“I think we live in a kind of paradoxical time. The world is more and more complex, on the other hand, we’re only going to ask you a question that you can answer in two seconds. So we leave ourselves less and less time for reflection, because our communications media push us to quick responses. And quite frankly the questions before our planet right now are not questions that should be answered or thought about in the time-space of texting.”
— Sherry Turkle
Zac Shapero: Hello. That was a small segment taken from a recently released documentary film, Stare Into The Lights My Pretties. The unusual title comes from a reference to the old-time classic film the Wizard of Oz. My name is Zac Shapiro, and welcome to Communication Mixdown.
Stare Into The Lights My Pretties is also a film about wizardry, the wizardry and power of new media and digital technology. Since its release last year, the film’s been screening at some prominent film festivals in Europe and around the world, as well as online, and it’s been getting some pretty positive reception from both critics and viewers.
The film hones in on our growing obsession with technology, screens, and devices, and the effects these seem to be having on our lives and on our brains. I was able to speak with the writer and director of the film, Melbourne resident Jordan Brown, a couple of weeks ago. We began our conversation by me asking him what motivated him to make the film:
Jordan Brown: The idea of the film started back in 2009. I didn’t have the original goal to make a feature length documentary. The impetus for the film was wanting to do a short film about Google and the impact that it was coming to have over the way many of us access information online. I wanted to look at issues like privacy—in 2009, Google was doing a book digitisation project where they were scanning—
Zac Shapiro: Oh, Google Books.
Jordan Brown: Yes, Google books. So they were out there scanning a bunch of books and keeping the digital copies for themselves, and there was a critique going around at the time: What does it mean when one company like Google comes along and vacuums up literature and culture and knowledge and things of this? And then because Google has this sort of monopolistic control over the way we access information online, there was a question there. What does it mean when one company does this?
So I wanted to use Google as a case study really just to talk about those issues, and so I went off to interview and met Katina Michael who is one of the great central voices of the film. We had a great interview. Very quickly it dawned on me. We had this conversation about Google, but it quickly expanded into other topics and areas. We got into things like artificial intelligence and this culture’s complete fascination with so-called “machine learning” and robotics, and people like Ray Kurzweil who is now one of the senior technologists at Google pushing for this sort of transhumanist—
Zac Shapiro: He’s making some sort of synthetic neocortex or something apparently.
Jordan Brown: Right, well, he has many sort of crazy ideas I think. So coming across people like this who had these really radical ideas about doing away with biology completely and turning not just society into technology, but the notion of body and life itself into—giving your life up at the source to the machine kind of thing I guess, is a way to sum it up. And so this really bowled me over.
There are some statistics to go through that are explored in the film: We have 3.8 billion people online which I think is a little bit over half the human population at the moment, and 2.2 billion of those people are on Facebook. That’s a tremendous power that is given to one corporation. That’s a whole conversation in-and-of itself—I mean, a year has passed since I’ve finished the film, and I think these issues have always languished with a company like Facebook, but it’s just exploding now because there have been so many controversies and I guess it’s reached this point where the manipulation is just so obvious for anybody who’s really paying attention.
Zac Shapiro: What are some specific examples of the darker side of using social media like Facebook?
Jordan Brown: Well one that some of us would know very intimately could be that you’re going about your day, but you’re bombarded with certain types of advertising that you may find fairly creepy. There’s a lot of anecdotes that I’ve come across in terms of working on the film where people talk about having a conversation with someone and a couple of hours later, or the next day, they’re getting ads about the theme of the conversation that they were having with someone—something that they never talked about before in their life, for instance. One I’ve seen is someone who didn’t have a cat, and wanted to test this idea out by getting their friend together and talking about, “Oh I’ve gotta buy some cat food,” even though they didn’t have a cat and they’ve never talked about cats before with this specific person—
Zac Shapiro: Just as an experiment?
Jordan Brown: Yes, just as an experiment, but then they get creepy ads for cat food or for cat products and things like this.
Zac Shapiro: So Facebook is listening to our conversations?
