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While you are watching your TV, your TV is watching you

While you are watching your TV, your TV is watching you

According to Yuval Noah Harari the “covid crisis” was a watershed moment in terms of surveillance and personal data.  During a panel discussion at the 2020 Athens Democracy Forum, Harari was asked what were his fears and concerns about digital surveillance.  He said televisions not only know what we’re watching but could also know how we feel while watching it.  

The 2020 Athens Democracy Forum was held on 30 September 30 – 2 October 2020, as a virtual event. The Forum was organised for the second year by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, in association with The New York Times and under the Patronage of H.E. the President of the Hellenic Republic, Ms. Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

When people look back at the “covid crisis,” Harari told the Forum’s panel, the thing they will remember is that this was the moment everything went digital, when everything became monitored and “that we agreed to be surveilled all the time.”

“This is the moment when surveillance started going under the skin … I think the big process that’s happening right now in the world is the ability to hack humans to understand deeply what’s happening within you … Having the ability to really monitor people under the skin this is the biggest game changer of all,” he said.

Further into the discussion, he described emotions such as anger as a “biological phenomena … a biological pattern in your body.”

With this kind of surveillance, of what’s happening under the skin, “you watch the big president, a big leader, gives a speech on television,” he said, and “the television could be monitoring you and knowing whether you’re angry or not, just by analysing the cues, the biological cues, coming from your body,”

“So now people are now watching us online all over the world – this conversation now – maybe even right now the people who are watching us are being watched and analysed.

“It’s not just that we know you’re watching this … we also know how you feel.”

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To begin to understand the power of surveillance through our televisions (“TV”) and how it’s done, it’s worth reading an essay written in 2018 by Ananda Mitra and published in IntechOpen in 2019.

In her essay, Mitra argued that TV, originally the conduit for offering passive narratives to the audience, is transforming into a tool that can watch over the audience and construct a dynamic narrative of the audience, thus operating as a tool for surveillance. 

The following are excerpts from Mitra’s essay. You can read her full essay ‘The Future of TelevisionHERE.

Watched by TV

In February 2018, an analysis by the reputed magazine Consumer Reports announced that their testing revealed that the increasingly ubiquitous “smart TV” was capable of “watching” the viewer and keeping a detailed record of the viewer’s TV watching patterns and related behaviour. As more of smart devices find a place in the average home, there are other gadgets that can work in tandem with smart TVs to perform the task of “watching.”

Consider, for instance, the Alexa device that responds to voice commands to perform simple tasks, including connecting with a smart TV to control the smart TV. All such devices and functions rely on the fact that these devices always “surveil” their environment – watching with built-in cameras, listening with built-in microphones, and capturing data with built-in sensors. Real people occupy the space that is under the surveillance of these devices.

It is useful to briefly consider the way in which the process of surveillance has been examined over a period of time. The practice of surveillance has been around since the times that people wanted to “watch over” others. The need to watch has most importantly been related to the notion of security where the watcher has been concerned about the fact that the watched poses a threat to the interests of the watcher. Those interests could be intertwined with the interests of the watched as well; thus, the process of watching becomes particularly important to maintain a sense of order within a specific societal system. Indeed, this perspective was aptly summarised by Mike Rogers, the chairman of the intelligence committee in the American House of Representatives, following the embarrassing report in 2013 that the National Security Agency (“NSA”) was surveilling the phone conversations of European leaders such as Angela Merkel. Mr. Rogers was quoted to have said, “It’s a good thing. it keeps the French safe. It keeps the US safe. It keeps our European allies safe.”

The intimate connection between the maintenance of order and discipline becomes the central thesis of the academic examination of the process of surveillance when scholars such as Foucault begin to connect surveillance to power and discipline.

Among the different ideas of surveillance that emerged as important was the notion of the Panopticon which claims that the powerful are constantly watching everything all the time.  The Panopticon society was built around a strict definition of discipline, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the metaphor was principally used to describe the ways in which totalitarian nations and despots would want to constantly watch everything to maintain power and discipline.

