We subject ourselves to scans on a routine basis, at ATMs, banks, public buildings. CCTVs track us as we move inside malls and parks. Airport security is at an altogether different level. We are supposed to feel more secure as surveillance is amplified and ambient machines track, trace and record every user.
So, the question is: how does the awareness of cameras and of being monitored by nonhuman things/processes influence our behaviour? That many of us are self-conscious in the presence of a camera, even when it is a selfie for which one ‘composes’ the face, is a truism. So how does the constant monitoring and being in the sightline of the cameras determine, first, how we behave and second, our sense of the self?
Always on Camera
We perform for the cameras, pure and simple. Because we are aware that the cameras have been installed to prevent ‘suspicious’ behaviour and ‘anti-social’ activity, we are rendered conscious of how we behave, so that we do not appear as even potentially disruptive. We, in short, watch ourselves watching ourselves.
The Self is a spectacle to itself. We notice ourselves as we stand at a checkout counter and see ourselves on the camera, we may wave to it, we may scowl or smile at it. We no longer assume that the camera is just a thing out there that surreptitiously monitors us. Rather, we see ourselves as always ‘on camera’. But that is not all.
This on-camera Self marks a change in how we have come to understand our selves. The Self is a spectacle, first and foremost. It is a spectacle that is recorded for archiving and can be retrieved and viewed by anybody with access to the records. The point is: we come to understand and see ourselves as selves made for the camera. We accept that we star in spectacles such as video surveillance records and this means, effectively, slowly, over the years, we allow the imminence of spectacle to influence our behaviour.
By self-spectacular, we understand that we remake ourselves, fashion our behaviour and appearance for the spectacle that is us. This raises the once-unthinkable questions: are machines determining our behaviour? Is my Self something I fashion because of the machines? A further question is: did the machines and surveillance culture predict I/we will alter my/our gestures, emotional expressions and actions in response to the presence of the machines and surveillance technology? That is, is the meaning of my Self, which is the sum total of my gestures, actions, emotions and reactions, being increasingly determined by the machines that track me and for which I perform? Are these ‘my’ gestures, actions, emotions and reactions or are they responses to the machines around me?
I am a camera effect.
In the process of transforming, reforming and spectacularising my Self as a result of the constant engagement with and performance before surveillance systems, I also rediscover my Self. I reveal my Self to myself, in other words. The world is really a stage and we are all players – and this 16th century wisdom from the world’s most watched playwright has never been truer. Except that, as we play on this stage, we experience a discovery: we script ourselves for the stage. We discover, if we are conscious, modes of behaving. The Self reveals itself to us in these moments of recognition.
We discover ourselves playing a role in spaces where we were once anonymised. This means the public spaces are spaces where we encounter a certain version of our-selves, a version built and repurposed for the camera. Self-revelation is the instant of discovery where we engage with the spectacle that is our-selves. The larger point about this self-revelation is: over time this camera-ready behaviour and action becomes our Self.
One, perhaps unsettling, consequence of the self-spectacular and the self-revelation is that we come to recognise how our Self is a distributed Self. What I am is no longer restricted to my corporeal being, attitudes, actions and emotional make-up: I am an effect of many staged presences in the video and surveillance archive in which I was, and continue to be, a participant.
The mathematician-philosopher Brian Rotman in Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts and the Distributed Human Being (2008) argues that the singular, coherent, self-contained Self is no longer a possibility. Instead, we need to think of our-selves as ‘parallel, distributed co-presence …of I-effects, I-roles, I-functions, and I-presences’. Rotman is gesturing at the construction of the ‘I’ as a series of effects, functions and presences alongside and within assemblages of technologies. The ‘I’ is a ‘distributed I’, not a single entity.
We could, of course, refuse to engage with the machines that enable and demand that the ‘I’ become a ‘distributed I’, but that would mean retreating into some kind of cave dwelling minus supermarkets, public spaces, the internet. The public is the space where we enact the private now: think of publicly ‘overhearable’ conversation on the cell phones, the transformation of the private diary into a public online document, the filming of everyday life for Instagram. This is already an index of the newly evolved human Self: the ‘distributed I’.
Then, when even access to basic healthcare demands being enrolled in multiple registries, is the ‘distributed I’ an avoidable creation? The answer has to be: no. The ‘I’ can only be sustained when it is a co-presence with its social media, online presences and databases that validate who the ‘I’ really is.
The ‘distributed I’ is a posthuman vision. The Self is an assemblage with multiple technologies. Human evolution, posthumanist philosophers tell us, has been coterminous with machines, non-living things and other life forms. The machines that surveill do not follow us as prosthetic: they constitute our very being. The ‘distributed I’ is the consequence of the feedback loop: from us to the machines we create for specific purposes; from these machines to us as they observe, predict and influence our behaviour, and our Selves. Just as we program the machines to do certain things for us, depending on our tastes, needs and requirements, the machines program us because we respond to them.
This is not to induce anxiety – fictionalised in pop culture – that the machines are taking over the world and the human race. It is a recognition that, just as we once co-evolved with the weather conditions, plant-and-animal life, the nature of the soil and ocean currents (which we then set out to monitor and control), and later with the technologies (from fire to the wheel, from crude cutting tools to printing) we invented, we now co-evolve with the machines that empower, enable and energise us.
We have always been posthuman.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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