January 23, 2020

Strangers When We Meet

In my feed recently I’ve seen several meme-like deployments of the frame above, from the film Uncut Gems, in which Eric Bogosian’s character is trapped in a vestibule behind a bulletproof glass door. Adam Sandler’s character has locked him there to stall for time while he waits to see if he’ll win a large sports bet he’s placed with what’s essentially Bogosian’s money. The image seems to capture Bogosian’s begrudging resignation, the moment at which he realizes he has no choice but to sit there until Sandler’s scheme is done. It’s also the moment in the film when Sandler seems to believe that he’s won Bogosian over to his cause. Forced to bear witness to the audacious genius of his plan, Bogosian will have no choice but to respect his nerve.

I guess the idea behind using this frame as a meme is to get at how we can get carried away with wanting to show someone something and assume that our excitement will automatically be contagious — the fantasy that our tastes are viral joined with the fear that our preferred content is attentional quicksand. The Uncut Gems image self-deprecatingly convey that you are Sandler, forcing your enthusiasms on other people online even when you know it will annoy them, or alternatively, that you are Bogosian, suddenly realizing you’ve been trapped by someone else and have no choice but to settle in as some content unfolds. Maybe it will infect you with its shareability even as it tries your patience, though the opposite is probably more likely. It reminds me of when someone hijacks the sound system at a party and tries to educate the attendees about music: Regardless of whether I like what I hear, I’ll never forget that it was forced on me, not because someone specifically thought I would enjoy it but because someone seized the means of distribution and sought to aggrandize themselves.

The Uncut Gems image similarly suggests that gestures of “sharing” are mainly about power, and who can compel the other to submit. Since so much of social media platform design embodies this, the primacy of capturing attention over any particular informational content, the image seems like a good fit for commemorating, with a touch of irony, any situation when some sort of attention trap has been successfully sprung. What better way to capture the vagaries of compulsive sharing, those moments when connectivity suddenly feels imprisoning, than an image of someone literally trapped behind glass?

Being perpetually online in part means cycling all day long through fantasies of pigeonholing someone else with some content, of hijacking their phone screen with whims of your own, as well as wondering at when and how your screen, your attention, has been surreptitiously taken over — a subtly different fantasy that we cannot be held accountable for what we see there. I have these moments when I find myself stuck looking at a Twitter thread and can’t remember how I ended up there, what lure I fell for, or what favor I imagined I was performing or was obscurely currying with someone by clicking.

This never happens when my attention is captured by something that is not on a screen, in part because there is no system in place for measuring it. I don’t think to myself, Who am I trying to impress by staring at that tree? I’d have to think to post a picture of it first. Then I could immerse myself in its social ramifications. When I am trapped by the screen, my attention takes material form, it matters, it circulates, it counts; when I look away, it seems less like “attention” and more like an unmediated flow of “real” experience. Yet this feeling of reality, of a focus that exceeds ephemeral scrolling and clicking, now requires the screen, if only in its absence.

But I think there is a deeper desire behind the screen fantasy of trapping people on their screens or of being trapped on our own screens, one that revolves around the security that screens seem to afford. What the Uncut Gems frame captures simultaneously with the feeling of being trapped is the feeling of being protected. The image foregrounds the existence of a seemingly impervious layer of protective glass between us and the people who we make watch, who make us watch. Implicit in content sharing is not only a low-key coercion but also an enforced distance at which we can watch others watching and consume their attention without experiencing it directly, where its effects can be unpredictable.


Surveillance is similarly double-sided, simultaneously a form of care and a mechanism of control, as surveillance scholar David Lyon points out. The way Ring doorbell cams have been marketed certainly exploits this. The rationale that they are a crime deterrent seems like a cover story for an underlying wish to surround our lives with screens, to add a layer of mediation to all interactions, to always have a camera between ourselves and other people, no matter who they are. That entails regarding surveillance as basically benevolent, even as they are aggressive projections of a fear of persecution.

Doorbell cameras constitute the enclosure of neighborhoods, fueled by a sense of being under siege — part of a more general fantasy that Achille Mbembe describes in Necropolitics:

The desire for an enemy, the desire for apartheid (for separation and enclaving), the fantasy of extermination — all today occupy the space of this enchanted circle. In a number of cases, a wall is enough to express such desire. Several sorts of wall exist, and not all fulfill the same functions. A separation wall is supposed to resolve a problem of excess of presence, the very presence that some see as the origin of situations of unbearable suffering.

