“Made You Look!”: The Public Desire for Privacy in the Age of Global Capital

By Simon Orpana

Half of the time we’re gone, but we don’t know where.
-Simon and Garfunkel

 The other day I was on a crowded bus where I couldn’t help but overhear a young woman talking to her boyfriend. She was complaining that, sometimes while texting her friends on the street, strangers would look over her shoulder to try to see what she was writing. “It’s so disgusting,” she said. “I mean, give me some privacy!”

The bus was going from Toronto to Hamilton, a ride of approximately forty-five minutes. I was in an aisle seat, and the woman and her boyfriend were standing directly over me, holding the top of my chair’s headrest and practically talking in my ear for most of the trip. Even though the Hamilton express runs every half hour in the evenings, it can often be quite crowded, and the policy of the bus company is to let people stand in the aisle when all the seats are full. On this particular run, the whole length of the bus was crowded with passengers forced to stand for the entire trip; one could barely move to scratch one’s head without elbowing someone in the gut.

Perhaps due to our close vicinity, the woman’s comment about privacy struck me as particularly odd. Granted, spying on someone’s text messages is creepy, all the more so when there are overtones of unwanted sexual attention. At the same time, when sharing close quarters with strangers, it is sometimes hard not to glance at someone’s text message, at least for that first, almost habitual moment when one’s eye is caught by the words and the brain automatically begins to register their meaning. How many telephone conversations are we exposed to in public places, where we end up knowing more than we wanted about our temporary neighbour in a bank queue or subway? The idea that one should expect this kind of privacy in public spaces reminded me of a cartoon I had drawn over twenty years earlier for my hometown newspaper. It pictured a homeless man seated on the curb, an open-air public telephone behind him with the receiver dangling toward the ground. The caption read, “Gil wanted some privacy, so he took the phone off the hook.” I was proud of that cartoon, which I had silkscreened on some t-shirts. The joke pivots on the incongruity of devices normally used in private being located in public spaces, as well as the sad reality of homeless people being able to find only fleeting and fragile moments of privacy. By combining incongruity with issues of social standing, or what is called superiority theories of humour, the gag was hit. But it was effective, as well, for touching upon the themes of privacy and status, issues that are central to the formation of subjectivity in our contemporary, urban culture.

The idea that the public space of cities should offer some degree of privacy, or at least anonymity, is a particularly modern one, dating from the industrial revolution and the massive influx of workers from the countryside to the metropole. Add to this congregation people displaced by political upheaval and increasing immigration in the twentieth century, and the streets of large urban centres have become bustling rivers of strangers, a stream of humanity in which one can easily lose oneself. In such circumstances, new social codes develop that allow us to navigate the hurly-burly of city life while still maintaining a modicum of dignity: the newspaper read on a crowded subway becomes a tent behind which one retreats on the way to work; one quickly stops making eye contact with passing strangers, and instead looks through people; a code of polite indifference attempts to preserve a thin envelope of personal space, even amidst thick crowds. The homeless and panhandlers breach this envelope with their demands for coinage or recognition, and the latter is often offered up to avoid the inconvenience of the former. Advertisements, using strategies ranging from opulence to abjection, saturate public space in a manner that pushes the elasticity of attention to the breaking point, stubbornly continuing their petitions even when we have become numb to them. The car is promoted as a kind of exoskeleton, one’s own private bubble of comfort from which to enjoy the lengthening traffic jam. Even at the incubators called universities, flatscreen televisions “infotain” students stuck in administrative line-ups, ensuring that the boredom of the queue is framed by several, simultaneous panels and scrolling news feeds promoting institutional accomplishments. In the midst of all this, the complaint of the woman stuck standing the bus seems warranted. What does it take to get a little privacy around here?