Jordan Brown: I don’t know if it’s listening—it’s maybe not necessarily the conversations, but it’s definitely all the other datapoints that surround your digital shadow, if you know what I mean. So it’s pretty much like listening. Many of us walk around with mobile phones in our pockets—
Zac Shapiro: The location is being tracked.
Jordan Brown: Totally. The location data, your phone is constantly pinging the network, and so all of that data—even just the location pings are something that can be used and are often used, say for example, in shopping centres to work out the path that people walk through a specific physical space in order to put products in a certain spot to encourage impulse buying and so on.
Zac Shapiro: Are we all so naive to that, in that we should be changing our privacy settings, or something?
Jordan Brown: Well this is an interesting point. Because as I tried to argue in the film, it’s not really something that we can opt-out of by tweaking our personal consumer choices. I mean, we can and do have a personal choice—as much as it is still even a choice these days—to not have a mobile phone, but what we do about the prolific CCTV everywhere that’s doing facial recognition and similar profiling for behaviour?
I think the point to be made is all this cross-domain data analytics. This is where these companies and where the technosociety gets a lot of its power. It’s this consolidation of all of these fairly innocuous datapoints by themselves—I mean, the fact that you were on the edge of a street corner at a certain time of the day in-and-of itself doesn’t really mean much, but when you couple it with other datasets about a person, which is what we see increasingly these days, there’s a real power that comes from putting all of that together and really being able to see and reconstruct the ins-and-outs and particulars of someone’s life in a really granular and intrusive detail.
Say the example with CCTV, there’s a scene in the middle of the film that kind of makes light of this. CCTV has become so normalised now, for example, that many of us don’t even notice it anymore. So there’s this guy called Surveillance Camera Man who makes the point of this, and his method of protest is walking up to people and getting in their physical space and recording them in the same way that a CCTV camera would, and many people object to that when it’s part of their awareness: “Hey, why you taking my video? What are you doing? This is really intrusive and invasive, go away.”
Zac Shapiro: But we don’t mind if it’s out of sight out of mind.
Jordan Brown: Yes, out of sight out of mind, and I think this normalisation—or the effect of Creeping Normalcy, which is this notion that slow incremental changes which happen over time: you can’t just do this big objectionable thing unnoticed, but if it comes along in slow incremental stages… and I’m not even necessarily saying there’s this grand conspiracy on the part of technologists to do this, but as I also try to argue in the film, I think this is inherent to the sort of society that gives rise to these kinds of technologies: it’s one inch at a time. Technology never takes a step back.
The analogy of the panopticon is a really effective way of describing the power dynamics of the technosociety. So what the panopticon is, is it’s a prison design and it’s radial, it’s in a circle. You have the guard tower in the centre which is really brightly lit, and then you have all of the prison cells around the outside of the circle. So there’s no interstices of the prison, there is no place to hide, literally. One of the central functions of the guard tower being in the middle and being brightly lit is that from the perspective of the prisoners, you can’t see the guard tower; you can’t see into the guard tower; you may not even know that there is a guard tower, all you can see as bright lights. So, what happens in this sort of situation is that there is a chilling effect on behaviour. It’s that notion that if you can be watched at any given point in time, you’re going to behave in a way as if assuming you will be watched even if you’re not being watched. Surveillance is probable but not verifiable.
Zac Shapiro: And they’re everywhere aren’t they? In your workspace, in shops, and pretty much everywhere…
Jordan Brown: Yes, bathrooms even. In the United States particularly. Schools. I mean, in Britain, that’s a good example. Off the top of my head, I think there’s one CCTV camera for every 14 people in England. And that’s an old statistic. It’s probably likely to be much more now.
Zac Shapiro: Who is watching them? It means you need millions of people sitting in front of screens watching them?
Jordan Brown: Well not necessarily, because a lot of it these days is automated. I mean there are people sitting in creepy dark rooms watching people, but a lot of it is retrospective. As these technologies become more pervasive, facial recognition and gate recognition and profiling for certain behaviours trips-off an automated alarm. You have someone behaving in a way that is ascribed by the people that control these systems as suspicious, and then that gets flagged for analysis later. So this is this whole thing of the panopticon, where you have the chilling effect on behaviour. You can be watched at any given point in time, even retrospectively.