Mbembe is writing about the triumph of a Schmittian world view, of how the manifest failure of democracies around the world to produce equality and unity among peoples has transformed our era into “one of separation, hate movements, hostility, and, above all, struggle against an enemy.”

Ring is currently only a small part of that, but it could eventually play a larger role in enforcing boundaries not around property so much as between classes of people. That is, Ring’s ultimate purpose is to make visible the supposed “excess of presence” of those people deemed to be surplus or undesirable, to facilitate their removal.

To mask such motives from themselves Ring owners not only conceive of their actions as strictly personal (“I want to protect myself and my stuff”), blinding themselves to the broader implications of what they accomplish as part of a class action; but they also construe surveillance as enabling a generalizable sense of comfort rather than merely dealing exclusion. In this New York Times piece about the emerging structures of feeling around Ring, John Herrman suggests that Ring owners “often cast as whimsical” the surveillance they impose on their neighborhoods. They don’t treat it as CCTV to be consulted only in case something seems to have gone wrong; they see the cameras as enabling ordinary people to perform, as though every camera were an opportunity to be zany. In July, Mike Caulfield argued that the pairing of Ring with its associated social media app Neighbors would “create a community demand for sharable crime.” He imagined staged footage and overzealous reporting and more generalized paranoia. But the new doorbell-video genres go well beyond just “crime”; the cameras create a demand, for instance, for putatively heartwarming content, as when, in an anecdote Herrman mentions, a doorbell camera records delivery people enjoying the snacks Ring owners left out for them.

The “crime” and “human interest” porch videos are opposite sides of the same coin, mimicking the queasy blend of content to be found on local news broadcasts. Indeed, as Herrman points out, Ring videos are being regularly acquired by a variety of news sites. The clips are well suited to the local news broadcasts’ ideological project of reaffirming the basic goodness of ordinary people while making them too terrified to go outside. Ring is also vertically integrated, producing its own channel: It “selects videos from its users to be shared on Ring TV, a video portal run by the company, under categories such as Crime Prevention, Suspicious Activity and Family & Friends,” Herrman writes. “The videos are, essentially, free ads: The terrifying ones might convince viewers to buy cameras of their own; funny or sweet ones, at a minimum, condition viewers to understand front-door surveillance as normal, or even fun.”

That last point can be assimilated to the larger claim that social media apps normalize all kinds of “lateral surveillance” — when peers unilaterally document one another’s behavior. And normalized surveillance is always joined with normalized expectations of performance. What Erving Goffman described as “back stage” is gone, and everyone is expected to behave as though they are conscious of being on display. Often this is framed by critics as problematically instilling panoptic discipline, but it is also a demand to be productive, to do something worth watching, to command the attention that is latent in every moment. Who doesn’t like attention? Who, at this point, doesn’t sense how it might be monetized?

While the expanding quilt of Ring surveillance is sometimes described as the new neighborhood watch, it is also a particular mode of neighbors’ watching; it contributes to the restructuring of how neighbors expect to see each other: as fundamentally media constructs. Herrman concludes by describing a Ring video in which a woman, locked out of her house in the cold, presses a neighbor’s Ring to see if someone there will call her husband. The Ring owners call the police instead. “It’s an odd interaction for people who are described as neighbors,” he writes. “It’s a vision of American alienation, in which human interactions are mediated first by surveillance cameras, then by law enforcement.”

But it doesn’t seem as though people experience such interactions as “alienating” under non-crisis circumstances. We’re encouraged everywhere — by advertising’s insistence that interacting with others is inefficient and inconvenient, as well as by the isolating affordances of technology that allow us to bypass a personal “excess of presence” — that this kind of interaction is ideal. Trap them behind glass first! An encounter mediated by a camera, even among intimates, seems safely under control. Put encounters on screen, where mutual attention can be held while each party is insulated from from live and direct reciprocity.

In the Uncut Gems image, the impulses of security, attention seeking, and social compulsion are inextricably blended, if not so much for the man we see in the image then for the subject position we assume in looking at him, on the other side of a screen on our screen. For the characters in the movie, this moment is an enforced hiatus in the midst of chaos, but as a potential meme, it ambivalently captures an ideal that many of us have found ourselves embracing, in which the best relationships photograph well and are tacitly administered by platforms that seem to impose coherent motives on us all.


When most relations are mediated through screens, technologies like facial recognition can take on a different affective tone too. They may seem more like the Face ID in iPhones that recognizes us to make things more secure and expedient. Care and control.

