Self-Surveillance in the Internet Age


Hilma af Klint, Birch, 1922.

Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.
The Departure of the Train, Clarice Lispector

For those who want to escape their own subjectivity, the Internet should be a Utopian playground. But unlike in Tim Berners-Lee’s original mind-expanding conception of the World Wide Web, our experience is increasingly personalized. The “real” world narrows to fit the picture of us the Internet has, based on fragments of ourselves we’ve shed (often unknowingly) online like trails of dust, dead skin, and hair. According to the Internet’s idea of me, right now all I care about is pregnancy (avoiding or enabling) and superabsorbent period underwear.

The events of 2016 revealed that this was not quite so benign as might have been thought. Once it seemed a way to control and tailor our otherwise unpredictable environment, to make life convenient and coherent and put ourselves ever more firmly at the center of that story. But constant surveillance is both exposure and confinement, not least because online we are corralled into groups whose way of thinking and points of reference mirror our own, and we encounter fewer and fewer instances when we are forced to confront this.

This creeping feeling of being observed, followed, recorded, predicted was what inspired me to write my first novel. The protagonist lacks an identity except that which she siphons from the woman she stalks online. This becomes the picture of her the Internet has, drawn from her activity. Her own outline is fluid, more like a sparse marketing demographic than the characterization we might recognize from a nineteenth-century novel. The paranoia-inducing relationship at the book’s center is not just about what an Internet connection does to human connections, nor our relationship with our various online selves. It also explores the Internet’s addictive but invasive relationship to us, its users, whereby our life stories become content that is bought and sold—not so very different from those in a publishing marketplace, except that we have less control and are less aware of the ways we are manipulated. 

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As with all new forms of technology, the novel—an early empathy-inducing device—once generated huge amounts of anxiety, the fear largely being that weak, overly imaginative—or perhaps overly literal—female readers would be seduced into impurity or dangerous sympathy with flawed characters. At the same time, a comparable anxiety was roused by the multicultural city. Edith Wharton’s New York feared waves of migrants coming together inside the first apartment buildings, hotels, and tenements for the same reasons: proximity to strangers can shape identity in ways we cannot control. As lives rub up against one another, we are forced to confront strangeness and unpredictability.

As in the EU project, some see such merging as a threat, a compromise or dilution of some singular essential truth of who we are. This concept of identity does not recognize the fluidity of the Zinneke Pis. A mutable sense of self that does not require a person to be fixed.

The Internet has irrevocably changed how a person can be. It makes us all strays, and yet its users seem increasingly territorial. Entrenched in the emotional security of what we already believe, thanks to smartphones we can discover anything instantly and simultaneously draw a veil.

With such technology, anxious people can wield greater control over their environment and interactions—or it seems that way at first. As Marshall McLuhan is often credited with observing: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Sometimes mine appear to have broken me down into a chaotic jumble of fragments.

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Remember Bebo? It’s a blur, but like most sixth formers in 2006, I had it. Then, on joining Facebook, I gave it up. A friend called some months later to tell me an impersonator had taken all my information there—photos, captions, every answer to every Bebo quiz (What’s on your mind right NOW? Have you ever thrown up in public?), and my selected “top friends” and massaged it all into something almost exactly the same, but not quite. Looking at the composite digital reflection of my former self was not unlike seeing a stranger’s face in my bathroom mirror.

The usurper appeared to be manifesting a life of their own online using recycled material, rather than just impersonating me. To be honest, it was unclear what they were trying to do with this appropriation or why. The manipulations weren’t overtly malign, more like a passerby had observed the contents of a home and evidence of its occupier’s private life left in a skip and assumed it was all up for grabs, recovering an armchair here, reframing a painting there. I say that now. No serious ill befell me. We are now inured to these casual online invasions and have sanctioned a voyeurism previously unthinkable, but at the time it was uncanny—a psychic violation. As Susan Sontag presciently writes of photography, long before the dawn of social media: “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

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The idea of multiple identities is one we have learned to recoil from, savoring as it does of insanity, but it is where a writer’s mind meets readers, through the screen of the page. “We are a crowd of others,” Elena Ferrante writes, “and this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.”

While in real life we may be fearful of otherness, of a stranger’s perceived threat to our identity, in fiction, where we believe ourselves to be in the realm of fantasy, we are usually quite happy to enter the mind of someone else or allow an author to take the controls.

Male readers, however, often seem to balk at the prospect of entering the mind of a female protagonist. When novelists were almost exclusively men, it was volatile female readers who weren’t trusted. Now, encountering the female I, especially one wielded by a female author, readers brace for emotional incontinence. It is a narrative perspective that still suggests domesticity rather than adventures into public life—overanxious interiority and altered perception. It’s as if such a perspective will forever be associated with “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Women, by contrast, are conditioned to accept a male narrator at the controls and to accept male intrusion and colonization of their minds. The skin barrier is one that the white male canon and its readers have historically had little (and, as Claudia Rankine points out, often too little) interest in. The assumption is that white men have a monopoly on a universal human condition.

