of course someone worked diligently behind the scenes to conform their interests to this restricted sphere of activity. When was the last time you visited the local library to see whether Catcher in the Rye was still a state-approved title? What, you no longer visit the library? Then it shouldn’t concern you that we burned Salinger out back with Twain.
Does a burned book make a crackle in an oblivious society? When freedom of expression atrophies to the point where only a handful of “expression-tracts” remain, no one expresses outrage over the huge chunks of culture gone AWOL.
Manufactured consent is the velvety sieve that delivers tomorrow’s authoritarian system. Today’s America is already an authoritarian system wrapped in a democratic mythos and a red-blue fictional narrative. In many respects the Internet cloud crashed the party. Slowly it is being recast in an authoritarian frame.
The huge tragedy is that we are handing this wonderful distributed system, the Internet, back over to centralized overlords. The topology of the Internet meshes with radical democracy. In many ways, the Internet is a fulfillment of democratic aspirations. Every node is equal. The websites of the powerful begin with www just like Pee-wee Herman’s. Thoughis taken, Godaddy assures us can be had for $11.99 a month. Yes, the cloud is nothing but the sum of its nodes. We have arrived: E Pluribus Unum!
There’s cachet in the obverse of that venerable Latin phrase, as well. In his landmark TV essay, 1993’s E Unibus Pluram, the late David Foster Wallace explored the layers of irony that govern television as a cultural phenomenon. Of course his essay was written prior to the blight of reality TV, you know, during the halcyon era of, ah, Friends. There are for example the people on TV who know they’re being watched and ‘act’ accordingly (in fact we have a name for them, actors.) Then there are the watchers who often love nothing more than to hate the people they are watching while at the same time envying or worshipping, the people who play the people. This synopsis hardly does justice to Wallace’s elaborate investigation (intended largely for a fiction-writer audience.)
Irony shares a common feature with money. Both require a split-screen. Money facilitates transactions between two parties. Irony permits asynchronous appraisals between two points-of-view. When Shakespeare’s prophecy is fulfilled and the world truly becomes a fully-non-collapsible, rotating stage, the bifurcation of screen and sofa, us and them, will wither away because the ubiquity of the observable will extinguish it. The incongruities that allow irony, two discrete observation posts, will be simultaneously exposed and melded into an “indistinguishable one”. Ironic distance will collapse.
Power accrues and never disbands. There is this chaste notion that the Rothschild family acquired huge swathes of earthly wealth and power only to, what, forsake it all? This view commits yet another variant of the fallacy of mistaking the unseen for the nonexistent. When a certain critical mass of power is reached, the ego-need to parade it disappears. Only the nouveau riche seek the cover of People magazine, whereas real multi-generational power is comfortable in its own brocade skin. There’s no one left to impress, no one to curry favor from for the purpose of securing a promotion. This is because, in certain rarefied strata of society, there are no promotions.
While I’m not a wild-eyed conspiratorial type, having invoked that surname, it’ll be interesting to see if I make it through ‘til morning. There’s little question that wealth has been on an inexorable ascent back into the pockets of the well-heeled. After a brief flirtation with middle-classes and libertarian ideals, societies are returning to their inherent plutocratic predispositions. For the most part, they are accomplishing this in a silent “trickle-up” fashion. Remarkably, the hue and cry one might expect has, for all appearances, been “manufactured” away.
What is the only defense, you ask? We need the poet’s eccentricity, but on a massive (though not mass) scale. Yes, you too can be a poet and it won’t even cost you $19.95. Forget, if you can, all the word-fixation that clouds the essential orientation that is poetry. You can polish your metaphors later. We need poets in their natural role as agitators of the status quo.
How does a poet put one foot in front of the other? If the received wisdom turns right, he turns left until such time as he finds himself accompanied by a growing army of like-minded poets. Like-mindedness is the poison, not the antidote. When the antidote becomes the poison, as it is so often does, he crouches down and howls at the moon. Or he climbs a nearby tree. Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.
The Spanish Civil War was an indispensable crucible for birthing socially-astute poets (not to mention that aspect of poetry which one runs the risk of overstressing in times of great social need, the poems themselves): Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz; then the martyrs, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez.
Vallejo’s poem Mass could just as well be an inverted parable for that corpse-like Mohican, the last man to adopt Facebook:
At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Millions surrounded him,
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…
(translated by Paul O’Prey)
I’m reluctant to offer much more on this subject for fear of spawning poetry collectives. That would ruin the whole thing. Poets must be solitary and profoundly disconnected. Librarians and Facebook groups turn them into schools and movements. Gathered up, even with the best of intentions, a poet’s singular vision dissolves into incoherency or mildly stirring slogans. We have so many venues for the muffled shuffle of the crowd’s feet. Facebook is only the latest, and most efficient, gatherer in a long, ignoble line. A poetic sensibility is the only bulwark against the overwhelming, regimenting forces of conformance, the prelude to totalitarian hell. Yes, some ineffable Fuhrer may be waiting for us behind the Internet storm-cloud. By spewing torrents of earnest, albeit journeyman poetry from all corners of the globe, we can extend the game until, say, about 2018. As for reaching 2020 in a reasonably unshackled condition, I just don’t see us having the poetic vision for it.