However, behind this assertion of personal boundaries lurks a contradiction whereby modern, urban social space is so structured that we simultaneously demand privacy and attention, anonymity and recognition. Hip urbanites wade into the sidewalk crowd brandishing carefully chosen t-shirt slogans, a calculated display of the bearer’s exquisitely ironic navigation of the mass cultural glut of signification. Tattoo tendrils curl up necks, down forearms and across cleavages, turning the body into a building where nobody will paint over your personal graffiti tag with pedestrian grey. Skateboarders perform street acrobatics, broadcasting themselves through the city on a urethane bandwidth that says both “look at me!” and “get out of my way!” For the less torturously self-fashioning, designer clothes, vehicles and shoes bluntly signify status, substituting personalized artistry for more generic, over-the-counter varieties. But from the subcultural ghettos to the overpriced eateries of the financial district, the game of distinction remains the same, though the particular rules and codes vary.

So what are we to make of this private demand for public-recognition-at-a-distance? At first glance, we might see in these postures a response to the depersonalizing tendencies of modern urban reality, where the rise of mass forms of communication and culture threaten to drown individuals in a tsunami of signification, and where the circuit of meaning production between medium and message seems to leave no room simply for “me.” The gambit here becomes finding ways to express one’s unique perspective while using the same forms of mass signification that threaten to erase individuality, and the operant tactics are appropriation, repurposing and piracy. Indeed, these are central tactics of art production in general, but they are also the means by which merchandisers and advertisers look for new ways to turn a profit, advertising being, as Raymond Williams pointed out, the major art form of our time. We thus find ourselves in a sticky situation: whereas making one’s life into a work of art could still seem an elite project to Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century, it has now become the dominant mode by which the current form of capitalism generates profits in the affluent First World. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, First World economies have made a shift from commodity production as the cultural dominant to the “immaterial production” of whole ways of life. Lucrative industries such as marketing and entertainment now focus on the ideas associated with a product, while the various hard goods that furnish our cultural doll’s house are made on the cheap in the “developing” nations.

What we might call biopolitical capitalism thus works in different registers in different parts of the globe, but the orchestrated system has the effect of managing whole populations in a manner that best suits the needs of a shifting constellation of corporate interests to generate fantastic profits, usually to the ultimate detriment of the populations they pretend to benefit. In the relatively prosperous West, this is now done by propagating a culture of the mass individual, a paradox succinctly described by Hal Niedzviecki in his book Hello I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity (City Light Books, 2006). The book’s cover photo focuses upon a generic name-tag sticker affixed to a blazer, the typeset “Hello I’m” box completed with the hand written moniker “Special” below. Niedzviecki critiques a contemporary, participatory, DYI culture that promises to distinguish subjects from the passive, mass spectator theorized by advertisers and cultural critics alike, while actually delivering conformity: each to his or her own commoditized lifestyle niche. A convenient, perhaps almost outworn metaphor for this situation is provided by the Matrix series of films, in which we discover the human race imprisoned in compartmentalized, womb-like sacs by a race of evil machines, each person dreaming him or herself the hero in some computer-generated illusion.

The Wachowski brothers’ films reflect our condition only up to a point. In real life, hiding behind the technologies and narratives that subjectify us are global circuits of capital, a system of highly adaptable and mobile digital finance that pretends to abstractly represent the world while actually constructing and managing what we deem to be possible, necessary and desirable. The Economy—that historically specific, socially-constructed metaphor masquerading as objective, natural reality—and not some evil computer, is the true demiurge and jailor of our contemporary selves. To this extent, the technologies and media that often get mistaken for the causes of our predicament are really symptomatic or fetishistic responses to the crises instigated by global capital. Daily we plug into our iPods and cell phones, hoping to insulate and inoculate ourselves from the political and ecological calamities whose evidence is mounting around us in everything from unusual weather patterns, to increasing precarious employment options, to overcrowded transit conditions, but over which we seem to have very little control. Our reflexive responses to the hegemonic operations of capital remain symptomatic insofar as they imitate the abstract and global level at which digital finance operates, asserting forms of social connectivity in a way that promises us agency and freedom while allowing the economic structures that determine us to remain obscure and unchecked.

