Sur­veil­lance and spec­ta­tors

The Compass - - CLASSIFIED -

What I re­mem­ber from the days of the Rod­ney King beat­ing, trial and sub­se­quent ri­ots is not so much the con­tent I viewed but how it made me feel. I re­mem­ber be­ing shocked that this had ac­tu­ally hap­pened, that po­lice had hit a man al­most 60 times with a ba­ton. I re­mem­ber won­der­ing why no one stopped it. And I re­mem­ber think­ing what an amaz­ing co­in­ci­dence that some­one had a cam­era and had caught the whole thing on tape.

To­day I went back and viewed that orig­i­nal video on YouTube and I no­ticed some­thing else, some­thing I didn’t no­tice then but that seems so at odds now. I saw a news­cast where the po­lice chief con­demned the po­lice of­fi­cers in­volved — im­me­di­ately and swiftly declar­ing that crim­i­nal charges would be laid. I saw na­tional me­dia ex­press­ing the same shock that I felt. I saw peo­ple re­act­ing strongly and em­phat­i­cally to what was so ob­vi­ously a wrong.

The Rod­ney King story lived in our col­lec­tive con­science for a long time. And from the orig­i­nal air­ings of that ex­tra­or­di­nary tape to the me­dia cov­er­age of the ri­ots fol­low­ing the of­fi­cers’ trial, we were all en­thralled. The video footage of that first moment brought im­me­di­acy and im­pact to what may have been just an­other news story.

To­day, hav­ing an event of any kind, whether spec­tac­u­lar or mun­dane, video­taped by some observer is so com­mon­place that it’s usu­ally more sur­pris­ing when they’re isn’t “film at 11.” But, to have the im­pact that the King tape did is less com­mon, and to main­tain the pub­lic’s in­ter­est for a full year is prac­ti­cally un­heard of.

Our chil­dren are grow­ing up in a surveilled so­ci­ety. And it’s not Big Brother, cor­po­rate or government in­sti­tu­tions do­ing the ma­jor­ity of it; it’s their fel­low ci­ti­zens, like Ge­orge Hol­l­i­day (the man with a home video recorder that filmed the King beat­ing), and they them­selves.

And yet, at the same time, the ef­fect — the im­me­di­acy and im­pact — that video footage once brought to cov­er­age of cur­rent events has been dis­si­pated, even numbed.

In Mar­shall McLuhan’s land­mark es­say “Un­der­stand­ing Me­dia: The Ex­ten­sions of Man,” he coined the oftre­peated phrase “the medium is the mes­sage.” What he meant by this was not that our choice of medium af­fects our mes­sage, as is com­monly un­der­stood, but that the medium it­self changes, in some way, how peo­ple es­sen­tially act, thereby in­tro­duc­ing real “psy­chic and so­cial con­se­quences” to hu­man so­ci­ety. And those changes and con­se­quences are brought about solely by the medium it­self, not the con­tent por­trayed by it.

McLuhan goes on to dis­cuss how ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy – or me­dia - can re­sult in gen­er­a­tional gaps when the so­cial and psy­chic changes that ac­com­pany th­ese “ad­vances” are not un­der­stood.

Video, the hand­held video recorder, dig­i­tal video, smart­phone, iPhones, 3G and wifi for in­stant shar­ing of recorded mo­ments … all of th­ese me­dia have cre­ated changes not just in the way we re­spond to each other and the events sur­round­ing us, but also in how we re­act to those recorded mo­ments.

The fact is, they’re so com­mon­place, and we have them in such over­abun­dance, that we have made a shift to the point where we are nei­ther the gazed upon, nor the gazer, but both, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously, nei­ther.

Michael Fou­cault talks of the power of the gazer, or the “in­spect­ing gaze” as be­ing the abil­ity to see with­out be­ing seen. This po­si­tion, to him, is the essence of power. Yet, in our so­ci­ety, even the watch­ers are watched. The idea of a Big Brother view­ing us all is very back­ward to to­day’s youth, for we are all view­ing us all at ev­ery moment.

And be­cause of that, we seem to have be­come stuck into what McLuhan de­scribed as a Nar­cis­sus ef­fect; he de­scribes how the youth Nar­cis­sus — from “nar­co­sis,” mean­ing numb­ness — mis­takes his re­flec­tion for an­other per­son and be­comes stuck in the act of gaz­ing upon him­self, fi­nally be­com­ing the re­flec­tion of his own re­flec­tion.

This is the dan­ger, I be­lieve, in a time when re­al­ity TV rules the air­waves and we­b­cams rule our chil­dren’s so­cial lives — that they may be­come stuck in the act of per­for­mance, but that the per­for­mance they por­tray as a re­al­ity is really just a re­flec­tion of a re­flec­tion.

Has the pro­lif­er­a­tion of video record­ing de­vices changed how we act as hu­mans? In some im­plicit ways it cer­tainly has — we are all aware that we are now un­der sur­veil­lance and we will per­form ac­cord­ingly. But will it pre­vent the baser mo­ments of hu­man pas­sion? I don’t think so. Af­ter all, we have all seen that even to­day there are Rod­ney Kings: Robert Dziekan­ski, the Que­bec stu­dent pro­tes­tors, Syr­ian chil­dren.

What it has done, though, as the me­dia and phe­nom­ena have grown, is made us over­whelmed with and slightly numb to the peo­ple and events around us. In a year’s time, who will still be caught up in the Que­bec stu­dent protests? Who will still see the im­ages of mur­dered Syr­ian chil­dren when they close their eyes?

Re­al­ity — on video — has no stay­ing power any­more; once viewed it is dis­missed. We have made re­al­ity a part of our so­cial fab­ric as some­thing we con­sider eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated, as in re­al­ity TV, and some­thing that acts more as en­ter­tain­ment than en­light­en­ment. The “film at 11” phe­nom­e­non has turned events like the Rod­ney King beat­ing into nightly in­fo­tain­ment, rather than the cat­alyz­ing snip­pet of real hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence it was.

Dara Squires is a free­lance writer and mother of three. You can con­tact her on face­book at www.face­book.com/read­ilya­parent

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