Sweating it out in my un-air-conditioned apartment, during an overheated New York summer, I recently received an email from my friend Jo, of a sort that thousands of people around the world must have been receiving at the same time. She was alerting me to the latest YouTube phenomenon video. I mean, of course, the prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, in the Philippines, restaging Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. In twelve days (so far) this video has been viewed over two and a half million times and is on track to become one of the most viewed YouTube videos ever.

The email from Jo also contained a question that probably did not appear in many other emails on this topic. She asked: “What would Michel have made of this?” Jo was referring to the seminal late twentieth century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who famously wrote about the history of prisons and their place in contemporary societies. (Foucault also wrote ground breaking work on other topics, such as sexuality, madness and psychiatry, the human sciences, and medical practice). Since I wrote my doctoral dissertation about Foucault’s work, it certainly made sense that I might have something to say about it.

My first reaction, however, was an honest sense of being completely dumbfounded. The vision of over a thousand prisoners precisely re-choreographing Jackson’s “Thriller” dance, in their orange jumpsuits and sandals, was just too odd. It seemed more like a mockery of prison decorum or like the accidental coming to life of a musical in the wrong place, than like a purposeful instance of punishment, justice, rehabilitation, or even vengeance.

Two minutes into the video, I got over my amazement and realized that in fact it all made sense, as far as Foucault goes. Thinking back over his theories of disciplinary society, it fit almost too well. Indeed, perhaps I was astonished at first, more because, as Freud says, what is uncanny is what is most familiar and therefore strangely hard to recognize.

And so the more I thought about the dance and about the appearance of the video on YouTube, the more I saw that it conformed quite exactly to Foucault’s theories about the social function of the prison. It was simply hard to believe that Foucault’s theories might be enacted in such a literal manner. Here we have in the prisoners’ dance, I realized, and in its appearance on YouTube, the model itself, as Foucault proposes in at least part of his work, for how all individuals become proper citizens, workers, students, family members, patients, and all the other roles we play in our contemporary life.

So I had my answer for Jo. What would Foucault make of this? He’s chuckling to himself in his grave and saying I told you so.

What we see in the video of the Filipino prisoners are thousands of people in identical clothing being marched around in a military like fashion. Apparently they are dancing, but in fact they are being taught discipline. The security consultant who came up with the idea freely acknowledges the disciplinary goal of the dance. This accords with Foucault’s contention that one of the crucial functions of the prison is to create “docile bodies.”

But more importantly, the dance is videotaped and posted on YouTube. This is done again by the security consultant who came up with the idea. The consequence of this is that, once the prisoners realize how popular the video has become, they feel compelled to better perfect their dance/discipline. Once again, it turns out that this accords with Foucault’s discussion of the impact of prisons in contemporary society. Prisons, according to Foucault, early on became sorts of panopticons (following a type of architecture invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century). The function of a panopticon is to make people feel they are being watched at all times. In turn, this feeling of being watched (for the Filipino prisoners potentially of the whole world watching) makes people take it upon themselves to better regulate their own conduct (literally for the Filipino prisoners to come in line with the dance). And so in the final instance, self-regulation turns out to be the mechanism by which external forces control the body.

This last point is probably the most crucial element of Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish, his deeply influential history of prisons. It is also a point more often than not misunderstood. Foucault does not argue that in our disciplinary society people are being controlled by the fact of other people watching (or videotaping, as the case may be). Rather he argues that we control ourselves by making ourselves feel watched. The sense of being watched comes from the individual and is an act of the individual on him or herself. In fact, according to Foucault, it is this very act of self-surveillance which is the means by which we become individuals at all in contemporary society–how we fit into the workplace, home, school, church, etc. Beginning in the 18th century and definitively by the 19th century, when this model of conduct was perfected in prisons and simultaneously expanded beyond their walls, and up to the present, we have been and remain a society of individuals formed in the act of making ourselves feel observed by others.

This is what is most fascinating about the “Thriller” video: the fact that it is placed on YouTube. It brings starkly into relief the underlying social dynamic bound in the fact that YouTube is precisely a place where people, more than anything else, post videos of themselves. And then they post videos of their friends and families, their most intimate relations. It is where collectively, and more and more, we are all subjecting ourselves to the idea of the disciplining gaze of others. We think we’re sharing, when we’re really conforming.

And once one begins to think about the Internet this way, there’s hardly any reason to stop at YouTube. For example, most forms of blogging make up even more powerful acts of forming oneself under the possible gaze of unknown others. How is it, after all, that the diary, a sort of text a person conventionally writes only for him or herself, a sort of text once symbolized by the lock that closes it, how is it that this sort of text has come instead to be published happily and willingly in the most public and global of forums ever devised? It is almost a complete inversion for the act of writing a diary, to turn into the act of writing a blog.

