Going Viral

December 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

By design or not, an hour and a half into a special 20/20 feature on the “evolution of images” via new media, a special report broke the flow to announce the execution of Saddam Hussein. There was a slight broadcast delay while all affiliates synchronized, during which time a picture of Saddam Hussein, the voice of a translator echoing from behind, momentarily collided with the regular broadcast. For a few fleeting seconds Paris Hilton and Saddam Hussein jostled next to one another while a screen counter ticked off the moments to allow stations to switch over. If one was to imagine a kind of white noise preceding the end of the world, this is what it might look and sound like.

The 20/20 special was a spectacle of everything from YouTube to the pleasure Americans take in watching “real crime” unfold on video shot on camera phones, surveillance systems, and small personal digital devices — the delight in seeing something “unfold as if through a keyhole,” as one “expert” described it. During one sequence that seemingly aspired to be an “analysis” of the percolating phenomena of new media images on the web, the issues surrounding “going viral” and the “obliteration of privacy” were alluded to. Going viral refers to the rapid proliferation of images and video now made possible through the web and personal communication networking.

On the dangling heels of “going viral” was a discussion of the diminishing state of privacy and how “young people today no longer value privacy in the way previous generations have.” A ridiculously inane and airy observation as there ever was, and, of course, no one bothered to attempt a nuanced definition of what exactly we might mean by privacy. Moreover, none of the well-coiffed slightly tilted talking heads on camera dared talk about the violation of privacy at the governmental level. Still, I found the whole mess fascinating. Particularly because the whole business finally coalesced into a schizophrenic montage of our collective “symptom” when white noise, Hussein, the voice over, and Paris Hilton all crowded onto my screen for a moment. Snow Crash. Then a return to mediated order.

In “War, Terrorism, and Spectacle:On Towers and Caves” Sam Weber makes the following observation:
“But violence in the United States has generally been
portrayed, if not always perpetrated, as a private affair, done either by desperate
or deranged individuals, or against desperate or deranged individuals.
Violence tends to be individualized or, better, privatized, as with the Mafia
and ‘‘organized crime,’’ and thus understood as an extension of individuals,
of the family, or of private groups. This is the violence that is demonstrated
from morning to evening on the broadcast media, from the reports
of mayhem on the highways that accompany the morning news (at least in
Los Angeles!) to the incessant series of murders and killings that make up
the not-so-new ‘nightly news.'”

Privacy may be taking a turn, as 20/20 tells us, but violence is not. Indeed, violence is more “public” than ever, though privately relayed. If privacy is re-framing itself, it is in the form of the spectacle; as a remediated, viral, and re-disseminated image — a fast-moving “commodity ruling over all lived experience.

The possibilities are endless — and here, I think, there is real potential for new media to re-make our engagement with an embodied experience of “going viral.”

What if we were made to look at that momentary Snow Crash on my screen for three straight weeks — a moment where we were confronted with the anamorphosis of Paris Hilton, Hussein, and a the ticking off of time? What if this was the iteration we could expect as an “image” of the events that unfolded on December 30th? An image that crowded our over-indulgence and gendered voyeurism right up against the dangling heels of a dictator, and the failure of foreign (public) policy?

My fear and sad expectation is that instead we will hear and see over and over again in the days to come a virus of another sort. Can we all imagine ourselves collectively kneeled before the keyhole?

“Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing– is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?” (Snow Crash, 1992)

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