[Some of this seemed to crystallize for me after listening to Bruce Sterling’s excellent talk at SXSW 2007. So thanks to him, and you know, grain of salt.]

We grew up watching. If you’re 50 or 40 or 30 or younger, you’ve spent thousands of hours watching. You still watch — you watch on YouTube, or you watch your DVDs, or you watch the TV. Maybe you use a PVR to timeshift yourself so that you can watch on your own schedule, congratulate yourself on cheating the advertisers, denying them the eyeballs they crave. Maybe, like me, you fire up bittorrent on boot, and swarmload all your video automagically from the RSS feeds of illicit darknet bulletin boards.

Howl Twitter (with abject apologies to Allen Ginsberg)

I saw the best posters of my generation destroyed by blogging, commenting hysterical naked,
scrolling themselves through the n-word threads at dawn looking for a snarky fix,
trucker-hatted hipsters burning for the cheapest DSL connection to the bitwise dynamo in the datastream of night,
who pizza and tater-tots and poopsocking and high sat up typing in the supernatural whiteness of rented condos surfing across the tubes of internets
contemplating porn,
who bared their breasts on MySpace under fake names and saw Mohammedan bombers threatening in video streams illuminated,
who played through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Second Life and Warcraft tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were banned from the websites for crazy & posting batshitinsane on the Windows™ of Mr Bill,
who farted in unshaven rooms in underwear, tossing their tissues in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror on CNN…

Watching and being watched has started to feel like the default human state in these mediated days. You know how characters in video games will go into their idle animation if you wait too long to interact with them? Yeah, like that. Unwatched, they nonetheless go through the motions as if they were.

The last half a century or more is remembered, at least by me, as a succession of moving images — lumpy raspberry red Kennedy brains sprayed out across the trunk of the convertible, phallic twin towers collapsing like nationscale erectile dysfunction. Watching makes manifest our reality, makes more real our memory. Two or three generations now, we’ve been immersed eyedeep in it. Hawkeye Pierce and Fonzie, they’re signifiers of my childhood as evocative to me as cold lake water and the northern lights. If you spend as much time on the internet as I do, if you’re one of the geek-approved flavour of obsessive-compulsives we call ‘early adopters’, if you’ve bought a big flat panel TV or covet HD video, if your appetite for bandwidth is insatiable, if you feel compelled to buy ever more complex mobile phones, you’re probably in the same boat as me. You swim in the same advertising cesspool in which our media meals float — eyeballs watch, watching is intentional, intention means awareness, awareness is all when someone wants something from you or when you want something from them. Tree falls in the forest, but it doesn’t matter shit unless somebody’s watching. We’re Schrödinger and his cat, both at the same time.

If you live in London, your picture is taken 300 times a day, but not because someone want to sell you something.

You’re being watched, and you’re meant to feel safe.

We’ve had another lesson drummed in to us, too, it seems; one that cuts in the other direction. It’s a weak inverse solipsist lesson we felt in our bones from the time we were toddlers, of course: you’ve seen it on America’s Funniest Home Videos, maybe. The child falls, howls while the parents with the camera are looking at him and pointing the camera. They move off, out of sight — the observing eye umbrated — and the child quiets, sniffs, draws shuddery breath, and follows. As soon as he knows he is once more in the range of the observer’s gaze, he busts out into full wails again.
Here: It’s easier for you to watch the video than for me to explain it. Watch.

Our thoughts, our feelings, our selves are never as real as when someone else is observing them.

So we used to make home movies, we took Polaroids, we sent cards to distant relatives at Christmas so we’d be alive in their minds. It’s a natural and a human impulse. Hell, we painted on the walls of Lascaux. With the technology at hand, we were only able to do it occasionally. We laughed at the Japanese tourists back in the 1970’s who lugged cameras around and photographed everything. Remember those jokes? Me, I’m in some Japanese family’s album somewhere because they asked me in pantomime to pose with them, back in 1976 in Banff, presumably because I was wearing a sweatshirt with a big red maple leaf and Olympics logo.

We’re rubberneckers slowing down to peer at the wreckage flung from the dizzying welter of ‘reality TV’ programs, where it is purported that we are watching ordinary people raised up or struck down by our collective whim or their own strengths and failings, willing participants watchers and watched alike, sanctified and made flesh by the power of our collective gaze. American Idols are made of people! Barechested rednecks are hilarious and a little sad, reminding us of what me might have been, at least on Cops. Oh, man, that’s clever: those fat bastards on the Biggest Loser aren’t really losers at all, are they? It goes on and on.

[ripper] I told u I was hardcore

Larger than life as we bask in the collective gaze starts to feel like a necessary platform of life services to achieve Normal, to stand out from the undifferentiated herd in the way that we’ve been told we should by companies who want us to buy their products. But buying those jeans whose commercials identically mass-marketed the promise of individualist flair to everybody just doesn’t carry the same cachet any more for us media-steeped folks. We’ve gotten too smart and self-aware for that, some of us.

Bud: Look at ’em, ordinary f–king people, I hate ’em.

And so online journals like this very one you’re reading right now, and the canonical cheese sandwich post. So weblogs, where what we’ve seen is posted, so that others can see it, and then go and see the thing seen. So audioscrobbling. So Second Life. So YouTube. So MySpace. So Flickr, where we can upload cellphone pics minute-by-minute, if we want. So Odeo and Twitter. So new, so immediate: so we spread the minutiae of our minute-to-minute existence out over the wires, so that others — someone — will notice and pay attention. We are alive to reality when we watch, we feel more real when we are paid in the attention-currency of attentive eyes.