Dating, blogging, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, craigslist, discussion forums, webcams, more and more we are enacting every aspect of our personal lives under the gaze of potentially any other person in the world.

I’m going to stop now. What I have said is all pretty abstract and rather quickly sketched out. I think this topic is worth subsequent posts, where I will go into many of these points in more depth and less abstraction. I want to try to make plain the disciplinary medium we swim in and form ourselves out of every day. In the meantime, perhaps it is worthwhile returning to and keeping in mind my passing remark about Freud and the uncanny. Beware of what is most familiar. In our globalizing world, perhaps we do not need to be on guard so much against the encroaching interests of others (governments, corporations, terrorists), as we need to be on guard against the way we incorporate these interests as the things we take most for granted about ourselves.

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Bugaboo New York

July 8, 2007

For the uninitiated, Bugaboo is a Dutch company specializing in the production of ergonomic baby strollers with modern designs. Their strollers are modular, highly modifiable, made from quality materials, and come in a white lightning streak of fashionable colors (the “denim collection” being the latest addition to the coveted line). You know a Bugaboo when you see one. It screams high concept like no other stroller.

If you want to get your baby into one of these babies, however, it’s going to set you back somewhere between $700 and a cool grand. And then there are the accessories: parasol, foot muff, sun canopy, snow wheels, cup holder. Only the best for little so-and-so.

To spot Bugaboo parents, with their Bugaboo babies, bugabooing about, you need only frequent the gentrified enclaves of America’s cities. The Bugaboo parents are strolling around in Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than a few certainly could be found in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and then one or two no doubt down there in Austin or around the Plaza, in Kansas City.

In New York, it all goes to another level, however. In New York the Bugaboo is not merely a stylish possession, to be spied in the hands of the lucky few. It is a status symbol like few others, with mothers clambering over each other, trying to establish their rank in the baby-fashion world order. This clambering was all supposedly started, years back, by the appearance of a Frog model Bugaboo on “Sex and the City.” Subsequent to the rise of the Bugaboo to bourgeois cultural icon, of course, there’s been a bugabacklash. Even buga-highway-robbery.

Still none of this is very surprising for a city awash in money and status like New York. What actually makes me stop and scratch my head is the number of Bugaboos I see coming out of the vast blocks of public housing that cast outward toward the east river from my apartment building. Certainly the desire for status is understandable from anyone, anywhere in the socio-economic hierarchy. But if you’re living off of public assistance where do you get the money for a Bugaboo? Or are these underground Bugaboos? Craigslist Bugaboos? Miracle knock-offs from lands far away? Perhaps, but I have yet to have anyone try to sell me a Bugaboo on the subway, like a pirated DVD.

Nonetheless in New York, you see it all the time. And not just the latest and greatest stroller, in the hands of someone who is not otherwise playing the part of yuppie, but the coolest phones, the newest and slickest laptops, outrageously fashionable clothes, and every other high concept commercial item you can think of. In New York, yuppie affectations are somehow not always a yuppie thing. Youthful flare is not always a youth thing. And gaudy extravagance is not always a wealth thing.

I myself have developed a taste for shoes that it would never have crossed my mind to purchase when I lived in California. For example, I recently bought a pair of Japanese tennis shoes that aren’t, you know, real tennis shoes, but shoes that just look like tennis shoes, for, you know, when you’re going out. When I got them, it seemed like the most mundane and normal of acquisitions. It was not an attempt to stand out from the crowd. If anything, it was more of a semi-conscious gesture of fitting in. Yet all I have to do is leave New York in these shoes and suddenly I feel like a disco freak dressed for a night on the town, but somehow ending up in church instead. Only in New York could shoes like these seem banal.

So in New York, status symbols and desirable consumer items aren’t really the exclusive domain of a narrow class of people. They flow around more freely and somehow more pervasively. In large part, I suppose this is because fashionable items are so readily available here and often surprisingly cheap.

It helps certainly that Manhattan is in many ways just a giant shopping mall. There is not one Kenneth Cole store, but one for every neighborhood. A “vintage” clothing store doesn’t sell clothing from the 40s or even 70s, it sells last year’s best Chanel dress. There are stores for labels you’ve never heard of, heralding local niche fashion at outrageous prices, and then unloading piles of leftovers for next to nothing in “sample sales”; and I mean hundreds of stores like this. And it’s not unheard of to find a practically new stereo or art deco leather chair, piled up on the sidewalk in the garbage. Indeed when the myth is perpetuated that Manhattan has “everything,” so demonstrably untrue when applied to food or culture, it is nonetheless never more true than when applied to consumer items.

