Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about NSA surveillance confirm that we live in an age of panopticonic fantasy. We want to see everything, and we expect that everything will be visible to satiate this omnivisual desire. Whether for national security or just our own personal amusement, we amass voluminous portfolios and databases of things to look at. Vision is power, and the seen-things are thus controlled in our sightlines.
Animal webcams are one recent manifestation of this hypervoyeurism. In a zoo or an aquarium, the animals are there to be looked at, to be the everpresent seen-things that confirm the viewer’s power.
Webcams are the gimmick du jour at zoos and aquariums. They enhance, or amplify, the human audience’s ability to stare – instead of cutting off the view at closing time, they allow people to watch 24/7. Washington DC’s National Zoo has more than a dozen webcams, each facilitating the surveillance of a specific captive animal: ogle an octopus or orangutan; leer at a lion; peek at a panda.
Though it’s been many years since the Georgia Aquarium, my local animal prison, opened, I’d never been there until this summer. I rarely go to zoos and aquariums because I hate them: I am ashamed by the arrogance of my species when we take animals from where they belong and resituate them in venues that are convenient places for us to see hordes of them in a couple of hours. I am stunned by the logical disconnect in the message that face-to-face “relations” with animals fosters appreciation of the sanctity and delicacy of our ecosystem. (Really? Regardless of the animals’ suffering in their inadequate tanks and cages? And their separation from these habitats that we’re supposed to be appreciating? We remove animals from the ocean to show how important the ocean is?)
At first, it was painful beyond words to see these animals decontextualized, disenfranchised from nature. After that, it was boring. I didn’t want to look at the animals – this was my principled resistance to the panopticon – so I looked at the people instead. The human animals gaped, they gawked; they looked as bored and as constrained as the marine animals, in this weird, placeless place that drags us all down to the level of its captive inmates.