Media Prophylaxis: Reality TV in the Time of COVID-19

Curator's Note

In this age of social distancing, perhaps no TV show was more prescient of a pandemic lifestyle than Netflix’s The Circle. Debuting on January 1, 2020, The Circle is a reality TV show where social media meets Big Brother (in this case both the reality TV show and the concept from George Orwell): a group of players isolated in a small apartment who can only interact with each other via an in-game social network. The Circle is a media infrastructure: a set of screens, voice-activated commands, and obviously placed surveillance cameras. It is a smart home that gamifies the genuine isolation that so often comes with social media and, perhaps inadvertently, valorizes a system of controlled interaction.

The architecture gets all the credit in Michel Foucault’s famous chapter on the “Panopticon,” but the opening of the same chapter gives a different example: a set of plague protocols that are at the heart of an equally important feat of social engineering. Foucault points out that the plague town was strictly divided and isolated according to domestic apportionment. Only one individual at a time was allowed outside under the watchful eye of a syndic and armed guards to enforce the quarantine. The whole of the town was remade into a system in which “inspection functions ceaselessly” and “the gaze is alert everywhere.”[1] The act of looking, of being under someone’s gaze, serves a prophylactic purpose in the plague protocols, as looking and registration become one and the same. The Circle is a twenty-first century plague protocol, made into a game with prizes and rewards; in other words, it is something like a “media prophylaxis.” Arguably, mediation itself has a prophylactic dimension insofar as it intervenes between two bodies and provides a safe distance into which sensation and discourse can circulate. The Circle makes social isolation and social distancing one and the same, framing the benefits of physical isolation as a kind of freedom to be anyone through a screen.

The screens that surround us come into their own as prophylactic measures as the decline of actual gathering sees a corresponding spike in internet usage and everyday professional and recreational activities go online. On The Circle, packages of treats and other sundries are delivered by unseen hands, suggesting that a human infrastructure exists, literally just outside The Circle, whose labor goes largely unacknowledged by a system that depends upon it. Meanwhile, the players must perform their enjoyment, no matter what they were given, for an absent and all-seeing viewer. The Circle frames these shifting social and physical conditions as a contest that defers attention away from the media infrastructure and towards the individual, suggesting that the ultimate freedom lies in being alone.


[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1975), 195.

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