Zac Shapiro: This is Communication Mixdown, you’re listening to a pre-recorded interview with Jordan Brown talking about his recently released feature documentary film, Stare Into The Lights My Pretties. The film is all about the power and impact of new media and digital technology.
So in the film, you interview Susan Greenfield, who is a neuroscientist and she talks about neuroplasticity and the effects of screen culture on the brain, how it’s changing the way we engage with information, how it’s changing our attention, how you click on something and easily become distracted by something else, and kind of often end up looking at something that’s not what we originally planned.
Jordan Brown: I mean how many of us have done that, right? And I did this myself in the production of the film. I would jump on Wikipedia to look up something—
Zac Shapiro: It’s kind of good and bad isn’t it? Because it’s this whole plethora of ideas and you start going, “Yes, that seems interesting, I’m going to go there…”
Jordan Brown: And then you end up sort of going down this rabbit hole where you jump on Wikipedia to look up something and you end up clicking away on this strange click-trail, and then before you know it, two hours have passed and you’re like, “How did I go from looking up the origins of television to…” I don’t know, I want to say something totally ridiculous, “… to like how sausages get made.” Or something. You know what I mean?
But I think this in one way sort of sums up one of the really powerful elements of the screen culture. There is this thing, by the way the technology is designed and flows on from that: hyperlinks. Everything is a link, and it’s not the same as reading a book.
Zac Shapiro: True.
Jordan Brown: You have this constant sort of stimulation that you don’t get from other forms of media.
Zac Shapiro: Yes, and you’re sort of driving it, aren’t you?
Jordan Brown: You’re driving it, but also the algorithms on the other side of the screen are driving it. Maybe not on Wikipedia because that’s more sort of you clicking, but definitely say in a corporatised space like Facebook, there are very powerful algorithms behind your click-trails, tapping into a lot of psychological drivers to get you to click on something.
I mean people talk about click-bait for example in news media, which is annoying, but one of the ways that is annoying is because it’s playing to certain psychological characteristics to get you to click on something. So I think that’s one of the concerns with such a pervasive screen culture: Who is in charge of our online screen time if we’re spending up to eleven hours a day in front of a screen? If we have all of these algorithms behind the scenes, and to varying degrees influencing our behaviour and our information experiences, what does that mean on a personal level, for how it changes our brain?
The concept of neuroplasticity is that if you’re doing something, the brain adapts. It’s analogous to a muscle. So if you’re doing physical exercise, if you’re doing weights, the muscles in your arms get strong. If we are practising using a computer, we get really good at using a computer, but it also changes the physical make up of how our minds work to be more like a computer than it would otherwise be than without that exposure.
So if you’re not practising something like deep thinking, or having a long attention span, or thinking about abstract concepts or logical narrative or practising imagination—all of those things that Susan Greenfield talks about that have been lost to the screen—then you lose those abilities, just in the same as if you don’t exercise, you lose your muscles. So it’s a concern. On the personal level, how does it change us as people, but then going to the interplay between technology and society, if we’re spending the majority of our working hours in front of these screens, what sort of society and culture does that imbue and perpetuate? I think that’s a really important question.
Zac Shapiro: Are we just getting old? Do you know what I mean? I read something about when the printed press was invented and people started reading books, they were saying exactly the same thing: people were spending all of this time reading books and not getting out and say, going to the places where people went to meet other people and to interact. I mean clearly, this is kind of exponential by comparison, but when you compare this to the humble book, where now we’ve just got screens all around us, is it not just a matter of degree? Is not that something’s really changed?
