Big Brother is Watching You Watching Him

The critical and quite pessimistic narrative of surveillance capitalism, of hijacking the decision-making, of “nudging” and conditioning, of reducing contingency to the desired outcome though predictive analytics, of subjugating the future to the present is frequently imagined in the scenarios of “surveillance societies”. The radical commodification of human bodies, their (re)actions, desires, and sensory engagement through reduction into profiles whose actions are predictable and minds are “programmable” has been an object for artistic speculation and fiction even before the boom of the World Wide Web. One of the most prolific examples, perhaps is Orwell’s “1984”. And while this book is frequently discussed in the context of socio-political critique, it is worth remembering what kind of role technology plays in terms of surveillance and governance. The Orwellian world is full of screens. They are omnipresent and regular engagement with them is obligatory. The function of screens is twofold. They served propaganda everywhere you go  while simultaneously representing surveillance mechanisms. In short, they watch you while you watch them. 

In contrast to the fantasy about totalitarian power which upon being exposed allows to draw more or less clear lines between the personal and regime’s interests (thought their effects are also not as straightforward) Zubboff’s “instrumentarian” power is far more tricky to comprehend even after being exposed. Its mechanisms are opaque, they run in the background, and require not only awareness but also specialized technical knowledge to be at least roughly understandable and identifiable (though even Google engineers conveniently label them as “black boxes” impenetrable even to the experts). 

What is interesting for us in terms of the topic of screens is how the screens from a “passive” artefact or tool grew to evolve into a “reality-forming” agent that produces the world we inhabit and places us into our own personal “tailor-made” discrete environments. This topic is particularly interesting if one considers the history of personal computer that was conceptualised by its pioneers such as Douglas Engelbart as the medium that will join individuals, empower them to work collectively and in that tackle the growing complexities of our world. 

At the same time, the narrative of surveillance capitalism is just one way of comprehending or interpreting the current state of affairs. Personalization, and “nudging” must not be by default stigmatized and accelerated to the dystopian scenarios, rather it is aimed at “denormalizing” or encouraging us to take a look at the technology that has penetrated our daily lives and practices to the point of being taken for granted. Perhaps, many of us do not see ourselves conditioned by technology, do not perceive the “drama” of the impact of the screen and what is hiding behind or displayed on it, or maybe even seeing a lot of positive developments in our interaction with it. In the end, the relationship with the object is formed individually with each person whose gaze falls upon it. So, precisely the contingency of this relationship is something that would be interesting for us to see in an attempt to distance ourselves from the object though the stories of other people.  

Our group strategy for the last days were focusing on an individual aspect of the project. At this point we are in the stage of trying to connect the expertise that each of us brings to the project, our research interests, and disciplinary backgrounds in order to identify the story we want to tell. 

In addition to self-monitoring and interviews that suppose to tell us about our encounters with screens and those of a number of different individuals outside our group we also would like to try experimental methods where two people from the group are going to read a printed out text and the other two are going  to read the same text from a screen. In the end each of us will have to do a content-related task, such as a summary. We do not yet know what to expect from its outcomes, but, perhaps in making the medium more visible through a comparison with the traditional form we would be able to gain insights into how interaction with information changes.