- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

From our fascination with "Survivor" to the fanfare surrounding the upcoming series "Big Brother," it is clear we are a nation of mediated voyeurs. We feed on the revealing images of others' apparently real and unguarded lives; we revel and thrive on others' exhibitionism.

But the current wave of national voyeurism may come at a cost, stretching from so-called girl-cam sites on the Web like that hosted by Jennifer Ringley to video veriti crime television shows like "Cops" and "World's Most Amazing Videos" and to trash-talk television shows like "Jerry Springer" that give us glimpses of other people's secrets and dirty laundry.

We may be sacrificing privacy, interaction and discussion in our desire to watch others' lives. Mediated voyeurism thrives when privacy is devalued. It elevates spectating over participation. We may be living our lives through other people's lives, disconnecting from the neighbors around us.

Why are we fascinated with these programs? Perhaps because they appear to bring us the truth with unscripted and unstaged videotape. The shows make it appear as if a camera or video recorder is an objective observer, free from interference of a human hand. The pictures tell the story. We never need to interact with the people we observe handcuffed, ambushed, surprised and exposed behind the television screen. The people are simply "others" out there. We are safely separated and distanced from them.

They won't show up, at least not in person, in our living rooms or dens and force us to have a discussion with them or to share a beer. They won't walk off the screen and into the audience, like the characters in Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo." Their problems disappear from our voyeuristic vantage point when the set is clicked off with a wave of the remote control wand.

Plus and perhaps more importantly, mediated voyeurism also is cheap. No high-paid Hollywood stars are needed. The stars of "Cops" are the cops and the suspects.

Yet the shows often do not present the truth. The voyeurism in MTV's "Real World," like that on "Survivor" and "Big Brother," is highly contrived and artificial. It's really pseudo voyeurism.

The chance to observe real people as they face their moments of reckoning may be another point of appeal of some varieties of video voyeurism on television. As we watch people confront obstacles an arrest on "Cops," a revelation of infidelity from a lover on "Jerry Springer," a day on an island in "Survivor" we are allowed not only to view their responses but to speculate about our own.

A sense of "it could happen to me" among audience members leads, in turn, to speculation about "what if it really did happen to me." How would we react if we were put in that same situation?

This mediated voyeurism also thrives because we are so used to having cameras all around us today. Cameras capture our images at the automated bank machine. They record us blowing through red lights. And, in a growing number of cities, they serve as surrogate police officers recording movements of everyone and anyone walking on the streets.

All of this shreds our sense of privacy. In turn, it makes us more willing to watch others, more willing to be mediated voyeurs. If we can be watched, then we should be able to do some watching of our own.

When television newsmagazines use the audience-popular voyeuristic technique of the hidden-camera investigation, they are essentially acting as pseudo-law enforcement agencies. We accept their secretive technique as a legitimate intrusion on others' lives because we have come to accept the surveillance camera as an omnipresent reality of own lives.

Mediated voyeurism also gives us a sense of power, knowledge and even superiority. We learn about others' lives, but they don't get to learn anything about us. We are thankful we're not the freaks on "Springer" or the suspects on "Cops." We're superior to them.

What is the future of mediated voyeurism? Can it be taken much farther to the levels of "The Truman Show?" Ultimately, we may grow weary of consuming the lives of other people as a form of entertainment, knowledge, power, or others uses and gratifications. We may eventually switch off the set when we feel the shows have gone too far in exploiting the trials and tribulations of others for ratings.

But by then it may be too late to turn off the set or computer. Will our society already have been irrevocably transformed into a disconnected culture with a mouse-click attention span?

Turn off those shows and cam sites, if not to respect the privacy of others, then for ourselves before we find the camera gaze turned onto ourselves.



Clay Calvert is assistant professor of communications and law at the Pennsylvania State University at University Park. He is the author of "Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture," to be released in September.

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