The Medium is the Message and the Message is Voyeurism (1994)

by R.U. Sirius & St. Jude (Wired magazine, 1994)

She’s permed, chubby, hose ‘n’ heels… Mom. She stands up when Phil or Sally Jessy or Oprah aims the microphone. Her voice rises. Her face tumesces. She’s outraged by somebody’s sexual behavior. Oprah’s eyes register $$ – the big score. This is the very essence of daytime talk TV.

In fact, this G-rated money shot is set up for you many times every single weekday. It works like this: The sacrificial “guest” is somehow off-center – not quite your married missionary heterosexual. The host announces the deviant’s category – say, “Men Who Love Shoes Too Much” – then turns to the camera and wonders gravely about this group’s impact on society, arming the audience for attack. Then audience and guest have it out over whether or not the guest should exist. After an hour, the shoefucker is led off, back to the Green Room, bleeding profusely. Then everyone is thanked. Commercials play. Credits roll. I imagine cigarettes being lit all around by audience, guest, and host – as most shows seem to build, then climax.

The ritual being observed here on talk television, and on television at large, is a mapping of classic small-town dynamics onto the media global village. Remember the small town – that tiny-minded, busy-bodied, bully-fisted little burg? No you don’t, because your grandpappy scraped it off his shoes in ought-six so he could get himself a life.

In this century the urban drift became a stampede. Why? The bright lights were calling, but your ancestors and mine were ejected out of Hickwad by the peer pressure.

I Get to Be Me 

Now, in the TV global village, rites based on small-town traditions like “conform-or-die,” “shut-up-and-take-it,” and “you’ll-braise-in-eternal-torment” are being celebrated just like in the old days. Now the targets offer themselves freely, cheerful as volcano virgins, because these bad boys and girls – criminals, perverts, or cultural dissidents – are working for their camera time.

Camera time is the irresistible bait of a media culture. The victims get to be themselves, get to flaunt being themselves – can even try to make converts, before the little red light goes out. After the hatefest, lighting up, the armchair lynchmob can catch the cleanup actions: see the arrests on Fox’s Cops, follow the trial on Court TV and get the smirking denouement on A Current Affair.

The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilantes

The operant assumption in these programs is that the media consumers – yeah, we, The People – not only have a right, but a duty to conjure up, maybe even act upon, an opinion about the private behaviors of others. Bring along the rope, Fred. This judgmental mandate is politicized by its daytime-after-daytime repetition. The mode is happily adopted by The People’s government, which increasingly takes upon itself micromanagement of The People’s lives, down to the level of their amino acids.

Democratization through media is a savage process. Early idealists extrapolated from meetings in the village square, so teledemocracy meant arguments were presented and decisions evolved, presumably in a respectful silence. But in the televisual medium, “man”-at-a-distance is busy filling 500 channels with stuff, bidding for the precious attention of the media consumers.

The new technologies seem to dictate that the pyramid structure of communications will continue to flatten out, that the metalogue of information, ideas, and images won’t just come from a handful of media executives and advertisers. Cool, but as more and more people get a voice, a voice needs a special stridency to be heard above the din. “Excite or get lost” is the message of the medium. Mob action is the sleaziest and the easiest for stirring people up. Hey, rather see a video of some people being tolerant?

On the street, people tolerate diversity because they have to – you’ll get from here to there if you don’t get in anybody’s face. But the new media environment is always urging you to mock up an instant opinion about The Other and register that judgment, however harsh or insulting, with no concern about consequences. You can be part of the biggest mob in history. Atavistic fun, guys. Pile on!

Voyeur Pleasure 

Another small-town archetype, the village Peeping Tom, is still a-creepin.’ With video technology getting us an ever-clearer view of the action, and stations like CNN and C-SPAN providing unedited feeds, the voyeuristic experience crystallizes. A few nights ago I sat for two hours watching the war between Yeltsin and the Russian legislature. Smoking a joint and eating a piece of cheesecake, I was in CNN’s hotel room across the street from the action, watching both sides in what looked to me like a game of capture the flag.

The players, of course, didn’t have my vantage. Down there at ground level, an individual, real, human soldier ducked behind trees and other protective objects, but remained vulnerable to the camera, even to intimate close-ups of his face…visible to me in my living room in Berkeley, California. I got the full hit of the doubleness of televisual living: being at once integrated into what the “magic of television” makes so completely present to me, while demonstrating to me every moment that I am completely abstracted from it. I spy.

Lords of All We Surveil 

Caught in the Act, a new program, organizes itself around surveillance. In one sequence, the hidden camera (that quiddity of television, from the perverse Candid Camera to the self-righteous 60 Minutes) catches a woman pitching her rip-off modeling agency. The pitchee is being guaranteed a modeling gig, although three years in the business hasn’t produced job one. We surveil the progress of the scam, lingering over the victim’s not quite prime-time body surfaces.

Television is by nature a medium for surveillance. The televisual promise has always been that the all-seeing eye would bring us the world as it is, and bring us to the world. All of us would be caught in the act. And so we are. That brief period in which television imitated its preceding media – film and stage – the era in which the artifice of “programming” dominated the medium, is giving way to this: Caught in the Act cuts to an armed robbery in a quick-service store, which climaxes in a murder.