In another New York Times piece, Kashmir Hill reported on Clearview, a company that has assembled a database of 3 billion images from social media sites and other sources and is trying to build a real-time facial recognition system that can match live images with information about a person’s identity. As Hill described it, “You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared.” She goes on to detail some of its potential uses, were it available to consumers: “Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.” Basically it would imply a world where one would have to assume that they were pre-known in any situation, always already hailed and recognized by identity-granting and -confirming cameras.

The negative consequences of this are obvious, but this very obviousness may conceal its utopian dimension, unacknowledged but likely felt intuitively by those who know that such a regime favors and protects them. It’s not merely that the widespread presumption of the “end of anonymity” would be a powerful apparatus for reproducing the existing relations of production, à la Althusser. It’s also that it normalizes an ideal of sociality without risk, where no one is a stranger because the surveillance systems of “social credit” would filter anyone likely to be experienced as strange. No one would fear being unexpectedly exposed because everything deemed relevant is known in advance, perhaps algorithmically selected to render any interactions comfortably anodyne. The stability of personal identity would be secure, it would be universally recognized and legitimated, and the surveillance apparatus would save people the awkwardness of having to disregard those who are seen as illegitimate.

When the Chinese government describes the function of its hyper-surveillant social credit system as an attempt to “strengthen the construction of a culture of sincerity” (quoted by Paul J. D’Ambrosio here), it’s not being entirely cynical. Under the social credit system, D’Ambrosio argues, sincerity is no longer a matter of matching inner thoughts with outward behavior but is instead produced as an effect of having a public profile. Sincerity occurs after the fact, as an effect of being watched and scored, available to everyone who makes an effort. It becomes like leveling up in a video game. (In a different essay about the social credit system, philosopher Philip Ivanhoe argues that “in a very real sense, it constitutes an ultimate and complete loss of face.”)

Ubiquitous facial recognition and identity ascription would reify the idea that a single identity accrues to each unique face. But everyone has many faces, everyone has collective as well as individual identities, and everyone finds on many occasions that they are a stranger to themselves, that the person they were a year ago or an hour ago has become unfathomable to them. Sometimes, when I reread what I’ve written, I can’t remember or believe or accept that I wrote those things. It takes effort to guess at what I might have been thinking, but it remains speculative.

The ideology of facial recognition assumes we want to be recognized, we want our identity to be secure and assured. But not only do we comprise many different identities, there is also an ordinary desire to occasionally have no identity at all. When surveillance imputes identity, problems arise not merely when the identifying information is inaccurate or unflattering or prejudicial. The whole process reinforces the idea that we can’t have any experience at all without filtering it through a specific profile and attaching it to an identity — that having an account is a prerequisite for apprehension. Technology might guarantee the privileged that only the right people will recognize them, but it won’t let even them slip into the ambiguous state of unrecognizability and the peculiar nonsubjective subjectivity that that allows us to inhabit, to have experiences and feel pleasures that aren’t contingent on a particular identity, that don’t hinge on the social and cultural capital that they procure for it.

An experience beyond identity doesn’t need to be some sort of limit experience; you don’t have to be Foucault dropping acid at Zabriskie Point. It can just be the feeling of slipping out of time, as common as sleep. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust takes a break from describing society parties to offer an interlude about what it feels like to wake up: “From these deep sleeps we then awake in a dawn, not knowing who we are, being nobody, quite new, prepared for anything, our brain finding itself emptied of the past that had hitherto been our life … Then, from the black storm through which we seem to have passed (but we do not even say ‘we’), we emerge lying prostrate, without any thoughts: a ‘we’ it may be without content.” In those hypnogogic states we can parse what we are experiencing without locating it in ourselves, in our story. But that quickly slips away. Proust goes on to wonder, “what is a memory that we cannot recall? … If I can have, in me and around me, so many memories that I do not remember, this oblivion … may apply to a life that I have lived in the body of another man, or even on another planet.”

Instead of a variety of profiles holding together our hodgepodge of thoughts and experiences under one name, we can see ourselves as multiple people operating within the same body, personas that don’t even know each other.

Surveillance is proliferating under the auspices that it can protect us, that it can allow us to sleep at night. But it forecloses on the sort of anonymity that sleep discloses to us, that makes it a desirable refuge. We can’t hope to prolong that groggy sense that we’ve escaped from ourselves. Trapped on a screen somewhere, in someone’s glass box, we can’t ever wake up a new person.