In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx outlined his theory of alienation. Under capitalism, the human subject enters not only a relationship of economic exploitation but also, in a sense, an existential problem. Within capitalism, not only is your time and energy no longer your own, the worker ends up no longer able to see themselves in the things they produce or feel any meaningful connection with those with whom they work. We are, to use Marx’s term, alienated from our work – self becomes something other when you step into your place of employment. Increasingly, your boss doesn’t just want your labour either – they want you to smile a certain way, talk a certain way, behave a certain way. In short, your boss wants you to want to be there. It gets to the point that when you are at home you aren’t at work and when at work you are never at home. The growth and expansion of capitalism is coupled with a whole host of sophisticated mechanisms, of techniques for control, observation and, if necessary, discipline.
But you know this already, don’t you? We’re watched and surveilled at work, and increasingly everywhere else too. Targeted adverts, location tracking, apps that continuously record where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with and what you want. We’ve invited them in too, they aren’t intrusive, they aren’t watching or listening to anything we don’t want them to see or hear.
Who knows, there might even be someone watching you through your webcam…
We’ve known for a while right – for at least most of the century that the government was watching us, desperately suspicious of our potential criminality. The internet hasn’t just been a boon to advertisers but has been a way for governments to know just who is a potential troublemaker and who can be safely ignored.
That’s part of the reason why this new meme featuring the FBI watching you from your computer is so fascinating – its an explicit combination of both the disciplinary powers of the contemporary state meeting the pastoral power of biopolitics meeting the existential anxiety of alienation under modern capitalism all filtered through social media performativity.
Now, no longer are we watched over by faceless government forces, but it’s Gerald. The one who wants you to get more sleep, the agent who agrees that yes, he is acting strangely, the one who listens, so proud of you, when you sing in the shower.
It’s Das Leben der Anderen but directed by Miranda July.
Here’s an old joke (from Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle): a hotel room for four, filled by four strangers. One just wants to get some sleep, but the others get drunk, singing, telling political jokes and so on. Eventually, the man goes down to the concierge desk and asks if in about five minutes or so they might bring some tea to room 57. He goes back to the room, wanders over to the ashtray and says into it, ‘Comrade Major, some tea please.’ Five minutes later, there’s a knock at the door and the tea lady arrives. The party dies down and the man is able to get to sleep. In the morning, he wakes up alone. He runs downstairs, and the concierge tells him the three others were all arrested by the KGB. ‘What about me?’ asks the terrified man. ‘Oh, they decided to let you go. Comrade Major loved that tea gag.’
There are some parallels here between the old jokes of Soviet observation and the FBI is watching us all memes obviously, but what is striking here is the way in which things have become differentiated. Here the state watching us is no longer the one which will drag us away but is a new ironically reassuring parental figure – the FBI jokes work on this tacit acknowledgment that millennial era narcissism (real or imagined) and invasive state surveillance now mutually satisfy one another. Over at Dazed a few days ago they ran a piece examining the meme, arguing it showed the level to which awareness about digital privacy is becoming a youth concern, especially in the wake of the end of net neutrality.
That the dystopian element of ubiquitous surveillance is now a fact of everyday life certainly seems true, but there is an element to which I think the piece misses something, and which the jokes seem designed to obscure. It’s almost a sad truth that whilst we make all these jokes about someone, somewhere watching us, no-one is. The vast majority of us, to the extent to which we are observed, are not watched as people, by people. Rather, we are watched as data – abstract numbers and patterns on a screen, vainly hoping that someone, somewhere out in the vast emptiness of digital space through which we move, might consider us paying attention to. How alienated are we? We’re so alienated we can’t even get the FBI to watch us personally anymore. At least we’ve still got the memes though.