NEWS

In age of images, are children actors?

Cell phones equipped with cameras have brought Big Brother into every person’s pocket, allowing the children of the TV generation to become directors, producers and stars of their own films by simply pressing a button. Feigning shock, society is trying to understand what will happen in the rest of the film. In October 2004 a group of teenagers – three boys aged between 17 and 20, and a girl of just 14 – spread panic through the streets of London by beating a 40-year-old man to death and assaulting another four people. One of the attacks was caught on video by the girl on her cellular phone. During the fifth and final attack launched by the gang, police recognized the young woman – as she kicked a homeless man in the head – thanks to the closed-circuit television (CCTV) system operating in the city. The news of the violence shocked British society to its core, a society that had already become familiarized with so-called «happy slapping,» whereby youths would assault passers-by for no reason other than to film their reactions with their cell phone cameras and publish the images on the Internet. The events of that October, however, were the first time this «game» had gone so far. «What could have led a 14-year-old girl to such raw, unprovoked violence?» wondered the reporter on the BBC who read the news item. The group said that they were making a documentary about happy slapping that they wanted to release on the Internet. The debate, as can be expected, became heated. What is to be done about youngsters and their cell phones? Is there some connection between the device and violence? Was the fact that they were arrested with the help of the CCTV camera a positive or negative development? As a new technological environment appears around us, what kind of society are we looking toward? In order to curb what has become known as cyber-bullying, the British banned mobile phones from many schools. In Greece, events that took place last month at a high school in Amarynthos, Evia, (the alleged rape and filming of the attack against a schoolgirl by a group of her peers) should hardly come as a surprise. This is but one more in a string of such occurrences around the world that cause no small amount of discomfort to society, but which also reveal a new state of things. In Greece, as in many other parts of the world, schoolchildren acquire their first cell phone either by saving up their allowance and paying for it themselves, or because it is given to them by their parents, who say they want to be able to have direct contact with their children at any time. According to the consumer group EKATO, this trend is so widespread that it is estimated that some 90 percent of schoolchildren possess a cell phone. In Norway, statistics say that nearly 100 percent of children under the age of 14 have a cell phone. In Hong Kong, 25 percent of all cell-phone users are under the age of 13, while in Italy it is more than half of the country’s teenagers and in Japan 80 percent who have such a device. In the UK, 91 percent of children get their first cell phone by the age of 12. Future consumers For mobile telephony companies, children aged 10-14 represent the future of their new services. This is the age group of consumers that require their phones to have a television and MP3 player, as well as Internet access. In short, the mobile phone should function as a full audiovisual system. What this deep saturation into the lives of the world’s young people has resulted in is that cell phones have also become one of their most important means of communication. What for parents is simply a device that reassures them – in an increasingly confusing world – of their child’s safety, for children is a status symbol, a means to become a part of society and a game. Children lead in the evolution of technology. This observation means nothing more than the fact that we and our children simply have more tools of communication. What matters is that the environment around us is also changing dramatically. We are surrounded by screens on a daily basis. One or two televisions at home, a computer at home, in the office and at school, surveillance cameras on the streets and in shops, and the occasional camera or video on a cell phone compose a mighty technological environment, whose aim is not just to meet our need for direct communication and information, but also to perform a part of our social and consumer functions and our work, while furthermore controlling the new status quo. In order to achieve this, the simple cell phone has been equipped with «surveillance tools» that complement what experts call our «surveillance culture.» At the same time, under the excuse of the terrorist threat, Western societies are increasingly hedging personal and social freedoms in the name of national security. From the dogma of «innocent until proven guilty,» we have passed on to the idea (with the help of technology) that «if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.» Surveillance is legitimized both politically and morally. All this is leading us into a dynamic but uncharted new environment of new possibilities, but also of new dangers. Professor Hille Koskela, a senior lecturer at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Geography, argues that Western societies have reached a point where surveillance of everyone, by everyone, is possible at any place and at any time. Some examples are: In Great Britain, parents can observe their children at kindergarten through kindercam.com, which has installed cameras in kindergartens around the country. They can check up on their children at any time and from any place in the world via the Internet. They can see when a child is behaving badly toward their own peers and vice versa. After September 11 and the London train bombings, television stations aired hundreds of images taken by videocam showing scenes from the attacks. Media experts believe that the number of such images will increase greatly in the near future. The American invasion of Iraq was broadcast across the world by videophones on tanks. The torture of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison was shown through images taken by cell phones, forcing the US Ministry of Defense to ban new-generation cell phones from all American bases in Iraq. Education monitoring groups in Germany, New Zealand and Norway note that the most important problem of violence in schools concerns