by Barry Chudakov on November 19th, 2010

Who’s Watching?

“I like to watch,” says Chance the Gardener in Jerzy Kosiński’s biting 1971 media fable, Being There. Chance cannot read or write (satirically presaging the stereotype of today’s digital natives) but he knows what he likes. When he first rides in a car he observes, “This is just like television, only you can see much further.” We now have many more tools just like TV: our phones, gadgets and apps enable us to see further (and know more about) what anyone else is doing.

We are all becoming Chance the gardener. We all like to watch—and we are watching each other.


Eye Spy 1, Flickr, Darren mc, all rights reserved.


Everyone Snoops

In the inadvertent careening typical of a Metalife, where we pick up our tools, use them, and think about what we’re doing only when our lives change as unintended consequences exact a toll—we have crossed a line. It is no longer sufficient to merely wonder about someone. We now have the means to peer into the life of the other from the snug blind of our side of the lens.

We do this not because we are evil, but because we are social. “Watching others is a favorite activity of young primates,” writes Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primate behavior experts. “They constantly hang around their elders, absorbing every little detail of what’s going on.” In The Ape and the Sushi Master, de Waal concludes this is how we build and transmit culture:


”And so the ape and the sushi master do fit in the same picture, both having learned from others …. Even though the ape has none of the symbols surrounding the chef’s job, he has come to depend to such a degree on handed-down knowledge that we can safely call both of them cultured. And not only them: the world is chock-full of feathered and furry animals that learn their life’s lessons, habits and songs from one another.”


One of the first things we learned from one another in this country: privacy is not always guaranteed. In the 1600s, under Puritan rules, it was a civic duty to keep an eye on your neighbor. In many towns people were forbidden to live alone. It was not until 1791 when the Bill of Rights was signed that US citizens were guaranteed free speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizures. As Scientific American writes in their excellent Timeline: Privacy in America, 1600-2008: “Americans paradoxically combine an unquenchable curiosity with an insistence on being left alone.”


Spy, Flickr, Fashion Graphics, all rights reserved.


But now being left alone is hardly being alone. You Are Being Watched considers the cost to our civil liberties as all this watching accelerates:


“Video surveillance technology will only grow more sophisticated. There will come a day when the cameras will be routinely linked with other technologies in an attempt to instantly identify you and me via face recognition, RFIDs, or other technologies. Do we want a society where an innocent individual can’t walk down the street without being considered a potential criminal? Do we want a society where people are comfortable with constant surveillance?”


Those questions underscore the present-day change in our perceptions and actions. We used think of privacy in terms of doors closed or inaccessibility. Now we can surveil someone we don’t know or someone we know very well; someone who is remote from us, or someone who is in the same room but doesn’t see us recording them.

Checking out (or checking up on) someone has become tabletop sport for the recreational snoop. In the faux isolation of our personal screens, we look up a neighbor’s business because we think our life or perhaps our net worth is linked to theirs. What did they pay for their house? And where did they move from, anyway? Intelius—Live in the knowTM—not only gives a person’s age, it also provides the previous cities where they have lived; for $39.95, you can find enough information to write a minor spy novel. Recently Intelius added to their arsenal a dating phone app that creates a broad-brush profile, including a criminal background check, a rundown of interests, schooling and living situation. Their breathless video (below) underscores how easy spying has become: “In the time it takes to redo your lip gloss, you can check all this stuff out. And Date Check sends all this information right to your phone…. It’s like having a private detective right in your purse.”



Our technologies create a duplicity that plays right into the hands of our evolutionary history as snoops.


Double Life

As others watch us on CCTV screens and via innumerable spy cam gadgets, or as we broadcast ourselves from our camera phones and watch others on Chatroulette, YouTube, Pogobat, and other digital destinations, we discover ourselves trapped within a panopticon paradox: we live in the seamless confines of The Truman Show and yet we go home to our own beds every night. This is our double life. In our remake of Truman’s constructed reality soap opera, we are all in the midst of a new negotiation, where we are executive producer, cinematographer and leading actor, taking on a role we’ve never played before, from a script we’ve never seen.


“You are real. That’s what makes you so good to watch.”


