The [New] Society of the Spectacle and the Future of Technology Innovation

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First off, I’m going dedicate this hybrid blog post/loosely speaking, academic white paper to my friend and fellow Colgate University grad/entrepreneur, Harry Raymond. If it weren’t for his selling an extra pair of Snapchat Spectacles on Facebook/eBay, my head wouldn’t have exploded with nostalgic reveries from my graduate studies in New Media and, well, my favorite book of all time, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

I’m not a Snapchat power user. Despite being one of the first on the platform way back in 2011/2012, I’ve since fallen off the map. Then, these Spectacles come out. They are revered as one of the most profound case studies in product marketing and roll out strategies in recent history. What can I say? I’m naturally curious. I enthralled by the idea of wearing these strategically branded and humanized tools of mass social surveillance, these cheap pieces of plastic, these cough really fun and trendy video glasses that help me and the rest of our disenfranchised youth become social media superstars!

Back to my friend Harry. If it weren’t for him and letting my curiosity/hatred for Snapchat get the best of me, I wouldn’t have sat down to take some time to reflect deeply on the world I am living in and, arguably, helping to create as the Chief Product Officer of a Bay Area tech company.

Streaming As Perpetual Self-Surveillance

During my graduate studies at NYU, I focused my research primarily on Technology, New Media, and their impact on society. At the time, Web 2.0 was considered revolutionary and reality television was only a mere insinuation of what it would become: Video Streaming (mediated by the likes of YouTube, Facebook Live, Periscope, Instagram Stories, and their nasty step sister Snapchat Stories). Technological advances over recent years — most notably advances in streaming/video services — have progressed from favoring long-form, edited content to shorter form, unedited first-person content. Snapchat’s Spectacles as a new interface for video streaming are the epitome of this technological transgression advancement.

In his essay, “Extraordinarily Ordinary,” Derek Kompare describes An American Family (the first reality show), as “primarily a manipulative sociological experiment in perpetual surveillance.” Let’s take this one step further. If Reality TV of the 1990s/2000s represents an indoctrination into a large scale culture of surveillance, what do today’s Snapchat’s Spectacles signify? In its naturalization of surveillance culture (via shows like Real Worldand Big Brother), Reality Television of the 2000s primed the American people for this current streaming culture, embedding notions of neoliberalism and encouraging self-policing/self-governance of American subjects via surveillance.

As Susan Murray states in her book Reality TV: Remaking TV Culture: “Reality TV provided viewers with the opportunity to experiment with, and perhaps even be trained in the ways of surveillance and voyeurism.” Reality TV normalizes/naturalizes the concept of surveillance and thus perpetuates the rising surveillance culture that is readily accepted by the American public.


Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture by Susan Murray — {I’m sorry, but the cover of this book is just TOO good not to post right now. Pay very close attention to the top}

Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture by Susan Murray — {I’m sorry, but the cover of this book is just TOO good not to post right now. Pay very close attention to the top}


Beginning in the early 90s, participants of reality TV shows like Real Worldand Big Brother were trained to ignore the presence of the camera and accept surveillance, ultimately training the audience to accept surveillance as well. Streaming, and the subsequent self-surveillance it empowers, functions as a mechanism of social regulation and discipline. Like Foucault’s panopticon, reality TV, streaming, and social media stories similarly enact discipline without having to discipline by force. Alternatively, subjects — whether they be participants in surveillance or viewers — self-govern by surveillance, social norms, and beyond.

These video snippets are not merely windows into the lives of our peers, used only for the purpose entertainment, but posits sharing, gossip, and transparency a necessary civic duty. Willing participants, often of lower classes, are exploited and forced to live in a culture of surveillance not only to benefit corporations financially, but also ideologically in the promotion of a culture that keeps everyone in check. Furthermore, with the pervasiveness of streaming and video focused social networks, participants are creating a culture of lateral surveillance or “peer monitoring,” which has a strong link to governmentality.

An example of lateral governance in television and new media is best exemplified in Beck’s “Video Vigilantes,” back from the early 2000s but still very relevant now. Beck states that,

In recent years, ordinary people empowered with ordinary video cameras have blown the whistle on illegal garbage haulers, tuna fisherman slaughtering dolphins, and stockyard workers abusing animals.

With the rise of film technology that empowers individuals to film anything and everything, as well as the creation of online platforms such as YouTube for individuals (as opposed to solely networks) to distribute that content, the culture of surveillance is both encouraged and perpetuated under a veil of self-expression. Ordinary citizens seem to be empowered by the camera, able to express themselves in whatever way they choose; however, in reality, they are merely participants in this culture of surveillance that encourages self-policing.

America has a new breed of heroes: the video vigilantes. Part accidental tourists, part masked avengers, part high-tech snoops, they are out there waiting, 14 million owners of video cameras, fingers on the pause button, prepared to get the goods on hated neighbors, suspicious baby-sitters or brutal cops. The best footage generally is a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the camcorder handy and juiced up.” — Beck

What does this mean for American society? I don’t know. But here are some facts I do know:

I do know that light bulbs now contain proximity sensors that can read the UID off of any phone and track the shopping path of retail shoppers.

I do know that facial recognition software is embedded in signage around the world.

I do know that voice recognition software runs in our fast-food drive-thru.

All in the name of user experience, “convenience,” and data collection for the advancement of AI.

Do we live in a surveillance state?

No, I don’t think so.

Does technology contribute to a culture of perpetual self-surveillance?

Absolutely.

I will not argue that YouTube, Instagram Stories, Vine {RIP!}, Periscope, Facebook Live, Snapchat, and the numerous other streaming services have created this culture of surveillance. Self-surveillance was a cultural trend in America long before the advent of social media. Video streaming has, however, fueled this trend. Snapchat Spectacles are merely a new interface and only over time will we, as a people, begin to understand the societal and cultural impacts of this technology.

I wonder, will we become so enveloped by this self-surveillance that our existence mirrors, for lack of a better word, Black Mirror’s “An Entire History of You?” (2011)Will we record every moment of our lives?


Black Mirror’s “An Entire History of You?” (2011)

Black Mirror’s “An Entire History of You?” (2011)


I wonder, will we become passive blobs, floating around on our self-driving chairs, glued to and intermediated by our hardware devices, as depicted in Pixar’s WALL-E?

Disney Pixar Interactive’s “Wall-E” (2008)

Disney Pixar Interactive’s “Wall-E” (2008)


All I know is that as a business/tech leader in an emerging technology field, my actions, decisions, and, ultimately, products will either contribute to and perpetuate existing social norms or perhaps, challenge them.

And I hope it is the latter.