In this context, a young woman’s cry on a crowded bus for privacy while she texts her friends takes on added shades of meaning. The act of texting is a public display of privacy, a signal to the world of anonymous strangers that a person is “plugged in” to a network of sociality that transcends whatever unpleasant circumstances everyday life might throw at us. The now common figure of the “text zombie”—the pedestrian peering into his or her portable device, only half attending to the demands of real-world navigation—signals a retreat to a dislocated elsewhere, an attempted escape from the traumatic conditions, ranging from boredom to steady-state background anxiety, of the immediate environment. Texting in public signals inclusion. We are both “tight” with our tribe of chosen intimates, and integrated into a larger culture whose dominant metaphor of belonging is no longer the print culture of newspapers buttressing the institution of the nation state, but a globalized network that finds arch expression in the idea of the internet. The strange juxtaposition inherent in the need for public privacy is thus interlaced with issues of status, taste and distinction at the local level, and fantasies of digital citizenship at the global, all of which attempts to provide compensation for the dehumanizing structures of a biopolitical capitalism that, simultaneously working at a level of global abstraction but producing concrete, local effects, determines the parameters of our lives without giving us access to the systemic “settings” that determine these parameters.

I am fascinated by the deviant figure, conjured by the woman on the bus, of the surreptitious text message spy, often portrayed as some perverted old man eavesdropping on the abbreviated missives of young women. This contemporary peeping tom appears in his most disturbing guise as a sexual predator, and in this form rightly deserves rebuke and censure. Nobody wants to have their text messages read by strangers on the street, and the sexualizing of this encounter provides an added level of unease and disgust. And yet, the figure of the peeper is overdetermined by structural and social factors regarding the ways modern social space is organized. Issues of the increasing commoditization of space, and of the ways modern subjects are encouraged to adopt these same strategies of presentation as a mode of sociality are given human shape in the form of the predatory voyeur—the dangerous other who, outside of one’s circle of associates, intrudes, uninvited into one’s shrinking comfort zone. As a figure in the popular imagination, the peeper, by overstepping the bounds of acceptability, provides a human vehicle for anxieties that would otherwise remain operant only in the background of consciousness. Tracing these contents back to their systemic and structural roots requires a kind of sideways thinking that looks for the parallel structures that might be at play. For instance, our personal and collective spaces are increasingly impinged upon by the unwanted appeals of advertisers, marketing strategies and ordinary people just going about their business, but it seems largely beyond our ability to challenge these forces, and to produce spaces that would be genuinely different in their lived texture. Retreating into virtual spaces seems to offer relief, but not really, for if we do not encounter a vibrating advertisement obscuring the latest cute cat video, then there is some perverted old guy trying to read text messages over one’s shoulder! The abstract oppression generated by largely inaccessible social structures finds determinative form in the human figure of the perverted text peeper, and our anxieties seem somehow more manageable because they can be focused a visible, human object. The text peeper is not quite a scapegoat to the extent that his behaviour really is odious, but his odiousness does the extra work of bearing our own unconscious projections. The voyeur in this situation plays the role of the supplement, an embodiment of the excess content that our makeshift coping strategies cannot process. Pointing toward a form of sociality that appears as threatening because it comes from beyond the pale of our adaptive strategies, the voyeur becomes a focal point for our otherwise mute unease. But if we can look past the threatening, personalized content for a moment, this same unpleasant figure might offer insights into the contradictions that feed our desire for public privacy.

Image courtesy of Hal Niedzviecki, whose blog is http://thepeepdiaries.com/home/Hal/

For there is inherent, in the act of texting or talking on one’s cellphone, a desire to be seen or heard doing so. The casual glance at one’s iPod, and the huddled-over posture of the public texter are social gestures that signal our status as digital citizens, and we perform these technologies as much as we use them. But coupled with our desire to be seen using our gadgets is a disdain for those who, perhaps lacking access to these technologies or networks themselves, become a little too interested in what we are communicating. Here, the juvenile “made you look” game is played out at the level of social and cultural capital, and our anxieties about being “out of the loop” coagulate into the nightmare figure of the social outcast who is relegated to vicariously spying on people who actually “have a life.” To this extent, the last thing we really seem to want with our encapsulating devices is actual privacy or anonymity. Instead, we desire to be insulated from the world while simultaneously displaying our capacity for conspicuous consumption (and conspicuous connection), to be registered in passing as the public simulacrum of a self whose actual home is elsewhere. The modern presentation of self we make to the world is a kind of personal armour, a signal to the various biopolitical boogeymen to “move along” and look elsewhere for the victims that, as Giorgio Agamben argues, contemporary power structures thrive upon by reducing to a dehumanized state of “bare life.” But we have lost this battle ahead of time. Our contemporary selves are rent by the same technologies and tactics that we adopt as coping strategies, and rather than confront the hidden structural causes of our abjection, we continue to buy into the illusion that our own specialness will exempt us from the mounting catastrophe. Which is exactly what the lords of capital, as well as the merchandisers, advertisers, film producers, and Apple execs who serve them, want us to believe.

