Facebook has announced Portal TV, a camera that adds apps to your TV set, CNN reported. The device launches October 15 despite the company’s recent privacy issues. Is our relationship with tech moving too fast?
According to CNN, Portal TV is a camera with a microphone. It mounts to the top of your living room TV set, or sits just under it, and uses voice commands to navigate video chat with friends, augmented reality (AR) games, Amazon Prime TV, and more. It’s believed that Facebook plans to get a leg-up on the smart speaker industry that has been popularized by devices like the Amazon Echo, but the idea of putting video cameras in homes has made some members of the public weary of their privacy. Facebook wouldn’t be the first—video game consoles like Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s XBox One have featured camera-integrated games and apps for several years—but the device does raise ethical questions as well as existential ones about our identity in the age of tech.
How You Look to Others
Our reliance on technology to make life easier can tell us about what we’re willing to trade away and what we’ll relinquish control of in our day-to-day lives. Everything from automatically recurring bill payments to voice-activated entertainment apps implies our willingness to take a hands-off approach to living. However, if we step back, how do we view other people who do the same, and what do they think of us? The answer lies with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Sartre dominated French philosophy from the 1940s to the 1960s and he’s considered by most to be the central figure in existentialist philosophy,” said Dr. David Kyle Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “Generally, existentialists concern themselves with the nature of the human condition—things like anxiety regarding death, the meaning or absurdity of life, and the extent and nature of our freedom.”
Sartre was known for something he called “the look.” According to Dr. Johnson, he once asked you to imagine that you’re looking through a keyhole to see what’s going on in the next room, because your curiosity has gotten the better of you. It’s an invasion of privacy, but you’re so concerned with what’s going on that you momentarily lose your ethics in order to obtain the knowledge of the activity. Then, someone enters the room you’re in and you suddenly become aware of what you must look like to the newcomer’s eyes: a voyeur, a busybody, a nosy neighbor, maybe even a pervert.
“Sartre argues that ‘the look’ of others objectifies you, changing even the way you see yourself,” Dr. Johnson said, adding that smokers may know the look better than anyone since it reduces their identity to passersby as simply a smoker and nothing else that governs their lives.
“The Look” and Facebook
So how does mid-19th century existentialist philosophy apply to Facebook and Portal TV? According to many people, social media is an endless attempt to control how other people give us “the look,” or at least to control what they see when they do.
“You might say Facebook and Twitter exist merely to facilitate our attempts to ‘look’ and be looked at by others,” Dr. Johnson said. “We try to make others look at us the way we want to be looked at, to define how others objectify us. That’s why we post clever comments, share certain memes, and criticize particular views.”
He continued, saying that this is what Sartre saw nearly all human relationships as—an endless cycle of objectifying others or being objectified by them. “This constant fight to be yourself, to not succumb to the expectations of others and make others into what you expect, is a miserable dehumanizing process,” Dr. Johnson said, noting that this is why Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.”
Implementing smart speakers and video cameras into our homes will likely prove to be an extension of that process. Sometimes we clean our houses before doing a video chat on our smartphones or laptops, or put on an especially nice outfit when we have a video conference for work. It would come as no surprise if the first thing that owners of Portal TV do is to check to see what the camera sees of their own homes, rearranging furniture or maneuvering the camera itself to get “the best view” of their living rooms.
Dr. David Kyle Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.