What links Kanye and TOWIE with Yahoo webcam spying?

Celebrity culture might offer the best lessons in how to deal with our new surveillance state

Arts+Culture News
kanye west bound 2

Earlier this week, Dazed marked the 25th anniversary of the internet by asking whether it’s all gone a bit 1984. At this stage, you suspect we’re way past scaremongering: as government intrusion and corporate web tracking normalise, the reality is not so much on our doorstep as in our lap. Now, to grasp the size of the problem, we face a necessary question. How do we act when somebody is watching?

Essentially, it answers itself: we act. Ordinary people under observation ‘act natural’, which is not the same as ‘being natural’. When someone attractive meets our gaze across the street, we try to sustain that right-foot-left motion which just seconds back was thoughtless and fluid, but no dice. We walk peculiarly erect and trip over heels, feeling somehow naked and alien. Of course there’s nothing frightening about this; it’s just the case that the human gaze has a weird power, the ability to somehow reconfigure our impulses.

Celebrities can act natural, too, but some demonstrate just how drastically the human gaze can destabilise us. Take Kanye West: here is a man completely undressed of social norms. Instead, his prerogative is to fulfil a cultural mythology. Kanye waxes Biblical and rides a sexy motorbike that signifies bravado, wealth and awesomeness. He performs the script of hip-hop prosperity; we know and accept this. His authentic devotion to inauthentic myths is, in a postmodern sense, absolutely central to his performance. It also suggests just how attractive cultural archetypes become when people are watching.

Of course, Kanyefication is hardly an overnight process, but not all cultural archetypes are so flamboyant. In fact, certain mythologies move towards us. With its peculiar aspiration towards both the glamorous and mundane, the natural and contrived, The Only Way is Essex aims not to counter or demystify cultural mythology, but to turn social norms into cultural mythology. Its characters elevate everyday behaviour - sewing, weightlifting, chocolate-eating, arguing, gossiping - to the glitzy realm of 'scripted reality', a kind of post-reality reality. There is an art, TOWIE argues, to regular people being regular. It means the humblebrag is the new brag, mediocrity the new excess. But it's also part of a wider identity crisis, shrinking our ability to differentiate between reality and simulation.

Up to now, the vanishing division between the two has been a problem reserved for sociologists and fiction writers. (See Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Don Delillo’s White Noise.) But TOWIE smooths our transition from being real people to being people of reality. Its characters are not regular people, gifted or lucky enough to get famous, but nor are they actors feigning normality. These are, instead, almost-ordinary folk carefully chosen for their ability to 'act natural'. And they're very good at it. Indeed, watching Lauren Pope idly curl her locks, the viewer is all but erased. Which prompts another question: how much suggested human gaze, whether that of TV viewers or covert government agents, must we shake off to resume natural behaviour? Given our difficulty ignoring glances from hot strangers, you suspect it's pretty much all of it.

“As intrusion goes pandemic, as the internet increasingly hosts our musings and memories, we become perpetually self-aware without even realising"

Two weeks ago, the Guardian published Gen Z’s seminal news story: an Edward Snowden leak that revealed GCHQ, a British intelligence agency, indiscriminately intercepted and stored millions of Yahoo webcam images for counter-terrorism purposes. Many of these images were sexually explicit, and the unsuspecting perpetrators were also unsuspected. Alarming even to post-Patriot Act America, it’s the clearest realisation to date of modern technological paranoia.

There’s a parallel here with the Panopticon, the architectural brainchild of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which Foucault later appropriated as a byword for overzealous surveillance. A proposed cylindrical prison, the Panopticon has at its centre a concealed inspector who could theoretically be watching any prisoner at any time. The idea is that, knowing they might be under surveillance, prisoners automatically behave as if they were.

This invasion of privacy, which makes the Leveson Enquiry look like Judge Judy, excited a kind of faux-moralistic gossip among government employees. “Unfortunately,” announced the GCHQ documents, “it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.” Unless that worrying number skews startlingly close to zero, your immediate response is a bemused 'who cares!'.

Of course, we don’t know just how forensically Google, Facebook and the government examine our virtual footprint. But the knowledge that agencies could be watching, analysing, ogling, will change us slowly and certainly. This isn’t a scary imminent threat with sexy, deadly consequences, but it does affect how we think. As intrusion goes pandemic, as the internet increasingly hosts our musings and memories, we become perpetually self-aware without even realising. 

Maybe that self-awareness leads us towards cultural mythology. Not to Kanye's bravado or TOWIE's hyperreality, but to one of the endless archetypes in-between, none of them quite authentic. Maybe one day we will not just live; we will perform life. Unless we inject our lives with authentic human moments, this burgeoning future will be one where ‘acting natural’ is the new normal. It’s hard to imagine anything stranger.

More Arts+Culture