Amazon recently launched a new cloud-based photo storage service. Like millions of others, I got an email about it. This is unremarkable except for one detail: there in the ad (taking a selfie to be stored, of course, on Amazon’s new service, and looking fabulous while doing it) were two gay men.
Gay? Yes. How can I know? The answer is . . . well . . . I don’t. Not really. But . . . come on. Is it the earnest, performative joy on their faces? Their close selfie-proximity? Their stylish, colorful clothes? That hair? The subtleties of gay signification are still a mystery to me. But the folks on whatever marketing team doctored up this beauty of an image seem to have mastered this kind of nuance (or, perhaps more accurately, the art of stereotyping). Here is the sequence in which my mind processed this image:
- Hey, there’s a gay couple in this advertisement.
- Well, you don’t see that very often. That’s kind of cool. I sure do wish there were even more images of gay folks and all other kinds of folks out there. It might make people feel less hopeless and isolated; plus, I’m sick of seeing straight people doing everything all the time.
- So: Amazon is assuming I’m gay. How do they know?
- If Amazon knows I’m gay, they’ve probably created other images for other demographics; let’s Google it!
- Yep, here they are:
Despite the initial temptation to be happy about seeing depictions of gayness in popular culture, it’s important that we recognize this for what it is: the cynical, damaging garbage you’d expect from Amazon. These ads don’t promote diversity or offer hope to the lonesome and isolated; their soul-soothing imagery does nothing but lazily re-affirm viewers’ limited perspectives and promote dangerous, simple-minded homogeneity. This is how surveillance looks now: smiling at us from inside an advertisement, one that has been created based on intimate knowledge of our tastes, incomes, web search histories, and so on.
All of us understand that corporations know things about our behaviors and preferences that we might not want them to know. They know these things because they’ve been watching us. And if they aren’t watching us, we’re watching us, happily self-surveilling, uploading each nuance of our daily lives and creating a beautiful picture of our tastes.
In the age of the selfie, what was once the most iconic, concrete representation of surveillance — the wall-mounted, rectangular surveillance camera — now seems mild, almost comforting. Cameras are there, more than ever, and they are keeping watch. But because we are being surveilled in so many other, more intimate, less visible ways, the absolute transparency of surveillance cameras has come to seem honest, clean-cut, and even nice. Like the smiling young people in Amazon’s advertisements, even if others’ cameras aren’t already pointed at us, we’re happy to aim our own cameras at ourselves.
Our relationship to surveillance cameras, whether they be our own or the ones mounted inside every workplace and on each street corner, is worth re-examining in relationship to other, less obvious and less transparent kinds of surveillance.
Consider Huey P. Newton’s observation in “Intercommunalism”: “it seems to me that the mass media have, in a sense, psychologized many of the people in our country . . . so that they come to desire the controls that are imposed upon them.”
Long-running shows like Big Brother certainly work to normalize the idea of surveillance while allowing viewers to revel in a sense of supreme authority. U.S. Television programming is so full of shows about law enforcement that it’s silly to try listing them. And these shows — Cops, America’s Most Wanted, Law & Order, CSI, Judge Judy, and so many others — all work to help the public identify with law enforcement’s perspective.
It’s no wonder that when many people see cameras they don’t feel subjugated or afraid. Why would they when so much of our popular culture trains people to understand law enforcement as acting in the public’s best interest? Combine this with popular culture’s and politics’ emphasis on fear — the sense that we’re all always under threat of attack, if not from ISIS or Ebola then from immigrants, from the poor, from our neighbors! [an advertisement for a home security system goes here, during the commercial break]. What we’re left with is what Huey Newton described: the mentality that surveillance is there for us.
No wonder the revelation that U.S. citizens’ emails, phone calls, and web activity is being logged and monitored has not managed to cause widespread outrage.
In his book The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, David Garland (a law and sociology professor at NYU) explains that prisons and other methods of crime control and surveillance “have the same familiarity and easy intelligibility as other common elements of our everyday world such as cable television, mobile phones, or suburban shopping malls.” But what happens when methods of surveillance are more about controlling our mentalities and our shopping habits than about controlling crime? It means that it’s a crime not to shop. It’s a crime to look like anything other than the people shown to us in advertisements and popular culture. As the recent murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown make clear, being Black is — and has long been — against the law.
In the nationwide upheaval that these cases have helped fuel, some have quickly and predictably rushed into the comforting arms of surveillance cameras. President Obama has proposed funding body cameras for police. Of course, and as many have already noted, this won’t work. Eric Garner’s murder was already caught on film. In Cincinnati, where outraged citizens took to the streets in 2001 after police murdered an unarmed nineteen year old, police are implementing body cameras, but the Police Chief, Jeffrey Blackwell, has pre-emptively explained that “[officers’] safety will come first, and that may mean the cameras aren’t on at all times.”
Cameras — once understood as ominous reminders of our lack of freedom, now understood as helpful, objective conveyors of truth — don’t offer the protection, dignity, or assurance of justice that the public and the President seem to think they will. But even if many people are convinced that the cameras — whether law enforcement’s or their own — are there for them, serving as powerful tools in the fight for justice, we might have a harder time being convinced that the new, less visible and less readily understandable methods of surveillance are also there to help us. In Amazon ads, we can see ourselves being watched and see our own distorted image used against us with a smile, and it’s frightening.