Thursday, August 30, 2012

Instagram, Surveillance, and Wealth

Two recent links from that most excellent collector  got me thinking about power and surveillance: "The Revolt of the Rich" on The American Conservative, and "What Power Looks Like" on The Daily Beast.

Moving financially into lower and lower percent rankings--ie, making more money so that you move from, say, the 12% to the 6%--doesn't mean that fewer people see you. It means that a more select group of onlookers observe and do so with a more critical focus.

This intensity increases as your percent decreases because the methods of surveillance become simultaneously more direct and more critical.

Bentham's Panopticon, as noted by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, has long been an apt metaphor for social surveillance. The closer you are to the lowest levels of society, the less you're able to protect yourself from state surveillance. However, rising through financial strata, to the extent that's possible by a lone person, shifts surveillance from that of the state to that of the peer group. And the peer group exerts more social pressure than any state mechanism, short of imprisonment and torture, could. Surveillance, then, is a funnel, with those at the narrowest diameter under the strictest surveillance by their peers.

How do we know this?


Specifically, "Rich Kids of Instagram." The tumblr is revelatory, not in its documentation of people's daily lives, but in the necessity of the documentation itself. These are people who maintain their status by the very display of status. It is critical for the display to be made in these ways because the surveillance is internal. 

These photos come from their own Instagrams. They are posted by insiders.

Rather than living in a Panopticon of anonymity, that Panopticon is one of searingly intensified identity. The lenses of desire and status magnify that very desire for even higher status.

If character once was what we were in the dark, then shifting surveillance modes would indicate that character is now what our peers see us doing. Character, for the wealthiest and most powerful, is only what is documented.  Without external referent, character becomes press releases and photoshoots.

If you'd thought the Ermine Cape Effect had died out, think again.

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