I find myself wanting to conclude from all this that New York probably has the most branded population of any place in the country (if not the world). It is a commercial culture in a profound and exhaustive way. This makes living here both an eye-opening exercise in what really makes the world economy tick and a sort of collective logo-fied delusion. It also shows the capitalist promise of choice for what it is: an inexorable movement towards sameness and expense, casting all people inevitably into the dark maw of the generic, while simultaneously pickpocketing them on the way down.

But don’t get me wrong, I like my shoes.

Coming out of the bathroom in the toiletry section (appropriately enough) of Whole foods, I was informed today that I had violated sanctified “Team Member” space. Customers apparently must walk the football field length of the store to use the bathroom at the other end. Of course, there were no signs indicating this was not a restroom for customers and, on a previous occasion, I’d been pointed toward this bathroom by a kindly “Team Member.” Moreover, what’s the use of informing me on my way out? Needless to say, the person policing me was not your classic über-friendly Whole Foods “Team Member.”

Tacitly, of course, I was not being told that this restroom isn’t for customers, but rather that a restroom frequented by customers is not good enough for “Team Members.” Indeed, there is a striking difference in cleanliness between the two.

What’s noteworthy about this banal incident, though, is its place in the larger class struggle for toilet access. It is probably not the most well known subsection of Das Kapital, however the struggle of the proletariat to use the bathroom and the clever efforts of the bourgeoisie to keep the bathroom all to itself constitute a significant dimension of the general battle that subtends and defines the entire socio-economic fabric. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York.

New York is a city where literally millions of people walk the narrow sidewalks everyday, often packed shoulder to shoulder. And yet, I can honestly say that in five years of living here I have never seen a public restroom. Not a single one. No doubt they exist, somewhere. I even believe someone published a guide book to their locations. But come on, if you need a guide (of one sort or another), it means the existing bathrooms are not plentiful enough to be useful.

This paucity of public places, for the tired masses to relieve the pressures of daily life, means that when one does find oneself out in the big city, far from home, feeling the need, one must engage in the usually awkward and often abasing effort to find a sympathetic bathroom patron, who will allow you to traverse his or her private restaurant or bookstore and use the precious facilities sequestered therein. (Or you can just go in, use it, and risk being policed by something like the Whole Foods surveillance apparatus.) From a social perspective, the message is clear. Bathrooms are for people who have money. If you can’t afford to enter a paying place of business (or wouldn’t be admitted to one), then why did you become a biological organism in the first place?

The correlation of money to bathroom access reveals itself most clearly in the corridors of New York’s polished and towering office structures. Whereas, on the street the everyman or woman struggles to find a usually ill-cleaned restroom in a semi-public business that will admit him or her, once one is permitted past the security of an office building lobby, shining porcelain cathedrals abound. Expansive, empty, and more or less spotless restrooms veritably litter New York’s skyline. Of course, the nicer the building and the higher the security, the better the dens of urinary repose.

So while people duke it out to pee at Starbucks, the ethnically cleansed corridors of Corporate Headquarters U.S.A. have more toilets than they know what to do with. I have never been in a bathroom on any floor of a large office building in New York and had it be anywhere close to fully used. Which leads me to the conclusion that (effectively) the corporate rich are hoarding the toilets.

One frequently adopted solution to the lack of public restrooms (at least by men) is to pee in the street. You see it a lot. In broad daylight. Street pee-ers seem to fall into two or three categories. The very same self-entitled fraternity of corporate crusaders, who have already hoarded all the nicest toilets for themselves at their places of work. Homeless people (understandably). Drunks (more often than not members of the first group). And members of the tired and downtrodden masses who lack much of an option. There also seems to be a significant subset of people who simply enjoy peeing in the street or think that it’s perfectly normal. And a friend of mine instructs me that I should include people with small bladders (who also lack much of an option). Lastly perhaps there are a one or two people who just want to try it.

One particular member of one of these groups occasionally takes it upon himself to pee on my bicycle chain lock (when I’m not using my bike, it lives 24/7 on the street, locked to a lamppost). Since it could not be easier to aim a few inches in any other direction, I can only assume this urination crime is perpetrated on purpose, for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Does my chipped and rusting bike represent something that someone hates? Or is this just another instance of that pervasive American narcissism where, in this instance, someone can’t even be bothered to consider that this bicycle lock probably belongs to another person and is not just part of nature?

Whatever the case, I do believe that the general desultory state of the street-peeing masses (young elite pee-ers notwithstanding) is a result of how the wealthy top ten percent will take anything from the rest of us and keep it all to themselves, even the right to urinate with dignity.