I’m thinking it’s a new pornography of the self. We willingly prostitute our privacy, and we accept payment in the form of attention. We always have, of course. But the slickly sexy 2.0 toolset we have makes it so effortless, and the reward such a crackpipe hit of Warholian fame, that it’s hard to know when to stop. We become gleeful self-pornographers.

The word originally signified any work of art or literature depicting the life of prostitutes. Though pornography is clearly ancient in origin, its early history is obscure because it was customarily not thought worthy of transmission or preservation. Nevertheless, in the artwork of many historic societies, including ancient India, ancient Greece, and Rome, erotic imagery was commonplace and often appeared in religious contexts. The Art of Love, by Ovid, is a treatise on seduction and sensual arousal. The invention of printing led to the production of ambitious works of pornographic writing intended to entertain as well as to arouse. In 18th-century Europe, pornography became a vehicle for social and political protest through its depiction of the misdeeds of royalty and other aristocrats, as well as those of clerics, a traditional target. The development of photography and motion pictures in the 19th and 20th centuries contributed greatly to the proliferation of pornography, as did the advent of the Internet in the late 20th century.

And as we do so, we live less in the actual moment, perhaps, less with the actual people around us. We don’t need to seek out people to be with us here, to be our audiences: if we post, they will come, or at least their eyes will, we hope. Do we lose more than we gain? I don’t know the answer to that.

Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon. I don’t use instant messaging and other ‘presence apps’, I don’t carry a cell phone. I have no desire for people to know what I’m doing and when, and I don’t care to be at anyone’s beck and call when I am enjoying being alone. Or any other time, for that matter.

I certainly don’t think that it’s all bad, all this Twittering and Flickring, all this eyeball mongering. I have nothing against prostitution, in principle. But we may underestimate what it’s done to us, and what it’s doing. And I wonder what it will mean for people who have never known anything different.

[Update: Hey, Bruce liked my Ginsberg repurposing! And so the circle is complete.]

Metablogging, Thoughts That, If Not Deep, Are At Least Wide, Uncrappy
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Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. Excepting everything Dave Winer has ever written, this may be the single best post I’ve ever read. Really, it’s up there. Huzzah, good man. Come, look, I am so putting this on my blargh.
    I disgust myself.

  2. This post is equivalent to 433 twitter posts…or about the equivalent of Robert’s Scoble’s lunchtime twittering.

  3. “Watching and being watched has started to feel like the default human state in these mediated days.”
    Well, yeah. Not to run all French on ya, but that’s just the good M. Foucault meant with all that stuff about the panopticon: we start to internalize the sense of being (at least in potential) watched at all times.
    The wrinkle Smilin’ Mike didn’t see coming was that the shadowy watchers weren’t Watchmen. They were audience.

  4. Well, Adam, sure, but I kind of prefer to do my thinking for myself (even if the results are puerile) and those French bastards just give me mental indigestion.
    Almost without fail, I eventually find that some Big Idea I’ve had has been flogged to death by someone else, sometime, somewhere, but I enjoy finding my own way through the minefield. Gives me a sense of accomplishment, and just doing the required reading seems to drain me of any urge to do it.
    The wrinkle Smilin’ Mike didn’t see coming was that the shadowy watchers weren’t Watchmen. They were audience.
    Exactement, mon ami!
    Also, the graph in this post is pretty much perfect!

  5. ..not to mention Big Brother houses and those fucking Idol shows – the soma bludgeons to the offline masses that make the 300x pics a day just that much more palatable or acceptable.

  6. amazing.
    you’ve put what i have been trying to articulate out of my own feeble brain into a eloquent and yet plainspoken mediation. hyperlinked and hyper skeptic. just the way i like it. two cheers.

  7. And as we do so, we live less in the actual moment, perhaps, less with the actual people around us. We don’t need to seek out people to be with us here, to be our audiences: if we post, they will come, or at least their eyes will, we hope. Do we lose more than we gain? I don’t know the answer to that.
    I consider the “social web” to be a blind escape from the horrific isolation that is found in the typical American city/suburb/countryside. Don’t forget that technology cannot solve social problems, so the flaws will seep through Web 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, and 10.0, unless we change the way we are configured in relation to each other.
    The “actual people around us” are typically all strangers. Your neighborhood? Your coworkers? Did you choose any of them when you bought your house or accepted your job? Do you have anything in common with them other than proximity or need of money?
    Maybe you are fortunate enough to live in an actual community, and my words make little sense to you….but I assure you, most Americans are not so fortunate.
    Danah Boyd remarked on this while down in Texas last week, too.

  8. “Surely,” burbled addled Herb Tarlek, “attention is a low-grade balm wot which to keep supple The Ego, which must needs be constantly groomed, else it dies an ignominous fruitfly death.”
    Why do need to matter, Stav?
    Why do we publish, make public? I can’t help but fear some part of it is a reptilian recognition (self-awareness) of some sort of advantage. And so we can’t lay off the “press” button, breathlessly pressing the issue(s) til we rest on the case.
    Does it matter if it’s a string-free gift or an artful dump?

  9. nice wording. awesome ginsberg riff. thank you for writing this. cheers, mate.

  10. Thomas de Zengotita’s fairly recent (late 2005) book Mediated: How The Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It does some additional unpacking of the issues you raise in this great post … without the benefit of experiencing the full-on wisdom dispensed and circulated daily via twittering.

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