My friends suspected the Bebo puppeteer was a man. It didn’t occur to me at the tender age of seventeen (before we’d put a name to catfishing), but probably they used it to pose as a young woman, and I was merely a means to another end.

Back then, I still had a fairly robust border between my online and IRL selves. Further into the digital age, that border seems irrelevant. But the memory lingers. I think of it when I see unsuspecting people become the subject of memes, their image put before a global audience. Kalin Elisa is the source of the squat-and-squint meme—a woman who appears to be scrutinizing something very closely. In interviews that identify her as the origin, Elisa seems happy that the image has gone viral, her likeness applied to everything from MAGA hat sightings to the #MeToo movement, but she’s complained wryly that on Tinder, men recognize her, then assume she’s catfishing them. Thanks to the proliferating images of her, captioned with whatever text seems appropriate, the real her is presumed to be a fake.

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Ferrante uses the word anxiety frequently in her early interviews. More illuminating is the word she inherited in dialect from her mother: frantumaglia. In the book of the same name, which gathers a selection of her interviews and letters, she gives numerous detailed descriptions of the word. “The frantumaglia is the part of us that escapes any reduction to words or other shapes, and that in moments of crisis dissolves the entire order within which it seemed to us we were stably inserted.” Its symptoms are tears, exhaustion, headache, nausea, waves of panic. Ferrante’s mother used it to describe how she felt when “racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.” “Inside her,” she’d say, “she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments.”

With coherence, Clarice Lispector writes, we cannot be whole. This seems obvious when applied to women—whether diagnosed with hysteria (the wandering womb) or impregnated, women are associated with multiplicity—often duplicity and manipulation, too. Traditional notions of masculinity instead rest on being “single minded.” The symbolic gender sign for men is the spear, rather than the female (multiplying) mirror. Limiting the diversity of voices (that one is exposed to, in the mind, and in the nuance of emotion) is deeply ingrained in patriarchal narratives.

A spear flies outward from the self. The thrower looks to the horizon. Looking too deeply into the mirror was the end for Narcissus. Self-exploration is the dangerous (and therefore maligned) practice of women.

As a writer who has devoted herself to the inner lives of women, Ferrante offers a positive literary interpretation of such inward exploration—facing fears of incoherence—in line with Erykah Badu’s lyric: “Search inside me/ Searching inside of you … I stay woke.” This is often credited as the origin of the phrase that has become the rallying cry to remain politically and socially vigilant, now so routinely and unthinkingly co-opted.

Of her characters Delia and Olga, Ferrante writes that they are women who practice a conscious surveillance on themselves.

Women of the preceding generations were watched over closely … but they did not watch over themselves, or if they did, they did so in imitation of their watchers, like jailers of themselves … The word “surveillance” has been badly tarnished by police use, but it’s not an ugly word. It contains the opposite of the body dulled by sleep, a metaphor counter to opacity, to death. Instead, it displays … an eagerness for feeling alive. Men have transformed surveillance into a sentinel’s activity, a jailer’s, a spy’s. [It is] more an emotional tendency of the whole body … I’m very attached to forceful women who practice surveillance … I feel that they are the heroines of our time.

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One of the huge positives of the Internet is all the (anxious) women who go there to practice this form of vigilance and self-surveillance, as well as the communities of strangers, strays, and outsiders that grow from this. From Polly Nor to Audrey Wollen, the Internet has given a public platform for women to communicate, analyze, and explore, to depict diverse representations of female bodies, to talk openly about their mental health and the more contradictory elements of being female than commercial feminism allows.

Wollen is the woman behind Sad Girl Theory, which reframes symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as tears, not as passive but as powerful acts of resistance. The point is that female pain, or “feminine” subjectivity, should not be denied by self-identified contemporary feminists in the name of empowerment if empowerment means feeling estranged from yourself and spending one’s whole time trying to evade misogynistic clichés. Women should be able to define themselves on their own terms, without worrying about how emotional or volatile they appear and whether this bolsters the patriarchy.

Tears have been considered symptoms of femininity for centuries, and spending energy trying to disprove the association only ends up harming us more when sadness is a legitimate reaction to a world that makes us sad. To pretend otherwise is to falsify your own reality. The same could be said for toxic notions of masculinity, whereby any male association with “female” subjectivity (vulnerability, openness, the confessional) is seen as corrosive rather than liberating, meaning that it is less stigmatizing for men to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol than be seen to examine or express themselves in a so-called feminine way.

Despite her huge following online, in 2016, Wollen suspended her Instagram account. In a caption dated May 10, she wrote:

I have decided to take a hiatus from social media ~~ i’ve grown increasingly unsettled and at times deeply hurt by the climate of online feminism and my own position w/ in it. i worry my ideas are eclipsed by my identity as an “instagram girl” and i watch as ppl whose work i really respect write me off and ppl whose work i don’t respect cite me as inspiration. “sad girl theory” is often understood as its most reductive, instead of as a proposal to open up more spacious discussions abt what activism could look like. my internet presence has been the best and worst thing in my life, and i owe it so much (so many friends! so much knowledge! so much solidarity and hope!!!) and i also find myself afraid of it, afraid of fucking up, afraid of being misunderstood, afraid of trusting ppl. that fear is toxic and stops me from writing/making the work i need to make.