One can’t help looking forward to the 7-11 Channel, with home shopping opportunities interrupted by live-feed robberies. We can see the arrival of the police, watch them do their gun things and shout the ritual words – “Freeze” – and go through their muscular cop routines as we observe the robbers’ terror, the hostages’ poignant last moments. Would dedicated armed robbers avoid the stores that participate in this programming? Wouldn’t they drive halfway across the state to make their debuts – maybe whipping up costumes, snappy dialogue, pornographic stunts – for a moment of stardom?

The surveillance camera is a defensive weapon for the small shop owner and the neighborhood crime watch. It was the weapon of the oppressed in the Rodney King beating and it has, of course, continuously brought us new views into the mysteries of riot, starvation, and war.

On C-SPAN, we even get intimations of that ol’ teledemocracy, as we peep at our Congress in action, along with selected short alternatives: conferences and presentations from the Libertarian Party or the Black African Congress or the American Lawyers Association. Nevertheless I’m still waiting to see any truly countercultural, unconventional conventions on C-SPAN. I want my teledemocracy.

Sub- and Sur-realisms 

Let’s consider the village gossip: creative reporting. Okay, now we’re forced to talk about faux realism. The press has gone wild over the docu-this, the info-that, the headline story re-enactments. The happiest moment for infodocunews was when the big three networks showed the same Movie of the Week, same movie, same week: three versions of the Amy Fisher “tragedy.”

There is TV about TV. The Larry Sanders Show – HBO’s brilliant “behind-the-scenes” deconstruction of the talk show – and MTV’s atrocious Real Life. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Beavis and Butt-head, we can watch comedians, aliens, and even cartoons…watching TV.

Mom ‘n’ Pop Stars 

Ex-hicks, for their hit of indecency and outrage, have always relied on the urban gossip feed, the weekly tabloids. TV is only now getting into the market.

America’s Most Wanted is simultaneously the predicted bogey of many sci-fi stories – the show with the armed vigilante audience – and a flashback to the old Western, wherein the townfolks were deputized and sent out to capture the bad guy. Caught In the Act goes the next step, to gathering evidence. The muckraking 60 Minutes has been joined by ever more venal prosecutors and persecutors until… Dateline NBC checks in, smudging forever the line between investigative and tabloid journalism. Court TV brings you the real-life adventure of people losing freedom. Hey: I’ve recently been enjoying the slow roast of those accused Mom ‘n’ Pop killers, the Mendendez brothers. Last week I was engaged by the pathos of sweet Mansonite Patricia Krenwinkles’s plea for parole.

O Garbage Dump 

I also caught Mr. Manson himself. Street smart enough to know he’ll never get parole, Manson played with the camera, commenting lucidly on the perversity of the situation and seizing the opportunity to pitch his ideology to the viewers.

With his opposite numbers there’s no such insight. On Fox’s Cops we can watch real-life macho bullies kick in doors and shove guns and cameras into the surprised faces of poor people of color involved in the consensual act of trading drugs for money. In a recent episode a poor black family is busted for a few vials of crack and a woman cop talks about how sorry she feels for the scared children. Unlike Manson, she notices no twistiness as she talks to the same Fox cameras that just fed the kids’ childhood traumas to a huge audience.

The Village Flashers 

The intimate invasion of people’s lives and psyches is itself, of course, often a consensual act. Why do people give their all to the camera?

There is the reality of attention economics. In a post-industrial, information / communication  / entertainment society, many livelihoods depend upon one’s being a barker, pitching a particular packet of info-perception to potential customers.

One of the great ironies of information economics is that while information can be trivially copied and the information bandwidth continues to widen, the individual’s attention bandwidth is as narrow as ever. In information economics, post-scarcity reaches its reduction ad absurdum.

And also, who can evade the photo opportunity? The media’s chops are, like the Jaws of Hell, gaping everywhere. On a day when nothing happens, are they gonna cancel the Six O’Clock News? Fool: It’s time for Neighborhood Close-up, with your very own neighbors.

Village Idiocy, or Bright Lights, Big Planet 

But of all the motives for self-exhibition the most persuasive may be the simplest: the desire to loiter in the global village square murmuring, “Hello. Have a look inside. This is who I am.” We’re social creatures, after all, and prone to hunger for some acknowledgement of our existence from our fellow villagers. In a culture in which so many are acknowledged by the media through sheer volume of opportunity, not getting your fifteen minutes makes you feel pale, insubstantial… disappeared.

Finally, as John Barlow and others have suggested, maybe there’s some evolutionary force pushing us towards a complete exteriorization of our individual psychic landscapes, a mutual exposure. Clearly we are wiring ourselves in, each to the other. We seem to be creating through media and communications technology what some have called a species-wide nervous system.

Even if looking at the massive media drains any hope that some literacy or rationality will also endure, remember that the mass value system has come around to supporting hipness. There we may have the thin wedge for some higher level, like they say, discourse: Big planet behavior may be about to drop into our hands. Too bad we’re still toting the baggage from the burg we just left.




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