We blink and move our eyes all the time in quick motions between phases of fixation in what is known as saccades. We make more than 100,000 daily saccades, each one lasting between 20 and 100 milliseconds. Blinking and saccading amount to about an hour a day in which we are effectively blind, though perfectly awake and conscious of ourselves and the world around us. We’re not, however, aware of this unusual blindness. We move on. Business as usual.
You don’t have to be blind in order to to be blind to something happening around you. We are actually blind about something all the time, and not just about things which we might be able to see if we tried harder. We just don’t see them as they happen around us, and that’s the worst type of blindness. Or the second-worst, after voluntary blindness. But I digress.
Where am I going with this? Blindness is the inability or unwillingness to see what can be seen. At one of the other ends lies surveillance, which is the willingness and ability to see what may not be easily perceivable, or when no-one’s watching, or when everyone’s too blind to see anything.
We are too blind to see the surveillance construction site being built everywhere around us. The distressing bit is that we’re funding the project and signing the lease.
The 16th-century French thinker Étienne De La Boétie wrote insightfully about voluntary slavery. Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zuboff uncovered the structures of surveillance capitalism – not to be confused with the surveillance state. The former director of the French Information Service, Philippe Guibert, denounced what he called the ‘tyranny of visibility’. I want to say a few words about the last two authors and their most recent books.
The thesis of Zuboff’s book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ is as simple as it is terrifying: the real threat to our privacy, freedom and autonomy is not the government – Big Brother in the Big Office –, but those private companies that are in the business of extracting ‘behaviour surplus’ from us and using it to create ‘prediction products’ intended for ‘behavioural futures markets’ for the purpose of ‘guaranteed outcomes’. The residue of our digital life (and not just the social media footprint) is being harvested and recycled into a commodity used by surveillance-capitalist companies to reduce the indeterminacy of human freedom to well-known and zero-uncertainty outcomes. As the totalitarian computer Alpha 60 puts it in Godard’s ‘Alphaville‘:
‘The essence of the so-called capitalist world or the communist world is not an evil volition to subject their people by the power of indoctrination or the power of finance but simply the natural ambition of any organization to plan all its actions. In a word, to minimize unknown quantities.’
Minimising unknown quantities and maximising guaranteed outcomes, here’s the project. And we are blind to what’s going on because we’re too busy looking elsewhere or playing with the tools of our voluntary servitude.
In his essay-book ‘The Tyranny of Visibility’ (not yet translated into English), Philippe Guibert analyses the emergence of a new democratic cult, that of the image, or better yet, of the self-image. That’s the cult of being seen, and being seen to care, at the expense of social and political action, as Eitan Hersh also argues in his book Politics is for Power, published only last month. Advancing a political agenda is more about making it visible than making it happen. The mortal sin here is invisibility, not having your voice heard, which means not being seen. While the new worship of the self-facing image takes over, those who are in control – governments and private companies – stay hidden in order to exercise their power. The tyranny of visibility is an act of self-surveillance, one that systematically sells a part of your ‘I’ to a third-party. For the Kayapo tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, the words ‘akaron kaba‘ mean ‘taking a photograph’ but also ‘stealing a soul’. Unlike the Kayapo, we offer our soul on a hashtaggable plate.
Just like Zuboff, Guibert defocusses the danger of the State knowing everything and controlling everyone, and brings an original perspective – although one potentially open to objections – to the table: that of the self-inflicted injury which may soon lead to a permanent disability. Albeit in different ways, both authors underline the blindness which is slowly overcoming us as we fail to take notice of what is lost as we become less and less critical, and more and more habituated to means of surveillance and self-surveillance.
We’re becoming blind as we allow others to exploit the vulnerability in our eyesight. We’re becoming blind as we insist on staring at our own faces in the mirror.