Where were you
“I’ve realized that much of what I’ve written about of late can be summed up this way,” technology scholar L.M. Sacasas noted recently. “Resist the temptation to confuse control for care. Marketing for digital technologies often amounts to selling us on the promise of greater control as if it were equivalent to greater care.”
This observation seems especially applicable to products that invite us to put our friends and family under surveillance, to demonstrate how much we care about them. “Location sharing” is one such technology, discussed here by Vox’s Rebecca Jennings in generation-gap terms:
Many people who remember a time before social media find it distressing that someone could be watching their little bubble on an app, judging the fact that they’re out late at night or, conversely, that they rarely leave their homes. Young people, meanwhile, have grown up in an era where parents tracking their kids using tools like Life360 is the norm.
The generational interpretation here seems superfluous to me, investing the increased use of location sharing with a sense of inevitability, of progress. From this view, each new generation is naturally endowed with the capacity to better appreciate the potential of technological development, rather than simply being more gullible and malleable. At the same time, tech refusal is cast as a mark of backwardness. As one commentator tells Jennings, “people distrusting location sharing will be akin to people refusing to buy cellphones in the ’90s and early 2000s.”
It seems more the case that surveillance technology (alternatively described in the Vox piece as “digital intimacy”) has changed the salience of our relationship to attention. What registers as “creepy” is not merely that people feel entitled to spy on you for your own good, but the realization that you might be disappointed if no one bothered to. That is, people would might find it distressing that someone could be watching their little bubble but probably aren’t. The WSJ piece that Jennings is responding to claims that for teens “the biggest cause of anxiety, they say, is knowing when they’re missing out.” And my instinctual revulsion toward location sharing probably has less to do with my advanced age than my arrested narcissism: Why should I be just a dot on someone’s map when I should be the entire world?
Of course, social inclusion and exclusion weren’t invented with communications technology. The argument is rather than tech companies have found new ways to monetize the fear of exclusion (and leverage it as a means of collecting data that can be repurposed for advertising and model training). Where being alone once meant being apart from and ignorant of what other people were doing, now it can become an occasion for consuming other people’s social lives with a marked awareness of being left out or left behind. We now have tools of noncommunication, that can constantly remind that no one is thinking about us, or they are not thinking about us enough.
Likewise, parents who feel obliged to track their children are not necessarily overinvolved and intrusive; they may be caving to the pressures their children seem to put on them to be paid attention to. They may find surveillance to be the most efficient way of evincing care, or performing it while they are preoccupied with other things. Tracking stands in for concern while posing as an expression of it. Part of the idea of the “panopticon” is also that someone could seem to be watching even when the central tower was empty. Surveillance can conceal indifference as well as indicate concern.
Jennings quotes another tech reporter, Scott Nover, who describes location sharing as “the natural conclusion of the digital-age expectation that we’re always online, always available, and have no reasonable expectation of a private, offline life.” Again I think the emphasis here is off. People haven’t lost their “reasonable expectation” of privacy so much as they have been brought to reasonably expect more signs that other people are paying attention to them, whether in the form of social media metrics, or read receipts, or imagining themselves appearing on other people’s maps as a significant component of their geographical imagination. Location sharing is like being able to post a permanent, persistent selfie that continually reminds people that you exist and want to be liked over and over again. It is simultaneously a constant source of inevitable rejection. Someone is always doing something without you.
Affordances like location sharing alter our expectations of privacy, but that is just another way of saying it changes our sense of how much attention should be paid to us. Care and control are conflated not only in the eyes of the person performing surveillance but also in the object of it; having been convinced by tech marketing and the smothering experience of tech products, one might look for the experience of someone else’s control in order to know that one is cared for.
Social surveillance technology foregrounds the link between subjection and subjectivation — the idea that the gaze or the hailing of the other is the prerequisite of feeling oneself to be a subject, to have interiority. In his analysis of the panopticon — in this interview for example — Foucault insists on “an inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over and against himself.” This internalized voice of the other can then stand in for the voice of “one’s true self” or can seem to be suppressing that voice. The demand to be tracked and the demand to be left alone can co-exist and can move independently of each other.
In other words, social surveillance tech is not entirely one-sided in its effects; it can spark a kind of interiorization of the gaze of the other, and the discipline and obedience that entails (better not go anywhere unusual, etc.), but it can also stymie that interiorization, replace it with the need to continually check one’s phone to see if one is being watched, to try and get a glimpse of who all is in the central tower. One of Foucault’s interviewers cites a passage from Bentham — “Each comrade becomes an overseer,” but Foucault (evoking the spirit of Rousseau) is quick to reverse it as well: “Each overseer should become a comrade.” Social surveillance technology doesn’t make control appear as care or care appear as control; rather it destabilizes how we calculate the tension between them and invites us to make those calculations over and over again. It prompts us to see everyone as comrade and overseer simultaneously, or to see those roles constantly collapsing into each other.
That kind of blurring can be framed in terms of how more of social life is saturated and nourished by “the capillaries of power,” extended particularly by network technology and connectivity. Location tracking means understanding “friendship” more explicitly in terms of overt negotiations over the power of visibility. At the same time, interpreting location sharing as a form of social media invites the conclusion that locations are just messages about the self, and that the only reason to go places is to communicate something about your identity. No matter where you go you can’t leave yourself behind.