Love Under Surveillance

December 5, 2022 / Safa Michigan

This week, a hot new bombshell has entered the villa. We don’t know if she’s here for money, for fame, just for fun, or to quell an aching desire for human connection, but sit back, relax, and watch how everyone is going to pick her apart. Will you relish it?

Each June, five single men and five single women specially selected for a summer of love descend upon an island villa, ready to spend the next eight weeks lounging in their swimsuits with only each other’s company.

They are not permitted outside contact until it’s time to meet the families. No books, no magazines, no media at all. Conversation topics are limited. Communication is monitored. All day is spent waiting for instructions from the gamemakers. They are told when it’s time to participate in erotic (as hot and heavy as cable television allows) challenges, when it’s time to go on dates, when it’s time to recouple, when it’s time for a new bombshell to enter the villa and shake up established dynamics, and when it’s time for the infamous Casa Amor. During this climactic point each season, the remaining women and men are separated into different villas, and a fresh set of men and women (respectively) are sent in to generate chaos and test existing couples’ loyalty. The show is like a live-action dating app, from the coupling ritual that takes place at the beginning of every season, to the constant introduction of new faces, to the recoupling ceremonies.

In heavily edited footage excised from over a thousand hours of observation, the contestants perform for the cameras and for audiences at home who will decide their fate. They prove that they’re in love, or they prove that they’re interesting enough and, therefore, worthy to continue on the journey.

This is the general premise of any season of the British reality television series Love Island, now with American and Australian spinoffs. The original iteration of the show featured celebrity contestants. The series was unsuccessful, however, until a rebrand that nixed the celebrities and opened applications to the everyday man or woman — as long as their gender identity is palatable to the dominant culture and their physical attractiveness is rooted in European beauty standards maintained by the racial homogeneity of the mostly white cast. Contestants of color are often invisibilized or tokenized in the courting process, but it’s especially gratifying when they find what seems like a genuine connection. It’s especially disappointing when they’re voted off.

Inextricable from the appeal of the show is its tropical setting and the flashy colors characterizing the villa’s decor. It’s an escape from the humdrum of late stage capitalism or the boredom of a loveless life, a respite from the unfulfilling game that is modern dating. On one level, the contestants are competing for money, wherein partly lies the commodification of love that fuels the show’s appeal to the public, but the producers are also getting rich off of love as a construction. Under technocapitalism, love is entertainment, and it’s a pipeline to wild success as an influencer.

Seventy-three surveillance cameras adorn the villa,  even in the large shared bathroom. We accept this invasion of privacy because the contestants technically consent. Consent is complicated by the fact that they have no influence over what is eventually broadcasted to the public.

On Love Island, reality and fantasy blur into a frothy concoction of exhibitionist delight, and I, the voyeur, tune in for the chance to drink it in, along with millions of others.

We become emotional voyeurs because we are desperate for connection. Our voyeurism derives from a place of empathy and fundamentally, a fascination with the human condition itself. The Love Island villa operates as a laboratory experimenting on the spectrum of human emotion. Research questions: How does temporality shift when you remove daily distractions like media consumption from the equation? What happens if you drive a person just a little mad?

The villa is a microcosm of the larger state of human interaction in the age of technocapitalism ⁠— in other words, it reflects how the rest of us love each other, surveil each other, pick each other apart, and even kill each other. The show’s former host and two former contestants have committed suicide, revealing the tangible consequences of love under surveillance.

The consumption of reality television is an exercise in determining what is genuine and what is an illusion; we find delight in discerning between organic conversation and semi-scripted dialogue, between love and lust, between primal emotional outbursts and theatrical performance. The act of viewing is also a process of creation: We create authenticity out of unclear, murky moments in a parasocial projection. We pretend we know the contestants and that we know what’s best for them.

In one retelling, eighteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham harbored good intentions when he invented the panopticon. His system of social control was initially designed to uphold prison as an idealized site of reformation.

Within a panoptic structure, a single authority figure presides over incarcerated individuals from a watchtower in the center. Those incarcerated are unable to discern when exactly they are being watched, so even though they know it’s physically impossible for the warden to observe them all simultaneously, a sense of paranoia seeps in, forcing them into what Michel Foucault calls self-regulation.

The Love Island villa is a glossy, colorful panopticon out of Jeremy Bentham’s wildest dreams. On Love Island, producers and editors are the few wardens observing the many through a sophisticated system that ensures control. As I watched Love Island USA season four last month, I noticed one particularly jarring neon sign among the kitschy collection decorating the villa: “ALL EYES ON ME.”

At the inverse of panoptic surveillance lies synoptic surveillance, through which the many watch the few, made possible by the rise of mass media, cable and streaming television, and the Internet.

Millions of people debate contestants’ every conversation and every facial expression from the comfort of their own living rooms thousands of miles away,  yet are deeply invested in their actions. They tweet and post on Reddit. Producers even show contestants select social media posts. After the show ends, former contestants build livelihoods out of their success, negotiating brand deals, becoming influencers, and capitalizing on the synoptic surveillance they experienced.

The interactive structure of the show allows us viewers to play gamemaker, and we even get to play God.  As citizens of a surveillance state, we have long tried to harness His eyes. Through our role in this synoptic system of control, we are able to reclaim omnipotent power, even if for only the moment it takes to vote someone off the island.

In one sense, the few watch the many in the villa; in another, the many watch the few. The structure of Love Island allows panoptic and synoptic surveillance to work as synergistic systems of control, but they are complicated by an interesting phenomenon: the watched watching each other.  In other words, those coerced into self-regulation also regulate the behavior of those around them, replicating the surveillance practices they endure together unto one another.

What’s unnerving ⁠— and delicious ⁠— about Love Island is that the contestants volunteered to subject themselves to these multiplicitous layers of surveillance, anxiety, and paranoia. It’s a social experiment in which I often find myself wishing to participate, fantasizing about the decisions I would make, the strategies I would use, and the way I would present myself.

I, like the contestants, am also constantly watched and witnessed by both conspicuous and unseen forces that influence, control, and police my behavior.

As a citizen of a surveillance state, I live under the watchful eyes of CCTV, security cameras on every block, and biometric identification. There are 4.6 people per camera in the US, and once you’re cataloged in the system, it’s virtually impossible to erase yourself from it.

As a habitual social media user, I’m a consistent practitioner of exhibitionism, a curator of experiences and memories. I was a child raised by the Internet, an active agent in my own surveillance. For years, I broadcasted intimate details of my life to a “finsta” I let relatively untrustworthy people follow. When I experienced hypomania (before I even knew what it was), I found myself oversharing on Snapchat and Twitter. Lonely, I sought the mirage of closeness I thought public vulnerability could bring me. Online, I am also a voyeur, entertained and placated by illusory access to the lives of those I know well and those I don’t know at all.

As a woman, I endure the incessant attention of the male gaze, and I am repeatedly constructed under its exploitative eye. The women on Love Island experience this at its most exaggerated.

And on my worst days, when I desperately need the world to make sense, I am hyperconscious of the eyes of God. On those days, I feel guilty about my decisions, as though the wrong ones I’ve made could sentence me to the eternal damnation they’ve been warning me about since I was a child.

But the guilt often resolves itself, and through my characteristic refusal to self-regulate my behavior in spite of the threat of hell, I defy God. That doesn’t mean I’m unscrupulous. Morality doesn’t necessarily emanate from religion; really, it comes from within.

There are eyes on me all the time, real and imagined. I can only hope they’re enjoying the show. ■

By: Safa Michigan

Layout: Emely Romo

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.
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