Savvy subjects or MTV dupes?: Watching the watcher watch my underwear drawer

I wasn’t going to write about surveillance this week, but sometimes a well written piece about MTV’s reality TV programming is exactly what it takes to get the intellectual juices flowing. In all honesty, Mark Andrejevic’s pop culture examples are quite an effective way of illustrating the contemporary “culture of detection” he discusses (214). Room Raiders fulfils the two criteria that Andrejevic argues make current lateral surveillance different from traditional, communal forms of peer-to-peer surveillance, a privileging of self-observed information (“my eyes” are better than “your words”) and increasing access to technologies that enable “expert” snooping by individuals (217-219, 231).

Emphasising the lateral part of contemporary surveillance, Andrejevic notes that the room raider’s “gaze is redoubled” by the “abductees”, making the “searcher’s” hunt for information both practical and performative (234). Andrejevic continuously gestures towards it but I feel it needs to be plainly stated: in a co-veillance culture in which we allow ourselves to be surveilled “because the watched are also doing the watching”, the distinction between watcher and watched collapses (239).

This is where I feel the Room Raiders comparison can be extended. At least in early episodes like the one above, the abductees not only watch the searcher on screens in the panel van, but also raid the searcher’s room, allowing them to go through the same process of assessment as the searcher. I feel that it is this aspect of the programme that best mirrors how technology can put individuals on equal footing when it comes to surveillance. Everyone’s being watched, but everyone’s a searcher too.

There are a couple of things Andredjevic fails to address in this chapter. Even if submit ourselves to lateral surveillance, are there moment when it doesn’t sit comfortably with us? We’ve already talked about this in class in relation to Facebook, when it feels weird to have someone comment on a month-old thread, watching when we didn’t expect them to be. Moreover, how do we know we’re getting the full picture when we watch? “Truthfully he’s not my type […] I strictly like Asians,” admits the “winner” at the end of the Room Raiders episode; clearly the supposedly “savvy subject” of co-veillance culture can still end up a dupe (239).

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