Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review of The Peep Diaries

The Peep Diaries:How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors

In this post-Orwellian era, not only do we fail to worry about vast amounts of data being collected by Big Brother, but we eagerly offer reams of private information about ourselves to him on a platter, argues Toronto author Hal Niedzviecki. We blog, tweet, post videos of neighbors in embarrassing situations, plaster pictures of ourselves half naked or hungover on social networking sites, and apply in droves to participate on reality TV shows. What's going on? What fuels this need of ours to watch and be watched?

It starts with our caveman desire to belong and be part of a community, Niedzviecki explains. As social animals, we're hardwired to connect with one another and to feel special or important. Historically, people lived in small villages which fulfilled that function. Everyone knew each other and everybody's business. Everyone had a place and was acknowledged in some way. Now we're global and mobile; we don't stay in the same town, we don't have intact nuclear families, let alone extended ones, and we're becoming increasingly alienated from the church and organized religion.

We're also frantically busy. Most families have two income earners and kids who are involved in sports and afterschool activities. Where is the free time to make friends, to hang out, to relax and reflect upon our day? Enter the Internet with its seductive message -- instant friends on Facebook! If you're unpopular at school, no worries. Post videos on YouTube and become a quasi-celebrity. We expose ourselves in the hope of making genuine connections, but does it work or is it illusory?

One of the best parts of this exceedingly well researched book is that Niedzviecki claims no easy answers. Unlike other nonfiction works that assert the Net and reality TV are dumbing us down, or making the new generation the most narcissistic imaginable, The Peep Diaries understands that not everything is black and white. In fact, most things in life, including the use of surveillance cameras, social networking and reality footage are complex and contradictory. They can't easily be assessed and dismissed into one good or bad category. Moreover, Niedzviecki is a consumer who immersed himself in peep culture, not solely as an experiment but also as a lifestyle -- he's still there despite the risks involved in revealing personal information about himself, which could be used against him, or out of context, by law enforcement, neighbors, employers or advertisers.

The old Shakespearean saying, "All the world's a stage..." has never been more true. In the modern wired world, we're always acting, creating personas online to impress and capture the hearts and attention of others. We have turned ourselves into products that we pitch to each other. When we take photos now, in the back of our minds we're wondering how this will look on MySpace. If we don't like a photo, we delete it -- we act as though the moment never happened; when we're at events, including the Olympics, we're stopping to tweet about how much fun we're having. If we're having that much fun, how can we stand to stop in order to tweet? The Peep Diaries has no easy answers for these hard questions, but it gives us all a starting place to look at our comfort with "oversharing," obsessively tracking and incessantly micro-blogging in search of an emotional connection that may always elude us electronically.