debbie millman

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Public Surveillance?

This article was originally published on Speak Up.

It is possible that one could argue that the YouTube generation didn’t really begin in February of 2005 (the month the site was launched), or even in 2003 (the year in which William Gibson deftly outlined the basic framework of a similar site in his novel Pattern Recognition). One could easily make a case that the YouTube generation was born on March 3, 1991. This is the day that Rodney King was brutally beaten by several Los Angeles policemen and the day that George Holliday, a private citizen who happened to be looking out of his window when the beating occurred, captured the entire episode on videotape. And while some might suggest that YouTube's crowning achievement is the appointment of YOU as Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year, history may suggest that the defining moment for the toddler brand was the moment the uncensored, unedited cell phone footage of the hanging of Saddam Hussein was posted to the site.

In analyzing the videotape of the Rodney King beating, one could assess it as a serendipitous recording of a tragic event. But when the 35-second film was released to the public, it sent shockwaves and horror throughout the nation. It quickly became a defining moment both in the politics of law enforcement and in domestic race relations.

The video was an example of inverse surveillance, (citizens watching police) and the filming of real-life events by “real people” has quickly become one of the leading indicators of cultural trends. The way in which the general public has utilized the mass availability of video footage for cultural discourse is now highly measurable. Michael Richard’s captured racist diatribe and U.S. Republican Senator George Allen's recorded racial slurs are two recent examples of how the impact of instantaneous access can severely damage a career or ruin a political campaign. According to Ed Driscoll: "In an era of demassified individual publishing, the safety net that the liberal mass media provided its favorite sons no longer exists.”

In what seemed like moments after the execution (which had been rumored to be officially photographed), the recorded cell-phone footage of Saddam Hussein falling through the trap door of primitive wooden gallows spread like wildfire on the Internet and not surprisingly, on YouTube. The recorded footage is gruesome and features a moment-by-moment record of the noose being put around Saddam Hussein's neck, the executioners taunting him, and most horrifically, what he looked like when the trap door was thrown open and he fell to his death.

No doubt the video was taken to prove that Saddam Hussein was indeed executed. For those that may be skeptical of this motivation, please consider the various conspiracy theories that abound about the deaths of Adolph Hitler, President John F. Kennedy and even Kenneth Lay.

The Saddam Hussein footage is horrifying. But it is also informative. Now we definitively know the truth and can attribute this knowledge to the public online viewing of smuggled footage taken from a cell phone. What we can now call, for lack of a better term, public surveillance.

But at what price, this public information? What does it say about our humanity that we are witnessing this event in this way? Is it acceptable behavior to be documenting an event like this, or does that even matter when an event like this actually occurs? London Times journalist Rosemary Behan believes it is. "Even more chilling," she wrote in an article published last week, "is the thought that without the escape of this amateur video we would still be in the dark about what really happened, and about the true and apparently now official nature of the sectarian forces driving Iraq. In that we must be thankful for the truth, however sordid it is."

I have seen the video and it is indeed sordid. Of this, I am quite sure. But should the graphic details have been posted for the entire world to see and celebrate? Of this, I am not so sure.


Blogger minus five said...

if i were saddam, i believe i would have wanted the whole thing documented for everyone to see. because it would make people ask bigger questions.

for me, it was sadly anti-climatic. saddam feels to me like a small dot on an imax movie screen. my mind went straight from the hanging to thinking:

now what?

has anything changed?

why did we go over there, again?

so we do a clean-up and leave and who's next?

does the world view us as a 43 year old father who showed up at the playground to beat up the 8 year old school bully?

1/11/2007 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger riveraphobia said...

On a primal level, it was cathartic, I am sure, for many people-- the families of murdered Shiites, as well as any human being who has ever lost a loved one or suffered immensely beneath the bloody hands of tyrants-- to witness the hanging of Sadaam Hussein. We must remember that he was known as the "Butcher of Bagdhad." He did not earn this moniker because he could carve a beautiful shank of lamb. There are real people who have been mutilated, decimated-- women, children-- merely because they were of a particular sect, a particular tribe. No different than the genocide in Rwanda, the murders of Christians in Somalia, the absolute mastication of people in western Sudan. We learn about these horrors and we shake our fists and bang our desks, we argue in bars and over our plates at family dinner, oh the horror! oh the injustice! we feel anguished, vengeful, helpless, remorseful, and even a bit guilty. There is very little that can be done. For if the United States, a supersized nation and a force to be reckoned with, cannot seize the reigns and ease the bloodthirsty sensiblities of run-amok republics, than what chance does one lone individual have? I wonder if the pessimist and optimist would share similar responses. For this is not an age of apathy, this is the age of cluelessness.
All the knowledge we desire is available at the push of a button, and yet millions choose to surf YouTube and the pornography web sites, to kill countless hours on Yahoo Chat or to play with their profiles on MySpace, as oppposed to learning, say, what Orhan Pamuk has to say about Turkey's insidious past. Paradoxically, the instantaneous access to a wealth of knowledge is exactly the problem, for much of that knowledge is faulty, and useless. There is a rushing flood of misinterpreted data, an overflow of endless minutia that one has to wade through in order to get to the heart of the matter. One would do well to cross the threshold of their local libraries and crack the spine of a book, of many books, before they immersed themselves in the Internet's dangerous waters. After all, who do you trust more, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica (which is available online, for a price, of course)? This is an issue that must be considered with more scrutiny. We are dumbing ourselves down, casting on the blinders, riding the contaminated information-wave.
It is important to know and understand the world's monsters, to study them as we would our heroes.Tyrants and dictators and all-around monsters (such as Charles Taylor, General Suharto, Fidel Castro, and scores of others) have always crowded the world stage. We have witnessed the murder of the dictator Hussein (for it was murder, was it not?). But what do we know of the man, his actions, the history of his nation? Do we truly understand the underlying complexities involved in our own nation's complicity? We see the effect but have no true knowledge of the cause. For all we know, this could be any man swinging from the gallows, mere bag of meat like us all.
What is different about our era is that it is far more difficult to bury one's garbage. News is disseminated so quickly by the merest touch-flash of a questing finger that a clever villain peforming a barbarous act would be swiftly discovered. Examine the alacrity with which our immoral politicians (an oxymoron) are despatched, each fool unmasked to show his true face. No one can hide from the invading eye of the camera.
Yet the camera, like the human eye, does not capture the entire story. There is always something transpiring at the periphery, far out of range. Events can precede what the camera already knows. We see the effect, but cannot always discern the cause. Herein lies the danger. Subjectivity versus objectivity. No eye is so chill as to not impose its own world view. The Internet is rife with people eager to voice their misinformed opinions. A bored miscreant from Buttfuck, Illinois types a few words onto his web page, say, stating that the people on the West side have been keeping down the people on the East side, corroborating this with cooked-up facts, a spew of false data, crunching numbers that never even existed, and another person in Buttfuck, Illinois, who happens to live on the East side and just lost his job at the fat-rendering plant, takes that person at face value and is inspired to spearhead the cause, and off he goes to spread this wrongheaded knowledge he has gleaned, and this in turn spreads to others, and before you know it, you have an entire state filled with infected people, East and West, hacking away at their neighbor's limbs because they believe that they have been kept down for decades.
Think of Pakistan and India. Think of Africa.
Think of history.
Big Brother is not the only one watching today. Now his whole family is on on the act. And they are all laughing their asses off because they have us right where they want us: scared and compartmentalized.
So smile and look pretty for the camera. Because right now, somone might be munching popcorn, watching you, watching your death, and sighing because the world is one big awful mess.

1/11/2007 06:23:00 PM  

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