I spent the entire, uncomfortable bus ride to Hamilton attempting to focus on a book I was sharing with my girlfriend in the window seat next to me. She, in turn, was sharing with me one of the earbuds of her portable music player. Thus encapsulated, I attempted to ignore the discomfort of the people standing by, but my one, unoccupied ear could not help but hear the conversation of the woman and her boyfriend in the aisle. Their exchanges were mostly flirtatious repartee, and were directed at the captive audience around them as much as each other. As we passed a series of car dealerships, conversation turned to the luxury vehicles they would one day own, as if to say “we might be crammed on the bus for now, but not forever!” The whole situation was stressful, but I couldn’t blame the young couple for asserting themselves in this way, as their display amounted to a form of self-protection, a way of immunizing themselves against the removal of their own privacy, by impinging on that of others. A friendly joke on my part, perhaps acknowledging the couple’s discomfort, would have helped ease the situation, but instead I kept my nose in my book, silently and disdainfully asserting my own mode of scholarly status and distinction.

All of us are now like tiny particles awash in the rising tide of global capitalism, and we need to devise new codes and strategies for navigating the changes to everyday life that the escalated urbanism of our century will bring. Mine is not a neo-luddite’s call to unplug, disengage and look around—as in that famous episode of The Simpsons where the power goes out and the neighbourhood children awaken to the outside world like it was an undiscovered continent—though periodic media fasts might be one of the new requirements for sanity in our age. Rather, we should become more aware of the biopolitical ways in which our technology, culture and public spaces are being used to shape subjectivities that reinforce the agenda of capital, against our own best interests. In response to capital’s colonization of the commons, instead of demanding more privacy in public, perhaps we should examine the unintentional moments of breach and exchange offered by new technologies. An interesting window presents itself, not so much in the intentional content and “network” structures of the digital media, but in the cracks these technologies reveal in the social fabric itself. Being exposed to the cell phone conversations of strangers is awkward, but also offers unexpected moments in which the divides between such categories as class, race, gender and age are momentarily exposed, and the normally self-contained lifeworlds of strangers are glimpsed for a brief instant. The bleeding of private communications into public spaces makes suddenly visible the often concealed social distances, reminding us that such myths as the classless society are, indeed, myths. Such moments do not foretell the coming of a new social order, so much as point out the fissures in the one we currently have.

This is not to say that digital connectivity is devoid of political content. As the Arab Spring and China’s firewall illustrate (in opposite ways), it is possible that the new media can play a crucially role in challenging or maintaining the balance of power, and in the democratic reclaiming of public space. But if a dominant strategy of global capital’s hegemonic restructuring of the everyday is of the divide-and-conquer variety, then this re-politicization cannot be staged at the individual, or even tribal level of lifestyle. Rather, we must seek opportunities to collectively challenge the hijacking of the public space by privatized interests, whether our cohesive force be established through the informational conduits of the digital networks, the staging of spatially oriented forms of protest such as the Occupy movements, or by simply talking to a stranger on the bus.


Simon Orpana is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Canada scholar in McMaster University’s Department of English and Cultural Studies. His dissertation looks at the subculture of skateboarding and the role played by urban space in the formation of identity and community. He is an active member of the Hamilton Skateboarders’ Assembly and Hamilton’s not-for-profit artist-run centre, the Hamilton Artist’s Inc. He is also author of several illustrated ‘zines. Simon’s writing has appeared in the journals Topia, Specs and the online journal Psychogeographies.


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