Writing at the twilight of the televisual age, just before TV was swallowed up by the Internet and rendered so much streaming content, philosopher Bernard Stiegler rang the alarm bells. The global broadcast of real-time images, such as the live coverage that dominated virtually all channels identically on 9/11, had the power to format consciousness, stamping identical images of events unfolding now into our memories of the receding past—thus standardizing and narrowing the font from which our present experience and future trajectories emerge. The argument, though framed in the phenomenological vocabulary of “primary and secondary retentions” (Husserl’s terms) being colonized by the externally recorded memories of “tertiary retentions” (Stiegler’s conceptual innovation), also had a clear sociopolitical import that went well beyond the solipsism with which phenomenology is often charged (or which it adopts for methodological purposes). That is, in the colonization of individual consciousness by televisual images, nothing less than the future of collectivity and political agency was at stake.
But things took a somewhat different turn in the new millennium. Rather than the global synchronization of images broadcast on TV screens, we instead got innumerably many different image streams, uniquely “personalized” to our individual tastes and narrowcast to our boundlessly proliferating devices. Stiegler himself was not unaware of the direction things were headed. Already in the 1990s, he noted how digital TV standards (like DVB-T) and their underlying compression algorithms (like MPEG-2 and later MPEG-4) were transforming broadcast images, bringing them closer to the computational processes of the Internet. In the following decades, Stiegler became more and more attuned to algorithmic processes and their refinement of “real-time” mediation (or the mediation of real time). Wolfgang Ernst (updating Foucault) has argued that these microtemporal operations constitute a new historical and media-technical a priori, a new set of conditions for the possibility of what, today, is sayable and seeable.
And so, Stiegler’s warning is still worth heeding: looked at in the glowing light of our contemporary screens and streaming devices, a collective uniformization is less to be feared than a minutely personalized subjectivation process—in other words, today Stiegler’s argument suggests that the culture industry can make you precisely who they need you to be, even in all your apparent individuality. Apposite with this idea, Neta Alexander has argued that the so-called personalization of streaming media choices actually has the effect of predictively policing the aesthetic tastes that such recommendation systems ostensibly serve. My taste in movies and TV shows, as inferred by my viewing behavior, is correlated statistically with others “like me,” and in the feedback loop that then ensues, streaming platforms subject us to an aesthetic education of narrowing complexity, slotting us into grooves that become hard to resist. With Stiegler, we could say that nothing less than an engineering of subjectivity is at stake, as streaming video commandeers our stream-of-consciousness and trains us to want more of the same; but rather than making us all the same, as he had feared global television would do, the affordances of interactivity and Big Data instead enable the large-scale coordination of similarity and difference, as Dominic Pettman has suggested with an eye toward social media. Viewers/users are profiled according to gender, race, class, age, and thousands of other, infinitely more minute categories that could only ever be discriminated with the help of computers; and as these profiles are fed back to us in the form of a narrowed set of streaming options, our future choices not only further refine our algorithmic profiles but also contribute actively to our ongoing typification. Far from trying to suppress difference, today’s culture industries are in the business of producing it in the form of what might be seen as algorithmically computed micro-genders and micro-racializations.
But even if we grant that these tendencies exist (clearly, states and corporations have long-standing interests in managing consciousnesses and collectivities), it will be objected that the control processes themselves are far from completely implemented or fully functional. In this respect, it is perhaps fortunate that we do not (yet?) have an adequate understanding of how attention works, and so the replacement of stream-of-consciousness with stream-of-video remains incomplete. Nevertheless, advances are being made, and as streaming video gradually escapes more traditional screens and finds its way into VR goggles, smart exercise machines, eye-tracking apparatuses, and EEG-driven feedback systems, the stream is increasingly tailored and attuned to our bodies and minds: video streams now interact with our very metabolisms. Granted, digital video streams are not directly entering our bloodstreams, but they are increasingly insinuating themselves into the broader ecologies and pathways of organic-environmental input/output, effectively bypassing perceptual subjectivity and operating directly on inward and outward movements of our bodies, including heartbeats and brainwaves, among others.
The Peloton Bike is a perfect example. Video contents, selected from a Netflix-like grid of options, are streamed over the Internet to the touchscreen tablet mounted on the front of the bike. I can choose a video on the basis of the type or intensity of workout, the soundtrack, or perhaps a trainer with whom I “identify” (on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, or other traits). But interpellation works differently in this dispositif, and this will hardly be a passive viewing experience. My physical exertion is registered, my caloric output calculated on the basis of pedal-stroke cadence and wheel resistance—if I’m wearing an Apple Watch, even my heart rate can be accounted for; and all of this data is instantaneously relayed over to the parent company, who will evaluate it and perhaps sell it to the highest bidder (maybe Google, Facebook, or Aetna). But in addition to the surplus value generated through such metabolic expropriation, my activity also generates more immediately tangible results: in the form of data visualizations overlaid on top of the video of an instructor encouraging me to “keep going” or to “try harder,” my actions have a direct effect on screen events. Updated in real time, a row of numerical values indicates my current speed and other data points. More dramatically, the scenery itself changes in direct relation to my activity if I choose a scenic ride that features “responsive video”; here, the faster I pedal, the faster I move down the road. Or, even more dramatically, the bike itself is turned into a large game controller for the Peloton game Lanebreak, where I modulate speed and resistance to score points and steer my avatar (a spinning wheel) around a virtual track.
Back in the more standard training sessions, a range of interactive and social options accompany my workout with the trainer: I represent myself to others with an avatar, a bio, and a set of hashtags, and I can give a virtual high five to my fellow riders—a group of people with whom I am alone together, connected only by the streaming video we share right now and whatever sense of presence can be mustered across our networked screens. But our connection runs deeper, not so much in the form of an “imagined community” (such as Benedict Anderson described for audiences of print and photographic media), but in the form of what might be called an “unimagined community”—an invisible and anonymous assembly in the bowels of the database, where we are typified and classified, clustered according to unfathomable categories emerging at the interface between body and brain, screen and metabolism. In these invisible circuits, a new form of augmented metabolism powers a new form of invisible sociality (all for the benefit and profit of unseen others); the reach and scope of the digital video stream are now hardly confined to a visual channel. The new metabolism populates the database at the same time it modulates our present screen experience; it leaves traces that will be collated together with others in a growing archive; and on the basis of that archive, our future activities will be captured, classed, and operationalized in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps the homogenization of consciousness feared by Stiegler won’t come to pass, but as the video stream expands beyond the borders of traditional screens, our bodies are being reconfigured as the streaming medium itself: organic and sensuous, the bearer of social differences, and increasingly a node or interface in technical circuits, the streaming body streams the time of the new metabolism, where present experience is hooked into the past of the database and the future of predictive algorithms. Mediating the stream, the body is now the site of a powerful real-time unimagining where invisible battles will be waged for control over future forms of embodied sensation and sociality.
Alexander, Neta. “Catered to Your Future Self: Netflix’s ‘Predictive Personalization’ and the Mathematization of Taste.” In The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century, edited by Kevin McDonald and Daniel Smith-Rowsey, 81-97. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1990.
Denson, Shane. Post-Cinematic Bodies. Lüneburg: meson press, 2023.
Ernst, Wolfgang. Chronopoetics: The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media. Translated by Anthony Enns. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Husserl, Edmund. The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness. Translated by James Churchill. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.
Pettman, Dominic. Infinite Distraction. Cambridge: Polity, 2016.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, vol. 3, Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. Translated by Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.