Looking like a Human

Photograph of a photographer

Pic by Edward Olive Fotografo on Flickr.

Editor’s note: Looking like a Human is the third and final part of Meg Jayanth’s exploratory mega-article into the field of the new aesthetic. Part one is here and part two is here and you should read them if you know what’s good for you.

So, the New Aesthetic is all about “seeing like a machine”, and how new perspectives provided by technology have seeped into our lives, thoughts, designs, cultures, arts and physical spaces. In Part One I talked about how games consoles were reshaping our living rooms and how we play. Part Two focused more specifically on videogames themselves – both in terms of allowing us to experience digital futures as well as a measure of how we feel about the way technology is remapping our experiences of the world. This concluding part is, then, going to to be about us – about humans, looking and ethics. “Real life”, if that’s even a thing anymore.

One of the trailers discussed in the preceding part was for Watch Dogs – which presages a future, connected world in which privacy is a distant memory. We spill data like glittering trails in our wake. Our paths, preferences, shopping habits, medical histories and social media presences are collected, collated and analysed by smart machines – we are unwittingly revealed.

Roll on Google’s Project Glass – a pair of glasses with an integrated heads-up display that puts information an inch from your eyeballs. It’s location-aware and connected to the cloud. Welcome to being a data cluster connected to a vast global network.

Robin Sloan’s response to the announcement teases out some of the implications – contrasting Google’s approach to the visual future with Facebook’s. It’s about two different perspectives: pictures vs. vision. Project Glass is all about point-of-view, vision. It’s a context-sensitive lens on the future. To augment human vision, Glass first has to parse the world through a machine’s sensory apparatus:

Google is getting good – really good – at building things that see the world around them and actually understand what they’re seeing.

Looking and seeing – if that’s what this whole business is all about, or at the very least some of it – is a political act. Being looked at and weighed and judged and nudged and reproduced. Microsoft & Nike’s E3 2012 presentation summed it up – with their technology, “if you have a body, you’re an athlete”. Being looked at through the Kinect’s fitness-fuelled gaze alters your body – its scrutiny makes you an athlete, a construction site, its gaze confers the potential for improvement…maybe even an imperative. It sees you, flab and all.

Sterling is clear that machines don’t have aesthetics or motives apart from those we ascribe to them – but aren’t those enough?

Usefully, someone much smarter has already made this argument for me. The entireity of Susan Sontag’s On Photography – written in 1977, and shockingly prescient – should be required reading for the digital age. She is extraordinarily insightful in questioning the sense of objectivity that technology elicits – the blank gaze of the camera is in fact a cover for all sorts of personal, political and social motivation. We can’t assume that ‘the lens of technology’ is sterile, shaken free of the muck of ideology and culture.“Photographs do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it,” Sontag warns, with an emphasis on the ‘seem to be’– a few pages later she expands on this, “photographers are always imposing their standards on their subjects”.

Just Dance

Enthusiastic Just Dance performers rock the stage. Pic by GetDarwin on Flickr.

But probably the most useful statement when thinking about the New Aestheticised machine-gaze is this one:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

Replace ‘photograph’ with ‘collect data about’, and you have the starting premise for Watch Dogs – hacking their personal data can quickly make a symbolic possession into a literal one. Machines don’t have motives but we do, and as we live in a machine-readable world machines live in a human-reactive one. We create context wherever we go. That’s our revenge for all that pixellation.

The New Aesthetic is about being looked at by humans and by machines — by drones, surveillance cameras, people tagging you on Facebook — about being the object of the gaze. It’s about looking through the eyes of a machine and seeing the machine turn its beady LEDs on you. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body, and building our own super-pervasive panopticon.

(Side note: If you haven’t already, go read Rachel Aima’s article Desiring Machines - it’s excellent at picking up the blank spaces in the New Aesthetic dialogue and scribbling in them)

If Aima’s right about the process of being looked at, that being the object of the gaze (re)genders us – and let’s go ahead and use the word – feminises us – is that partly why there is such an irrationally violent dislike of the Kinect and the Wonderbook and the Wii from the “core gamer” culture which self-identifies as traditionally ‘masculine’? That niggling sense that being looked at is a game for girls? Subjecting yourself to machine scrutiny feels instinctively like it crosses an invisible gender line – it’s ok to do it at parties, or when you’re pissed. And maybe it’s why games of playing-at subjectivity (Deus Ex: HR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout 3, even Beyond: Two Souls etc.) are so quick to assure us with guns, blood and explosions that you won’t have to feel “like a girl” for too long?

Being looked at by machines can make us feel all kinds of things – though a kind of jocular humiliation seems quite a constant feature. (But maybe that’s just me, still burned from Just Dance 2) Kinect + Nike look at us to motivate and shame in equal measure. The human desire – to sell products, to get fit, to make a cool thing – drives the technology and then the technology creates its own set of aesthetic questions and problems. Now that Kinect can see your body, it can start to parse your face. And maybe then someone will start trying to sell you advertising based on how a machine reads your emotions and moods? Oh wait, they’ve already filed a patent.

Is it so very different from adwords on the right-hand column of your gmail inbox?

Wii Fit

Sure, why not. Pic by citymama on Flickr.

WiiFit is already a tactless relative telling you that you’ve gained weight, Just Dance judges your moves as critically if not more than any prospective lover, Kinect is as disparaging about your lighting and space as any photographer. It seems inevitable that we’ll start to care. We already care about celebrities, and they don’t talk back to us or expect us to talk to them in our living rooms.

