Is experience a commodity?
Updated: Apr 3, 2019
In 2007, while waiting for a bus back to University, I was stopped by the police. The encounter ended up with 3 policemen wrestling me to the ground, dislocating a shoulder and spending a night in a police cell. As there were no grounds for my arrest, no charges were pressed. However, when I complained to the IPCC (the independent police complaints commission) I was told that the cameras in the area were mysteriously turned off at the time of the assault. Strange.
Flash forward a few years and the black lives matter movement has used our modern technology to foreground police brutality in the mainstream. It's ironic as I consider the lack of cameras when I was assaulted. But as each video of a police shooting comes out like clockwork, a thought occurs to me;
'are these videos being shared on social media serving another purpose aside from getting justice for the victims?'
Let me explain. Social Media was built by people who understood human psychology. In Nir Eyal's book 'Hooked', he explains how smart entrepreneurs built (and are building) habit-forming products. These products hijack our natural reward systems, i.e the reward of the tribe, the reward of the hunt and the reward of the self. These reward systems effectively are the motives and drivers of human behavior. Though all reward systems are connected, the one I am interested in is the 'reward of the tribe'. Nir explains in his book that,
'Our brains are adapted to seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important and included'
I am sure a large chunk of the people sharing the videos of police brutality were doing it to effect change or to see justice but there is a cynical part of me. This side of me also thinks a large amount of these people were sharing these videos for the rewards of the tribe. We are rewarded to share not to care. Once the incident is over, we are on to the next issue that 'our tribe' deems important. There's something about police brutality videos sharing the same space as twerking videos and videos of kids playing with their toys that seems a bit off.
But this isn't just about police brutality. This is a question that is addressed towards our tech-infused society as a whole. The huge amount of content that is coming our way hinders us from being able to fully invest in any one cause. We have breadth but no depth. This though isn't even my main concern.
With the rise of social media and the dissolution of privacy, we are able to experience other world-views and perspectives with more ease than ever. But has this unfettered access to other people lives made us more caring, more understanding as a society? I would suggest that it has and it hasn't. It's made it easier for us to keep in contact with our tribe but at the same time places us in ever stronger conflict with members of the 'opposing tribe'.
So the internet and social media haven't proved to be the great uniter that it was promised to be. Hence in my latest film, Binge-Watching, I am looking into the future and asking whether Virtual Reality will make this different. Virtual Reality, though not new, has been coming on leaps and bounds recently due to advances in technology. It has been hailed as the empathy machine, a tool with the ability to break down the boundaries between us as human beings. These promises, once again, sound a bit familiar.
I am stuck with wondering whether any technology can break down the boundaries of not only flesh but genetics, thoughts, upbringing and ideology that separate us. This idea of the dissolution of the self into some unified serene collective is a beautiful notion, on par with religious claims, deep meditation or experience with psychedelics. Maybe we can build heaven here on earth and technology, not God will give us it?
Or maybe humanity's capacity for self-identification has far greater limits and what could happen is we end up with people going on 'identity holidays'. I mean the precursor for this is already here. Why do straight-laced people get heedlessly drunk at an office party and others get lost in social media and Television? The answer is in the question. They want to get lost, occasionally we want to lose ourselves. We want to lose our selves. So in an Identity holiday, you could take a holiday in another person, discard your identity and know you can always come back to your own identity.
This may sound benign enough but I think the consequences are chilling when you start to think about it. When Virtual Reality allows us to literally jump into another person's life, does this this turn someone's life into simple viewing pleasure? Will we become more insensitive to the suffering of others when we can log in and log out of their lives like Netflix? If we commoditise a persons lived experience are we turning them into a commodity?
What does all this say about the society we are developing with this technology?
I have tried to answer these questions in the only way I know how. Through film below.
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About the Author:
Nosa Igbinedion is a filmmaker whose work has won multiple awards, been featured in national press around the world. He is the creator of Rise of the Orisha, a superhero universe based on traditional african deities. His latest piece 'Binge watching' was commissioned by the BBC and BFI and screened on BBC 4. As the co-founder of the genre 'Social Realist Sci Fi', his work revolves around spirituality, politics and the future.