In some cases, however, there is the emergent interest in examining how the watchers could also include corporations and institutions that had a motive unrelated to discipline and power but more interested in understanding the “market” that the institution would be interested in serving. This is especially true for the type of interactive technologies described in this essay. The advent of the technologies described earlier in this essay is, however, concerned with the corporate watching rather than the discipline and power-based Panopticon world that earlier scholars were concerned with.

The new Panopticon created by TV at home is less about discipline and power and much more about the way in which the “customer” who is being watched can be analysed as a commodity who can be sold to those that are interested in selling to the watched. Simultaneously, the Panopticon condition becomes far more benign and perhaps even comforting to the watched by creating a cocoon of comfort within which the watched can dwell, where the cocoon is created by the TV itself. This process is possible because the customer voluntarily interacts with the TV by offering information to the TV and the vast array of interests that the TV represents. There are broadly two kinds of information that the watched offers to the watcher through the modern television—attitudes and behaviour.

The information about the attitudes, interests, beliefs, and tastes is offered by the specific discourse the watched offers to the different providers of information that bring content to the TV. 

Consider, for instance, the simple act of accessing a digital video service such as YouTube that can be accessed on a smartphone and then projected on the TV. In some cases, the TV itself would offer the option of connecting directly to a service such as YouTube. Indeed, it is estimated that nearly 80% of TVs in American homes would be connected to the Internet by 2019 and any TV that is connected to the Internet can potentially be accessing YouTube without the need for any other ancillary device.

This connection makes TV the conduit for the vast amount of data available on YouTube as well as many other segments of the digital space that contain searchable data. One of the key aspects of this connection is the ability of the person being watched to search for specific kinds of content that can be accessed by TV and displayed on the screen. The person inscribes attitudes and preferences in the language of the search.

Companies like Google have been using similar information for a long time and are thus able to offer personalised advertising when a person is working on a computer. There are ways in which such personalisation of marketing messages can be turned off through the adjustment of specific settings on an application provided by a corporation. The matter becomes a little different on TV where the very purpose of the tool, the TV, is to watch narratives, and in the environment of services such as YouTube, the viewer must reveal interest information to customise what the person is watching or interested in watching. The process of using TV to access narrative content is intimately connected with the process of revealing to TV the watcher’s interests, attitudes, and beliefs.

This information is also connected with the disclosure of behaviour patterns. Given that much of the consumption of the content is happening through the content providers such as YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and other Internet-based content delivery systems, there is a constant record of what was watched, when it was watched, how it was paid for, and in some cases greater granular information related to the particular watcher in a multi-people home. For instance, Netflix offers the opportunity to set up multiple sub-accounts under one primary account for each member of the household, and the data that is built up actually shows which particular person was actually using specific content. In homes that have multiple TVs, it is also possible to surveil which particular TV was being used to watch what content offering a detailed understanding of the specific members who are being watched by the corporations through the conduit of TV.

The attitude and behaviour data that such surveillance offers eventually become a narrative about the people who are being watched over. It is this narrative that becomes especially important in the new Panopticon system produced by the modern TV.

Where does this leave us, the watched?

If TV is allowed to surveil, and it is connected with the other tools that surround the TV, then it will eventually be able to create an increasingly complete life story of the person who uses TV. This complete life story could become the way in which TV constructs a mediated reality for the person who is being watched. As discussed earlier, this reality can become progressively myopic and an echo chamber within which the person would reside while the Panopticon TV creates the comfortable media space for the person.

Numerous companies such as Amazon, Roku, and Apple are offering accessories that could be connected to the TV, and program would be delivered through the connection of the accessory to the Internet. Thus, a Roku “stick” can connect to the Internet, and the programs would be offered by Roku in collaboration with other content aggregators such as Sling, YouTube, and Hulu, to name a few. In some cases, a complete ecosystem is produced by a company like Amazon that would offer the accessory for TV, a household voice-activated information retrieval system such as Alexa, and content through the vast store of content that Amazon owns. As the user is migrating to these options, the user is also required to share information through the conduit of the TV with all these different corporations that continue to watch the watcher. It is indeed a world of constant surveillance, whenever the TV is switched on.

Further reading:

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