cyber-bullying – photographs or videos of children during gym class or changing in the locker rooms, or scenes of sex that are then put on the Internet. In some cases, allegations have even been made against children as young as 8 years old, while there have also been reports of such acts of cyber-bullying leading to children becoming suicidal. Time of transparency? The concept of a surveillance culture first appeared in Michel Foucault’s 1975 «Discipline and Punish.» Analyzing the 18th century «Panopticon» prison system designed by legal reformer Jeremy Bentham – who proposed a hive-like structure in which the guard can observe the inmates without their knowledge – Foucault argues that all social systems of hierarchy are constructed in this manner and for this same purpose. Foucault’s observations and Bentham’s suggestions have found their mark at the dawn of the 21st century, when under the shadow of the terrorist threat, the cities of the Western world have been filled with cameras that broadcast their images to police headquarters. However, the spread of these technological means brings us no closer to one another. Academics around the world are talking of a «poly-panoptical’ society, in which not only is everyone under the spyglass, but also in which the concepts of people-watching and surveillance are taking on a whole new meaning. Are we therefore heading toward a transparent society where the boundaries of our personal freedoms will shrink, as opined by public ethics and applied philosophy Professor David Green of Australia’s Charles Sturt University? What is certain is that despite the fact that for years many have feared an Orwellian state of surveillance, Internet users are showing a much greater interest in observing the lives of others through services such as YouTube. Are we looking at a society of small brothers? Reality losing ground? An event described by the 16-year-old student in Amarynthos as a rape was recorded on video via cell phone. What began as an exploration of sex (that allegedly turned into sexual assault) became a televised event. The simple push of a button became a second type of rape – of the girl’s privacy and character, possibly even more serious than the first – as the events that took place after the girl made her allegations showed. How, though, have children ended up becoming the directors, producers and actors of their own lives? And even more significantly, with what criteria do they cast the roles? Academics and philosophers ask whether reality is being transformed into a reproduction of the images on television. Do the endless reconstructions and broadcasts of images blur the lines between truth and fiction, reality and simulation? According to French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, as our new technological culture unfolds, natural presence is being replaced by the telepresence. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek believes that reality is losing ground to the new technologies and the tele-images that promise reality. Hille Koskela adds that we are seduced by the idea that what we see on the screen is real. Perhaps more real than our daily lives. Real people, she says, are increasingly disappearing into the «televisation» of their lives. «Being a part of the show has become perfectly acceptable. That is the work of reality shows on television, so we really shouldn’t wonder where our children got it from when we have accepted it ourselves,» says Minas Samatas, professor of political sociology at the University of Crete. The roles are not all the same in this televised world. The role of producer is different to that of director or actor. The participants distance themselves emotionally from their acts, they embrace the stereotypes assigned to them and become mechanisms of production. In Amarynthos what we saw was a racist and sexist television drama that expressed, albeit in the wrong way, the ideals championed by our television and the deeply rooted prejudice of Greek society. Unfortunately, it was all very real. Does human experience have to be caught on film in order to be legitimate? Has the screen become the «ecosystem» of experience? On the other hand, it is also likely that exhibitionism is also on the rise as a reaction to the philosophy of surveillance and panoptic observation. Many academics note that we are increasingly experiencing a rift between our corporal self and our image of our self. In his book «I Am a Videocam,» Professor Phil Tabor of University College London argues that surveillance gives rise to exhibitionism, voyeurism and narcissism. Violence, sex and all sorts of deviations from social norms make for great television fare. But, when we begin participating in these acts through interactive means, such as cell phones, the acts become pornography. By watching an event we are actually participating in it. Is technology to blame? Certainly not, agree the scientists. «This phenomenon, which is completely new, has found children uneducated in how to deal with it and parents, teachers, services providers, politicians and the legal framework unprepared,» says Michalis Meimaris, president of the Media Communications Department at Athens University. «The relationship between the device and fact is organic (and not causal) because of the fact that nowadays we cannot talk of a society that does not pass through the filters of visual technology,» says Athina Athanassiou, social anthropology professor at Panteion University. «But technology is not a symptom, as is often presented. It is the tools we have built.» Minas Samatas argues that we must connect all these facets of the argument to the dire educational system in Greece, to the content of children’s studies, to their relationship with their teachers, to the buildings and the overall atmosphere that prevails in the country’s education system. «Our children are using technology as an expression of a skewed revolution. They are kicking back. We shouldn’t be talking about children breaking the rules. It is our, the parents’, fault that we don’t spend time with them, don’t take an active interest in their lives, that we pay for others to shoulder the burden of raising them. This is the crisis that our children are expressing and sending their own message.» (1) Both these articles first appeared in the November 26 issue of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement. The illustration is by Alexandros Tzimeros / www.smartmagna.gr.