Artwork by Kathleen Ritter


Content, Consent and Surveillance Culture

July 18, 2023

Nearly every day as it stands, there’ll be a seemingly random video or image that makes its rounds. Some humorous, becoming unintentional memes (which is not without comment), others erring on the side of caution and some providing visibility for dangers and patterns of behavior to be aware of. The internet is a mix – mash place. With young people specifically, this surveillance state is particularly worrying. Everything and anything is content, and the lines of morality in these spaces are blurred. Personal and oftentimes intimate moments are recorded and distributed across various social platforms and it can be vicious.

Earlier this year, I watched the BBC show, The Capture, a series focusing on the reach and ability of surveillance, deepfakes and AI. Across 2 seasons, we follow the relationship between government surveillance, crime and its wider impact on personal privacy. As you’d expect, nothing and no one is safe. I found the second season particularly terrifying and for weeks afterwards would try and dodge any and all cameras I could find. It’s basically impossible.

Cameras are everywhere. Beyond CCTV footage and monitors, you’d be hard pressed today to find a device without the ability to record or capture you. Laptop cameras are covered, Amazon’s Alexa is always listening and Big Brother is always, always watching. As we make advanced technological advancements, lives of unparalleled ease and indescribable knowhow, we also test the waters of ethical and moral stances. Who consents to their make and likeness adopted for display and mass consumption? What seemingly  innocuous moment opens the floodgates for scrutiny and comment? And more importantly, how does this impact our social interactions and relationships?

In 2020, The New Yorker published an article titled Dressing For Surveillance, exploring how fashion can be used to combat scrutiny. If you search online, you’d be hard pressed not to find a tweet about recording culture ruining the vibes. And reasons for recording vary. We’re in a digital age, storage capacities exist in droves online, post -pandemic there’s a deeper urge to capture and make up what was once lost. We have the ability to create global connections and access to these experiences. That’s not a bad thing. But towing the line between living in the moment and living in the visibility of a specific moment is one such issue and while we can comment on that, it’s not really anyone’s place to state what’s right or wrong, because there isn’t. There is a bigger question on optics, on what it means to be visible and hypervisible without understanding and appreciating moments for what they are. There’s a more pressing issue of capturing content which does in some cases mean capturing bystanders or random moments that are shared and scrutinized and part of the issue why nothing is fun anymore. This speaks to an extreme level of self consciousness. Dating profiles are recorded, screenshotted and/or shared. Dancing at events or concerts becomes content fodder. Coming of age activities like prom or personal moments like dating are cause for critique or gotchas.

Content and consent are not separate from each other. In the bid to share ourselves and sell products, the lines become blurred. What is okay to show and what isn’t? How far is too far and how much is too much? This requires an understanding of the layers of human lives and livelihood. When we speak of consent, we speak to boundaries. We attest to what makes us personally uncomfortable and ideally extend this to others. We ask, is this okay? And respect that sometimes, the answer will be no. Consent has always been a trickier conversation than it sometimes needs to be. We won’t always get it right when towing the line between capturing and creating (memories) vs the moment zeroed in by someone else to make fun of a random moment. But we do need to recall what it means to be in community with each other, and the impacts this has on those we know and those we don’t.


Artwork: Hidden Camera by Kathleen Ritter / Art and Surveillance