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Google Glass And The Birth Of Surveillance Cinema

Google Glass And The Birth Of Surveillance Cinema

What if there were cameras everywhere? Like, literally everywhere? Think bigger than security cameras or everyone owning a video and photo enabled phone. Think twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Recording every single moment of your life.

This scary speculation already has some people talking about the potential dangers of Google Glass as an “always on”, ever-present camera. Because as much as the focus has been about what it means for the wearer, it’s also about who else is wearing them. “The key experiential question,” asks Mark Hurst, “isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who is wearing them.”

It’s an important question and unless some kind of laws are enacted about public space and Glass, if this kind of technology ever becomes ubiquitous, being recorded all the time would become a very real possibility. Cameras everywhere.

Google Glass

We Are All Performers

So how would we consciously respond to this possible future? If we become more cognizant of the fact that we are always being watched how would our behavior be changed in the face of it? Even with friends and loved ones things could be used against us: recalled, examined and dissected. It’s an idea that’s already been explored in Charlie Brooker’s series Black Mirror in the episode “The Entire History of You”, where a character fast forwards and rewinds through their life to the detriment of a relationship.

Of course our first reaction would be to act more carefully. To think more about everything we say instead of speaking off the cuff or naturally allowing a conversation to unfold. With the camera in the back of our minds, we start thinking about what we should say and how we want it to be remembered. Or viewed. Or perceived. Not what we actually want to say. There’s a kind of displacement of interaction where it’s more important how we recall it in the future than how it sounds in the moment.

Everything becomes a performance. Cameras and videos make us perform. When we fear sharing too much, there’s a danger of no longer sharing at all. Or creating a distance between who we are and what we share. Just in case. So we act. We act to our friends, to the strangers in public with their tiny little cameras. We become performers in a world of tiny little cameras.

But allow me to put blinders on for a moment to ignore the (very real) dangers of being recorded everywhere, all the time.

Holy Motors’ Vision of a Cinema in Real Time

One of the more fascinating, if not all together baffling, films that came out last year was the French film Holy Motors directed by Leos Carax. It follows Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he is driven around in a white limo to different public engagements. He dons different costumes and personalities where he performs for anyone, from a public audience to a single person in an isolated room.

At once he is a panhandling old woman who no one pays any attention to. He is a gangster. A deformed old man who steals away a super model from a photo shoot. Each is like a short vignette, a burst of narrative isolated from anything else but that single moment. As the film progresses these performances become more elaborate and absurd until the audience is forced to question how they are happening as well as for whom.

Holy Motors

What is so compelling about these performances is how orchestrated they are. There is something vaudevillian in his character—Mr Oscar the traveling one man act who plays different characters on a variety of stages entertaining the masses. Yet there is no longer any set stage. Not only there is there no stage, but there is no screen. Sometimes there’s hardly even an audience. There aren’t even any cameras. Or are there?

The film is incredibly naturalistic in how it portrays the performances of not just Mr. Oscar, but the other traveling performers as well. Everything feels so real. Sometimes to the point of death. It’s all so seamlessly integrated into the “real world” of the film. Yet at one point there is this suggestion that this is not only some surreal film without narrative logic. On the contrary, these performances point to a very specific vision of the future. A future where there are cameras everywhere. Real life blurs and suddenly everything is cinema.

Holy Motors

Cinema Ubiquitous

Andy Warhol thought in the future everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame. Francois Truffaut believed everyone would be running around with tiny little cameras filming everything. They were both only able to look so far into the future. And of course, both were right in their forecast. However, the micro-fame of video-enabled phones and YouTube is merely the precursor to a ubiquitous cinema in real time. What happens when everything becomes fodder to be recorded and recalled? Do we blur the distinction between real life and cinema? And how does that affect movie making? It’s cinema verite run amok.

If everything is being recorded all of the time, what does that say about performance in the public space? What does that say about the construction of cinema in general? If there is no longer a dividing line between real life and what could be a “movie” proper does real life become more like a film? Do the performances of Mr. Oscar infiltrate our world making us less aware of what is real or a performance? Everything becomes a movie in the making. Or even a movie happening right in front of our eyes. Actualizing itself in real time.

The Cloud as Database Narrative

Another way to look at this is to consider the other component of Glass Project. That is, the cloud Google will set up for which will be able to upload all photo and video we take with Glass. It becomes an infinite resource of raw material to watch, edit, combine etc. To generate a film from.

This is similar to Lev Manovich’s Soft Cinema experiments in which he created a “movie” from separate streams playing different scenes and voiceovers mined from a database according to the author’s rules. Software navigates the database and combines them to try to construct what the theorist calls a “database narrative.” It is an investigation into how narrative can “emerge” naturally from a data collection. Imagine a similar kind of software trawling a database of an entire life’s or community’s or city’s worth of video to construct a movie from it? What would the consequences be? How would we start seeing ourselves, our interactions, our entire lives if they were transformed into movies?

Still from one of Manovich’s Soft Cinema experiments

Would our lives turn into some kind of permanent performance where we no longer understand the difference between fact and fiction? Where we no longer know if we are part of a play or if we are participating in a real life? What kind of cinema arises from this kind of confusion? Do we want to live in a world where everything is cinema?