Jordan Brown: I’ve had that critique before. And Susan Greenfield address this quite well in the film I think. She says that one of the critiques she gets of her what work is that, “Oh, you’re a luddite, you’re backwards, you’re getting old or whatever; you’re not embracing change, and change is inevitable, you’re just afraid of change,” and so on. But the printing press came along and it did change the way people thought. You hear people arguing that it had a reduction on memory. So, for example, people that were doing plays would be able to remember huge swathes of dialogue, but then when the printed word comes along, and you’re sort of outsourcing your memory to the book, there is an impact, and we can argue if that’s a good or a bad thing, the impact of the written word, I think there is a balance to be made there, but I think the point with looking at how technology influences society is to say that there is an impact. So for externalisation of memory, if we bring that up to the current day, we do that extensively with Google. There are so many things we don’t even remember anymore because we can just look it up on Google. And there is a psychologist in the film, Betsy Sparrow, that did an experiment on this: What happens to people’s memories when they’re not internalising information, when they’re not internalising knowledge or linking information together to form knowledge that is internalised? We’re externalising that to a machine, we’re outsourcing that to a machine, to giant corporations, to Google.
Zac Shapiro: It’s kind of like a cyborg thing, isn’t it? Augmenting our nervous system…
Jordan Brown: Yes, and I think that’s very problematic. It’s very much this notion of what are the impacts of doing this on grand scale? So to bring it back to things like the book, and maybe television and telephones, where all of these similar sorts of arguments were made in the past of people freaking out about the impact of technology, I think some of them very much still carry on. I mean, people’s concern about what social influences television had, or how the telephone closed distance back in the day, are still really valid issues and prescient like never before in the pervasive screen culture of today. One of the differences between television back in the era, for example, is that you only had one television set in your house, we were not sitting alone in our bedrooms in front of a screen, ‘Alone Together,’ in the words of Sherry Turkle, you know? Back in the day, we sort of had this “family moment,” and I mean we can talk about the ways television even at that time would pull away from family moments and we’d all sit around and have dinner and not talk to each other and just watch the television, but at least we were doing it as a group.
Zac Shapiro: But today we’ve got private Netflix accounts…
Jordan Brown: Yes, we’re sitting in our rooms, further atomised, alone together.
Zac Shapiro: And we’re all watching different Netflix aren’t we? We can’t even have conversations about it…
Jordan Brown: Yes exactly, because it’s personalised. Your Netflix is totally different to my Netflix. How can we relate if our information experiences differ so much?
Zac Shapiro: If you had to sum up, where do you think things are going? Are you optimistic? Or are you a bit pessimistic about it all?
Jordan Brown: I guess in a short way, I think things definitely can improve, but the choice is up to us, right? It starts with this desire to want things to change and I think that’s one of the questions on the film: If we see this sort of emergent techno-dystopia happening right in front of our eyes, if we see that as undesirable and we don’t want to have that kind of future—or even present—what are we going to do about that? What do we do with this information? How do we act on this?
So I think that one of the ways I am hopeful is that once people have this awareness, or even just begin the questioning, it can really be a journey to open up some of the really important life questions for people: What sort of life do we want to have, and what sort of world do we want to leave behind for those that come after?
Zac Shapiro: Are machines more important than the real world?
Jordan Brown: Well that sums up the whole point of the film right there. I mean, what are we giving our life to? Again, if the majority of our time is spent in front of screens, if a huge amount of our life-force is surrendered to this machine, this mega-machine, is that a good thing? What the impacts of that?
I think if we’re really serious about looking at the impacts, not just on a personal level and a societal level, but the physical world, the environmental impacts, we can see that this social arrangement, this technosociety is not sustainable. It’s inherently unsustainable, and it has an end, a finite limitation. We can talk about things like climate change and ecological collapse and you know, if all we’re going to do is sit in front of our screens and be distracted to death by watching Netflix, what’s going to happen when the power goes out and we need to eat? We can’t just keep partying on like this.
So I think there will be a point, even if we stay in denial, there will be a point where these questions will be asked and answered for us, even if we don’t do it. But we need to realise that we have a choice in this. It’s up to us how we act.
“We live in a techno dazzled world and there is considerable resistance to the very idea of challenging technology.”
— Jerry Mander
“They’re trying to turn everybody into what looks like a lot like an addict.”
— Natasha Schüll
“Not only addictive but obsessive-compulsive addictive.”
— Katina Michael