In this movie we are unwittingly performing the role of secret agent, adopting the motivation of necessary espionage, spying on one another as a means of knowing. To spy is to see with our own eyes, and that seeing is a means of knowing which elicits control. If I can see what the nanny is doing, I will know how my kids are being treated. If I can see what sites he’s visiting, I’ll know how productive my employee is, and then I can better evaluate his performance.

Therein lies the rub. For once we bite into this apple of knowledge, no matter our eagerness for or ignorance of the role we are performing, we cannot control the consequences of the connected intelligence we loose upon the world. Do we really know where all this is going?


► Parents are cyber snooping their kids.

Spouses now cyber snoop each other.

► Teachers are spying on students through laptop webcams.



► There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.

► Two FBI workers are accused of using surveillance equipment to spy on teenage girls as they tried on prom gowns at a West Virginia mall.

Caught spying on a student, the FBI demanded their GPS tracker back.

► The city of Chicago alone has 200+ surveillance cameras that can be centrally monitored. Great Britain has over 4 million surveillance cameras, some of which talk back.

► A girl commits suicide after her boyfriend secretly films them having sex.

Tyler Clementi jumps from a bridge after his Rutgers roommate secretly films and then streams his gay tryst.


We, the Snoople

According to a June 2010 report published in PR Newswire, the worldwide surveillance equipment market was valued at $78 billion in 2009 and is expected to increase to $139.2 billion in 2015. Notably noncommercial equipment sales for residential surveillance and security was valued at $18.5 billion in 2009, and is expected to reach $29.1 billion in 2015.

In Code version 2.0, Lawrence Lessig writes:


“In all these cases, technologies designed either without monitoring as their aim or with just limited monitoring as their capacity have now become expert technologies for monitoring. The aggregate of these technologies produces an extraordinary range of searchable data. And, more importantly, as these technologies mature, there will be essentially no way for anyone living within ordinary society to escape this monitoring. Monitoring to produce searchable data will become the default architecture for public space, as standard as streetlights…. [Orwell’s 1984 is] not the world we live in today. You can’t know whether your search on the Internet is being monitored. You don’t know whether a camera is trying to identify who you are…. The technologies of today have none of the integrity of the technologies of 1984. None are decent enough to let you know when your life is being recorded.”


And so, with an irony typical of Metalife, in all our attempts at knowing, there is a concomitant un-knowing. None of us knows where the edge of the surveillance is; we cannot know. We are in the matrix and there now appears to be no exit.


Source: Gizmodo. All rights reserved.

Further, we have dragged our children into the matrix with us. Since there is no easy way for most of us to function day-to-day without digital connectivity, like De Waal’s apes our kids are now watching what we watch and that is changing behaviors. As a result we appear to be heading into uncharted cultural and moral territory. For example, consider this ‘learning by watching’ as described by German sex researcher Dr. Klaus M. Beier:


Formerly, boys saw a naked bosom sometimes. But watching couples performing sexual acts, was very exceptional for children and adolescents. In cultural history, up to these days, sexuality had been an area of experience that was usually not learned by watching. Experience was gained by real practice, and there was a careful and gradual approach to the desired partners. Learning by doing. Now we have the reverse order: first seeing, and then doing. In cultural history, this paradigm shift has not been properly investigated yet….


Spying as Boundary Jumping

L.B. Jefferies, played by Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece of voyeurism, Rear Window, is sidelined from his career as a photographer by an accident that leaves him with a broken leg. In a wheelchair with a cast, he has little to do in the 90-degree heat of a New York city summer but watch his neighbors out a rear window that looks out onto a small courtyard and several other apartments. And in watching them, he starts to see things. At one point he puts down his binoculars and takes up his SLR with a large, high-powered telephoto lens. He is looking into his neighbor’s apartment through the camera—Hitchcock using spying as a metaphor for the peering, prying lens. Stella (Thelma Ritter), sent by Jefferies’ insurance company, arrives to give him a massage. She scolds him, and disapproves of his new pasttime—being a voyeur. She berates him for being more interested in other people’s lives than his own:

The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the work house…They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you’re always watchin’ worth a red-hot poker? Oh dear, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy?



