Watching who?

It shouldn't be a surprise that in a surveillance culture, defined by the many ways we are being watched, surveillance itself becomes a preoccupation and focal point for fictional and non-fictional scrutiny. A surveillance culture is always likely to feed a culture of surveillance.

Jamie Bartlett's new BBC radio programme Watching Us looks back at the TV show Big Brother and explores how it signalled a change in how surveillance is understood. In particular it looks at how surveillance became a form of entertainment. The episodes so far try to situate Big Brother in the space between old documentary formats and social media.

That 20 year period does seem to have witnessed some significant changes in how privacy is understood. There are longer term changes, especially in how surveillance is implemented, but Big Brother was an interesting moment. When it was launched it was all about building it up as a social experiment. Of course, it was only really ever about fostering a TV melodrama. But what I thought was interesting was how the pretence at social experimentation quickly fell away as the invasive surveillance it represented was accepted. The supplementary TV shows that included analysis from academics were sidelined as the series went by - they had served their purpose of legitimising the act of constant coverage of human living.

Perhaps Bartlett's programme is right to argue that this represented a moment in which attitudes to surveillance were altering. Big Brother alone won't have changed anything, but it does seem to have been part of a shifting culture. The type of ‘docu-soaps’ (as they were called) that were popular enough at the time to be satirised in The Office were probably also part of the same set of developments. Together these were part of an attunement to turning everyday life into media content.

As I listened to the first two episodes of Watching Us, I started to wonder if the demise of Big Brother might tell us as much as its creation. The format became more like a round-the-clock game show, viewing figures fell away and it moved channels. Its demise was slow, it eventually disappeared, almost unnoticed. This slow ending suggested that Big Brother was no longer needed, a whole apparatus of surveillance had been created that rendered it redundant. In a couple of references that Bartlett has already made to social media, I suspect that this might be where his podcast is heading.

Download upload…

On the theme of everyday surveillance the Netflix drama Upload is worth watching. It's a sort of sci-fi satire set in a near future in which consciousness can be uploaded and people can live on in purchased simulations. Some of the points it raises are a little obvious, but the narrative holds it together and there are some interesting points about how power works in this avatared life.


The digital culture writer Amelia Tait has started a newsletter called The Waiting Room. She is going to post articles on there in the areas she usually writes about, which cover the broad areas of social media, popular culture and digital life. The first of her newsletters can be found here. That first article tells an interesting story about how older social media formats can persist and can even begin a sort of re-emergence. This is a story about human attachments to media forms and how social media become a part of individual biographies.

One of my favourite of Amelis Tait's previous articles was this brilliant piece from 2016 in which she looked into people on Reddit collectively discussing a film that does not actually exist. They had convinced themselves it did and were even sharing memories of it. It shows something of how collective memory works online.


Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser's new book Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives is out in September. Given the combined acceleration and intensificaiton that is being experienced along with the sudden extension of ‘digital lives', this book will be important. I saw an advanced version when I wrote an endorsement and would strongly recommend it.

Opinions are…

Clearly journalism is having some struggles at the moment, with the pandemic accelerating a longer term decline in newspaper sales (this will be impossible to actually track from now on as they are no longer going to publish audited sales figures for newspapers). The tussles over truth and the like in recent years have also put the comment section of newspapers in the spotlight. The Guardian comments editor Jonathan Shainin has been interviewed about his role at the paper and the current issues around opinion writing for the Talking Politics podcast.

Contact tracing…

As the original plan for the UK contact tracing app is abandoned and questions are raised about why, OpenDemocracy have also been closely investigating the NHS data deals that have been struck - here is the most recent from their series of pieces.

If you are interested in exploring this further, the full list of data sources being used is available through this alphabetical index provided on the NHS England website.

Old thoughts…

I recently realised that it's over six years since my book Punk Sociology was published. I was reflecting on the book and contemplated writing something about it. But it seems fine to leave it where it is. Everything I wanted to say is in there, I think. So I'm not going to write about it or update the ideas in it, it doesn't seem right to add to it.

As I flicked through the book there was just one thing I would change. One word in fact: megaphone. It's on page 58. It seems a bit awkward, like I was forcing the point a bit too much. Not very subtle. If I were editing it now I'd probably have cut that word.

Next time…

I've got another newsletter to send out very soon, it's a bit of a longish essay. I'm just finishing it between other stuff. Working on it, I wondered if it quite fit with this newsletter. I'll give it a go anyway, see what you think.