Late Tuesday night, just as the Red Sox were beginning a top-of-the-eleventh rally against the Rays, my smart TV decided to ask me a question of deep ontological import:
Are you still there?
To establish my thereness (and thus be permitted to continue watching the game), I would need to “interact with the remote,” my TV informed me. I would need to respond to its signal with a signal of my own. At first, as I spent a harried few seconds finding the remote and interacting with it, I was annoyed by the interruption. But I quickly came to see it as endearing. Not because of the TV’s solicitude — the solicitude of a machine is just a gentle form of extortion — but because of the TV’s cluelessness. Though I was sitting just ten feet away from the set, peering intently into its screen, my smart TV couldn’t tell that I was watching it. It didn’t know where I was or what I was doing or even if I existed at all. That’s so cute.
I had found a gap in the surveillance system, but I knew it would soon be plugged. Media used to be happy to transmit signals in a human-readable format. But as soon as it was given the ability to collect signals, in a machine-readable format, media got curious. It wanted to know, and then it wanted to know everything, and then it wanted to know everything without having to ask. If a smart device asks you a question, you know it’s not working properly. Further optimization is required. And you know, too, that somebody is working on the problem.
Rumor has it that most smart TVs already have cameras secreted inside them — somewhere in the top bezel, I would guess, not far from the microphone. The cameras generally haven’t been activated yet, but that will change. In a few years, all new TVs will have operational cameras. All new TVs will watch the watcher. This will be pitched as an attractive new feature. We’ll be told that, thanks to the embedded cameras and their facial-recognition capabilities, televisions will henceforth be able to tailor content to individual viewers automatically. TVs will know who’s on the couch without having to ask. More than that, televisions will be able to detect medical and criminal events in the home and alert the appropriate authorities. Televisions will begin to save lives, just as watches and phones and doorbells already do. It will feel comforting to know that our TVs are watching over us. What good is a TV that can’t see?
We’ll be the show then. We’ll be the show that watches the show. We’ll be the show that watches the show that watches the show. In the end, everything turns into an Escher print.
“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” If I have to hear that sentence again, I swear I’ll barf. As Shoshana Zuboff has pointed out, it doesn’t even have the benefit of being true. A product has dignity as a made thing. A product is desirable in itself. That doesn’t describe what we have come to represent to the operators of the machines that gather our signals. We’re the sites out of which industrial inputs are extracted, little seams in the universal data mine. But unlike mineral deposits, we continuously replenish our supply. The more we’re tapped, the more we produce.
The game continues. My smart TV tells me the precise velocity and trajectory of every pitch. To know is to measure, to measure is to know. As the system incorporates me into its workings, it also seeks to impose on me its point of view. It wants me to see the game — to see the world, to see myself — as a stream of discrete, machine-readable signals.
Are you still there?
Honestly, I have no idea.