In encouraging an unbounded, porous sense of self, women are arguably liberated, yet lack of bordered individuality has enabled less positive changes: greater intrusion, greater anxiety, a transformation of internal surveillance from something that celebrates transparency and resists systems of control to something that serves the opaque, often highly patriarchal interests of majority-male tech firms and their advertisers.

Women are exploited and made afraid by these “empowering” platforms. Corporations grow richer and more powerful through such self-scrutiny and the data it generates. It’s only a matter of time before I buy those period pants. This is the double bind of living in a body under surveillance—it’s imprisoning, but it provides the opportunity to practice the type of self-surveillance Ferrante prizes for making us feel, however uncomfortably, truly alive.

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Thomas More’s Utopia, in 1516, was taken from the Greek. It means “no place.” The Internet has delivered in one sense: transcendence of the physical. But the same tools that enable freedom of expression, openness, and connection may now make us feel simultaneously persecuted, isolated, and afraid.

Sam Gosling argues neuroticism is the personality trait for our times, when party ties are weak and populism is on the rise. He sees the perceived threat to group identity as driving identity politics. During the EU referendum in the UK, while the Remain campaign was accused of running Project Fear, Leave’s campaign was able to use psychographic microtargeting to assess who might be more fearful, whose identity might be threatened by a crowd of people unlike them, and expose them to messaging intended to trigger such fear.

I find the experience increasingly paradoxical. Virtual public spaces (something of an oxymoron since even on the dark Web, these are privately owned) increasingly entrench difference and shut down meaningful exchange. Trolls use the screen as a protective barrier. Many writers (overwhelmingly women) have spoken of the muzzling effect of public discourse online. While resisting those who would harass, stalk, and have our voices erased, we have to fight private companies to maintain autonomy—the right to privacy, the right to be left alone, the right to be erased.

Zadie Smith is one who believes online exposure would have a detrimental impact on her and also on her work. Smith tells Jia Tolentino that avoiding Twitter and Instagram protects her “right to be wrong,” which would otherwise be inhibited by public reaction in real time. She calls such “mistakes” her novels. Her resistance is mild compared to Ferrante, who began writing long before digital saturation. Both are defensive, not passive, positions. Ferrante still writes, still publishes under a pseudonym. Smith’s stance could be misunderstood from a headline but is the opposite of giving in to anxiety: avoiding exposure in order to embrace uncertainty.

I think of this when I’m on the rat wheel of my insomnia and decide, in order to dull vigilance so as to finally fall asleep, it would be better not to write anymore—certainly if writing means publishing. But eliminating anxiety, as in the case of memory reconsolidation, would to me be dystopian, a limit to the emotional range of what it means to be among the living.

I am, however, sorely tempted in both rational and anxious moods to resist participating online in as many ways as possible. Yet I think that, too, would be simplistic, both in practical terms and anxiety-wise: the triggers that exist online or in publishing exist in real life and elsewhere. Avoidance is what leads to anxious people never leaving their house—or even a single room.

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It would seem the only way to hold on to what is ours, if we insist on autonomy, is to stay within the body’s natural barrier: our own skin. But I wonder how feasible that is now. As Zadie Smith, reviewing Get Out, writes: “We have been warned not to get under one another’s skin, to keep our distance. But Jordan Peele’s horror-fantasy—in which we are inside one another’s skin and intimately involved in one another’s suffering—is neither a horror nor a fantasy. It is a fact of our experience.” Short of casting away to a desert island, one could quit all social media, cease reading all contaminant novels, avoid terrorist hot spots, pay cash, and stop using a phone. But that’s hardly a solution if we want to remain part of society rather than be marooned in a lonely skin sack.

We could also rethink the way we conceptualize public and private, self and other, as every era requires. Olivia Laing wonders whether we might not be “as solid” as we once thought. Such a shift may mean relinquishing our desire for individual control, but Laing wonders if “a belief in solid, separate selves” may now be “hopelessly outmoded” anyway. We are “embodied” but are also “networks,” “living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams.” This does not make her entirely comfortable: “We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid.” But she also notes that feeling and exposing ourselves to such vulnerability means that intimacy “still stands a chance.”

It’s also a lived experience where men, unused to such conditions, may have something to learn from female subjectivity.

 

Olivia Sudjic is a writer living in London. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Sunday Times. Her debut novel, Sympathy, has been translated into five languages and was a finalist for the Salerno European Book Award and the Collyer Bristow Prize.

Excerpted from Exposure, by Olivia Sudjic, published by Peninsula Press, a UK-based publisher of essays and fiction.

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