Since Rear Window our watching has expanded as Spy Stores proliferate and digital tools effortlessly enable voyeurism. This is the Metalife of involvement with others we know of (Real Housewives of Atlanta, the Kardashians) but often do not know. It also articulates a further contradiction of watching as a means of knowing. Clay Calvert writes in Voyeur Nation, “The Truman Show … simultaneously mocked our increasingly voyeuristic society and ridiculed a transparently evident fact—we like to watch other people’s private lives and revealing moments, but often care little for actually interacting with them.” Calvert calls this mediated voyeurism:


“the consumption of revealing images of and information about others’ apparently real and unguarded lives, often yet not always for purposes of entertainment but frequently at the expense of privacy and discourse, through the means of the mass media and Internet.”


In the snooposphere we have entrained with the tool of the lens that doesn’t blink but stares into and through anything on which it is trained. On the one hand we are voyeurs because watching is in our natures and can be entertaining. On the other hand, we watch out of fear or paranoia: a sense that the other is doing something that must be carefully observed or some bad action will ensue, some trust will be violated. This is the older demon; it was what we first told ourselves sometime long ago when the other was not to be trusted.

It is what we still tell ourselves.

But ultimately what all this watching entails is jumping over old boundaries. We can now scale the boundary of walls around a home or bedroom; the boundary of privacy typical of intimate acts; the boundary of anonymity in public places; the boundary of identity that can be penetrated by iris scans, ear scans, or facial recognition technologies, or a new phone app. There are many ways to consider the questions and quandaries that arise when we passively and actively spy on our lovers, friends and neighbors: legal, moral, ethical, practical. But I submit that the most valuable way to consider what we are doing is to consider that we are making quantum leaps over long histories and cultural norms in an instant—leaps for which we are wholly unprepared.



Once we created a lens that could see farther than the human eye, and then created technologies that enhanced the lens’s ability to monitor and capture images of each other, we created an alternative to the injunctions and narratives of alphabetic culture—narratives that sprang from the preceding nomadic tribal cultures that formed our earliest recorded statement of the way the world is and how we ought to behave in it.

This quantum leap is more disorienting than we typically acknowledge. Here are some of the implications of the new realities we are thrusting upon ourselves.


Who’s Watching: So What, Now What?

1. We now have more means of watching and being watched than ever before. We should acknowledge that we are now in foreign (not necessarily enemy) territory and we need new maps and reliable compasses—moral and physical—to guide us.

2. As our tools enable us to escape the confines of physical boundaries that created long-standing behaviors and mores, we are confounded by new quandaries. From children first learning about sex via pornography to full-body scanners at airports, watching others and being watched is an important new Metalife that demands greater awareness of how pervasive our watching has become, as well as enhanced sensitivity for those who are being watched.

3. If surveillance can be said to have an imperative, it is delineating and fully appreciating personal boundaries.

4. Surveillance and its intrusions into privacy evoke old admonitions: how much can we know about others without in some measure changing our world, and ourselves?

5. Uma Thurman, interviewed by Oprah, spoke of celebrity and the lack of privacy that comes with it as a shared life. Our Metalife under constant surveillance is that shared life. A central issue, of course, is that often we are unaware of the sharing.

6. By watching each other we are coming to know others and ourselves in ways we could only barely envision before. Watching is knowledge. What are we going to do with that knowledge and who will be the keeper of it? These are essential questions.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Source: Disturbia, Flickr, Carfri, all rights reserved.


Further Information

Big Brother’s Creepy Little Brother Snoops as Productivity Tool

Cyber Espionage A Global Problem

Do You Know Who’s Watching You?

EFF Warns Big Brother Wants To Be Your Friend

Firesheep Not Evil, Says Snooping Tool’s Maker

How to Spy on Neighbors

iGuardianTeen App Spies on Your Kid’s Driving Habits

Memo Shows US Government Snooping Peoples’ Online Lives, Social Networks

Online Behavior, Tracking and Privacy

Schools use GPS to track students who skip

Surveillance Society: New High-Tech Cameras Are Watching You

The Internet and the End of Privacy

The Surveillance Society: 1984 Came 25 Years Late (Video)

UK Firm Crowdsources Security Camera Monitoring So You Never Know Who’s Watching

U.S. Surveillance Society Running Rampant

Welcome to Skynet, the CCTV Surveillance Society

Wherever You Go, Cameras Are Watching You

Your Facebook ‘Friend’ May Be a Federal Agent


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  1. cartagena jack permalink

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  2. Johnc825 permalink

    I really like and appreciate your blog post.Thanks Again.

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