And so, at long last, I find myself making the call to revolution. It is time for people to rise up, overthrow the Wall Street and Midtown overlords, in their skyscraper fortresses, and assert the inalienable right of all people to relieve their bladders in a manner befitting a great democracy.

I call upon you, my reader, to ask yourself: if you do not act, are you free?

What…? Hello…?

April 28, 2007

An ad for the Samsung Helio cell phone, prominently displayed across the street from the Whole Foods second story cafeteria windows, on Houston Street, says, “Don’t Call It a Phone.” I find myself thinking: I won’t.

Presumably Samsung is referring to the multitude of non-calling related features that make the Helio device so much more than a phone. Nokia similarly wants consumers these days to think of its phones as “multimedia computers.” Indeed, the cell phone has truly become the Swiss Army knife of the 21st century. Packed with a surprising array of capabilities (screw driver, saw, scissors, shoulder launchable surface to air missile), but somehow not so great at any of these functions.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, there have been no advancements in the call quality of cell phones in the last ten years and no one seems to care. (I recently discovered that my Ericsson T28z, from 1999, has better call quality than Nokia’s flagship $750 N95 slider cell phone, with the latest in Symbian OS, wifi, and a 5-megapixel autofocus camera.)

The willingness of people to tolerate and, even more, their tendency not to notice poor call quality is especially strange in a place like New York, where we all limit our time at home due to the tiny size of our apartments. A friend of mine here likes to say, “the city is your living room.” No doubt. And many of us, from the early 20th century until the 1990s, when cell phones began to be widely adopted, have become accustomed to having phone conversations in our living rooms.

Yet, by any measure I can think of (call clarity, call volume, sensitivity of the microphone), the venerable old analog land line far exceeds the cell phone in its ability to reproduce the speaking human voice in a pleasant and comprehensible manner. Indeed, not only is the call quality on cell phones worse than land lines, and stagnating, but cell phones have introduced new problems (dropped calls, over amplifying background noise, brain tumors).

Why do we accept this? All the while demanding ever more versatile teeny tiny web browsers and well animated golf games. Could it be that we never really wanted to talk to each other anyway?

I once wrote to the editors of GSMArena, one of the more serious web sites for the cell phone geekerati, asking them to pay more attention in their phone reviews to call quality. Most reviews on their site and others (see also, for example, MobileBurn.com) contain perhaps one or two sentences, often none at all, about call quality. This in reviews that can go on for twelve pages. A kindly editor at GSMArena wrote back to me, saying that there are so many features in current cell phones they cannot always cover everything.

Let’s think about this for a minute. On a device which is nominally a “phone” (though Samsung and Nokia seem a little anxious about whether the word actually applies), the functionality of the so-called “phone,” as a phone, is not always a relevant “feature.”

I will now engage in my inaugural use of a currently popular phrase: WTF?

In my personal struggle to find a phone which works okay in the noisy city, I have actually found a great deal of variation from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer and so I consider the “phone” feature of the phone worthy of review.

Phones tend to have two significant problems. First, although they can blast out megaphone style in speakerphone mode, they very often do not have enough volume in the earpiece to be heard while walking down the street or in other noisy places. Second, cell phones these days tend to assume fairly small sizes, frequently placing the microphone a couple inches away from the mouth. This means that the microphone has to be more sensitive to pick up what you’re saying, which in turn means that it amplifies all background noise just as loud as your voice, and in yet another turn can tend to drive someone like, say, your mother crazy, who then drives you crazy, asking you over and over to repeat every word you say.

The solution? Not easy. There seems to be no consistency amongst phones for call quality, regardless of price, and not enough consistency with a given manufacturer to count on any particular phone they release working at least decently.

I do have a working hypothesis that flip phones are better for the microphone/background noise issue, because they place the microphone closer to the mouth. Steve, at Steve’s Southern Ontario Cell Phone Page, confirms this, in over a decade of reviews that actually focus on what he calls the “core functionality” of a phone (like, you know, how it works as a phone). But don’t jump to conclusions. Any particular model may well be terrible. For example, the classy Nokia 6133 and 6126 flip phones are utter crap, because the microphone is located, strangely, under the hinge. It must be a whimsical lot of engineers there in Finland, they’ll put a microphone just about anywhere.

I have also found that Nokias in general tend to be the worst phones for picking up every bit of background noise and making it as clear and loud as a bell (I tested a bunch of Nokia phones at their flagship store on 57th Street and have owned a couple). The aforementioned Steve confirms my observation about Nokia. Apparently Sony-Ericssons have the best noise canceling technology and some Motorolas are good.

But really, even when you try, it’s hard to find a cell phone that gets every element of call quality right. So in the end, I guess I have to agree with Samsung and Nokia. I won’t call it a phone.