Several years ago my mother picked me up at the Ottawa airport on a trip home from university. Before leaving Ottawa to begin the final leg of the journey to Kingston, we were going to spend a few hours with my grandparents — not at their home, however, but rather by meeting them at the Rideau Carleton Raceway. Scots to the bone, my grandparents had always enjoyed a modest wager, whether over a game of golf, darts, bingo or the lottos, and in their twilight years they had taken a fondness to Rideau Carleton's horse racing, slot machines, and all-you-can-eat buffet.
On this trip home, though, the outdoor racetrack was closed for the season, so after exchanging greetings my mother and grandmother went to play the slots, while my grandfather hurried me upstairs to the off-track betting parlour, where he had already established residence in front of a huge bank of televisions.
As I sat down, he attempted to explain things to me: "That's Woodbine. That's New York." And so forth. It was a furious blur of simulcast action: harness racing in California, thoroughbreds in Hong Kong; numbers of all manners and meanings crowding the screens; contrails of colours and lights blazing in every direction. I stood there, numbed by the action. But my grandfather was drinking it all in, selectively processing that which concerned him while somehow ignoring the rest.
Virilio might have described it as a state of polar inertia: central nervous system outered and accelerated to the virtual nexus connecting these myriad racetracks simulcasting from around the world, while meat-body remained inert on a factory-made bank of chairs in a room on the outskirts of Ottawa. His spare bodily movements came in the form of staccato walks from chair to parimutuel betting wicket and back again — polar inertia, yes, but also Everyman as real trader in the global market economy.
The scene described above has a rich pedigree that develops along two dimensions: The first stretches back to the earliest optical technologies responsible for the remoting of vision — Galileo's telescope, Daguerre's photographic process, the Lumière brothers' cinématographe, etc., all may be found along this dimension.
The second, which developed in parallel, constitutes the political economy techniques of disciplinary society documented by Foucault, a shift from the public spectacle of torture that ensured the moral authority of the King to the more fluid techniques of surveillance and panopticism that foster docile and productive bodies in the modern age.
Clearly, the tie that unites these two dimensions is the bias towards the visual. Foucault recognized that the Panopticon wasn't simply a model for the ideal prison, but rather a general strategy of power that played on sight and in/visibility, and as such "must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system" (D/P, p.205).
Television took a great leap beyond the film of cinema when it substituted for the archival substrate of celluloid film the pure signal of the electromagnetic wave. Live optics became truly remoted — tele-vision.
Most importantly, in distributing the image stream to multiple recipients, it eschewed the archive in favour of the transmission — the celluloid substrate of film yielding to the pure signal of television's electromagnetic wave.
For the longest time, the technological apparatus required to produce and distribute television signals was extremely costly, and thus only attainable by large corporations or government agencies. During this time, live events — in many cases, live sporting events — were driving innovation in television practice.
One such innovation was the use of multiple cameras to provide different viewing angles of the action, which were then synthesized into one processed image for distribution. The processing or filtering of these multiple perspectives takes place in the control room, where a producer has the unique role of surveying several monitors at once and simultaneously deciding what will be shown to the television audience. This process of viewing the same game action from multiple spatial perspectives may be thought of as the technical reproduction of the spectator viewing a Cubist painting.
As the cost of videocameras and the rest of the televisual production apparatus decreases, reducing the barriers to acquisition mentioned earlier, cameras begin to proliferate like mushrooms and appear anywhere that remoted vision is desired. One of these applications is in the field of security and surveillance, which should make sense to us.
Foucault notes that the function of discipline is to make the object of its power more politically docile and economically efficient, hence the desirability of the Panopticon tower and it's possibility of a guard or other observing gaze being present. The greater the number of towers, the greater the degree of discipline. In theory.
But does the mandate for economic efficiency not also encompass those who would, metaphorically, occupy the observation tower and wield the (potentially present) gaze of authority? In other words, is Bentham's tower guard not also subject to the same logic of production as the rest of society?
To improve the efficiency of the gaze we have two choices: increase the capacity of Bentham's guard, so that several observation towers are monitored simultaneously, or automate the function of the guard with some sort of computer technology. In practice, we witness both solutions, though for the "object of information" being monitored by the cool, unblinking glass eye of a camera, both appear functionally the same.
We will often see a security guard monitoring several remote locations at once with the aid of surveillance cameras and a bank of monitors, a role not unlike that of the Cubist producer in the television control room — except that the guard is often monitoring different locations rather than the same location (and act) from different simultaneous viewpoints.
We also frequently see the automation of the surveillance function by having an unmonitored camera connected to some sort of external archiving or memory device (tape, minidisc, hard drive). With this reintroduction of the archival substrate, an image stream is inscribed on the substrate along with a rich information stream of meta-data. Classic optical vision by a human and its corresponding action — since Bentham's guard only functions if the threat of punishment exists — occurs at some later time. Put another way, we introduce a lag in the perception-decision-action process, such that the surveillance archive becomes useful only after an infraction has taken place (witness the London subway bombings last year).
As a result, we now seek to either shrink the perception-decision-action time lag (which requires networked computer assistance) or return proactivity to the surveillance function (which requires bio-recognition systems and their sophisticated filtering algorithms).
Though God is dead, as Nietzsche tells us, at least we don't have to wait long to replace His omnipresent gaze.
While we have seen technological developments in terms of the reduced size, increased performance, and lowered cost of the videocameras that produce remoted electromagnetic image streams, there have also been important developments on the side of distribution and consumption.
Once again, sport plays an influential role in the development of the vision machine, this time in a consumptive role. The NFL and DirecTV have partnered to create NFL Sunday Ticket, a premium television package that, among other features, allows one to monitor up to 8 games simultaneously, not unlike how one monitors several racetracks around the world from one off-track parimutuel betting parlour.
At first glance, the home viewer of the NFL Sunday Ticket package is like the producer in the television control room, able to choose from multiple feeds to produce a customized video stream for an audience of one.
This, however, is not entirely accurate. In fact, the home viewer of the NFL Sunday Ticket package is rather like the security guard monitoring several surveillance cameras at once. In other words, DirecTV has turned the production efficiencies sought by security and surveillance into opportunities for the consumption of sportocratic culture.
Why? Beyond the ability to change channels easily from a dull game to one that is more exciting, it is to serve gambling purposes.
Each of the eight image streams has already been pre-processed by the producer located at the remote site. A rich stream of meta-data accompanies each image stream, indicating score, time, possession, channel, etc. Furthermore, there are interactive features that allow one to monitor the statistics of several players at one time (as for fantasy sports, etc.). It serves to increase the density of information that flows to the televiewer.
NFL football is hand in hand with horse racing as the sport most wagered upon in North America. In this light, we see that the DirecTV package resembles the Rideau-Carleton offtrack betting scenario, in which the consumption of video feeds from various locales exists primarily to stimulate or facilitate the productive aspects of multiple simultaneous wagers. The strict boundaries between production and consumption dissolve into the flesh and circuitry of the global network and the connected intelligence of millions of bettors continues to appreciate.