Will you start to smile wider so that Kinect can understand you? Will you learn to keep your face diplomatically still every time you fire up your Xbox, every game also a game of poker with your playful machine as it tries to divine your tells? Will you scrub back through your Kinect’s footage of yourself, deleting scowls or laughter as you would the embarrassing purchases from your browsing history on Amazon.co.uk? Once we start to edit ourselves for the machines around us – as Rahel Aima wryly suggests, dressing ourselves for our machines – rather than for the people at the other ends of the devices, we’ll have fully anthropomorphised our technology.

On the other side of all this subjectifying and uncomfortable being gazed at by the machine is also the affirmation: I am here, I am seen. And also: I am seeing.

It’s easy to see Glass as a technological antidote – a democratising, semi-anonymous gaze – perhaps that should be Anonymous with a capital ‘A’ – because Glass’s anonymity presents itself as a power-grab rather than a reduction. It lets us be the subject we want to see in the world. Not augmentation but observation. The intimacy of shared experience. The power of seeing like a digital device, the kind of power that only governments and corporations used to have, but now fits into our pockets.

This inversion may be where the real magic lies. Project Glass is aptly named. Glass is a contradiction: a barrier but also a transparency.

There’s something uneasy about the first-person perspective – but there’s a power in it as well. The power of looking rather than being looked at. (The promo for Bryan Singer’s new transhumanism-themed webseries hints at quite a few of these ideas – with machine-enhanced vision, “the world is in you”) There’s a kind of strange secret police, masters-of-the-universe glamour to the idea of remaining in the shrouded dark while your actions play out in the daylight. There’s a reason the film’s about Batman rather than Harvey Dent.

Report suspicious behaviour advertisment

Taking pictures of video cameras: the new bomb threat. Pic by Cabbit on Flickr.

People in authority have always known this, instinctively. They often dislike being looked at and legislate against it, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping us. We’re secretly filming politicians, openly filming our own arrests , and even using the camera lens as both shield and sword against figures of power. For instance, this video below, where a Saudi woman threatens the religious police – who are trying to kick her out of a mall for wearing nail polish – with both observation and exposure on Twitter and Facebook. “Here,” she says to them, as they mill around looking discomfited, “smile for the camera.”


But for every Leveson Inquiry upending the contents of our politicians’ digital handbags and revealing that they mistake LOLs for “lots of love” – there are even more powerful governmental attempts to look at us in the digital altogether. Most literally in the form of the TSA’s “naked” bodyscanners in airports but also monitoring us more conventionally in the digital space.  The ‘great firewall of China’ is just an extension of this attitude – if looking is power, then stopping someone from looking takes away their power.

It’s significant that the Google’s response to an increasingly surveilled, subjectivised, objectified selfhood is a complete absence of self in the frame. You’re the disappearance in the middle of the picture, hinted at but never observed. In a postmodern move of some boldness, Glass replaces identity with context.

I don’t look like you, but I am looking like you are. Is this the New Aesthetic’s answer to silencing? You can ignore our voices but not our vision. And vision is inextricable from our place in the world, from the social systems of privilege and power that our technology replicates. Will this new digitally mediated intimacy actually work? It’s harder to other someone whose Google-enhanced eyes you’ve literally seen through. Right?

Imagine the Arab Spring but literally looking through someone’s eyes. You don’t just follow the revolution on Twitter and on Facebook, you can attend the rallies, piggybacking on the experience of one of the protestors on the ground. A whole new level of vicarious. If we can’t beat the technological advance of surveillance culture, can we join it as equals?

Don't look down

Don’t look down. Pic by Jackman Chiu on Flickr.

Unfortunately, as Evgeny Morozov tirelessly points out, this kind of techno-utopianism rarely holds up to much scrutiny. The interactions of power, place and technology are rarely so simple, or so simply ‘fixed’.

Even the shock of seeing-like-someone-else eventually wears off, the intimacy grows stale. Sontag again:

Images transfix. Images anesthetize…. In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.

Digression time: before Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for Hurt Locker and sometime after she made the trashily excellent Point Break she made a weird-as-all-hell film in 1995 starring Juliette Lewis and Ralph Fiennes called Strange Days. In this, a new technological device can record every aspect of someone’s experience from their cerebral cortex onto – essentially – a minidisc. This experience can then be played back as if it were your own. The inverse of a panopticon – you are not looking at everyone else, everyone else is being you.

The future is set in is the year 1999 – and the CLARIFY “clips” look eerily like Google Glass’s press images run through a cyberpunk dystopia filter. Fiennes, playing the shady dealer of black-market clips, is clear about his role: “I’m your priest, your shrink, your main connection to the switchboard of the soul” – but the film’s clear in it’s message. Revelation isn’t redemption. Our best instincts are shadowed by our most brutal ones – technology doesn’t create these instincts, but it can amplify them.

Picking up the theme of deadening conscience, one of the other characters laments, “You know how I know it’s the end of the world? Cause everything’s already been done”. The next line ought to be: and we can play it back whenever we want.

The New Aesthetic is grappling with many different ideas – but, for my money, the thread than runs through them all is this: what does it mean to be human in a world of proliferating images and perspectives? Especially when many of those perspectives are outside of ourselves; machine-readable, computer-generated, photoshopped, digitally rendered, satellite-captured and processed. The strangeness of seeing ourselves and our world like this makes our own way of seeing strange. We are changed by the machine-gaze – but all that really tells us is how changeable we are. We are constantly remaking ourselves and our identities, only now we have digital records. Facebook is a hundred million teen-movie makeover sequences all compressed.

With technology allowing us to look at our digital reflections and shadows from the outside, aren’t we (re)possessing ourselves? It isn’t just Paris Hilton who’s a brand anymore. We are too, every day, on our social media platforms.

We can play with each other like games, first person perspectives as far as the eye can see.

Who watches the watchers? That question is obsolete. We do. All the time.