Digital Gaze

Visual Research

What does gaze mean in a digital context? As theoretical and visual research, this studio exploration integrates cultural observation with graphic design to seek to understand digital gazing.



Gazing Others

The word “gaze” is inseparable from Laura Mulvey’s male gaze. Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze adopts the Freudian psychoanalytic language to reveal a power relation between the observer and the observed regarding film and media studies. The male gaze is about how Hollywood narrative films render women as passive spectacles to provide visual pleasure for the spectating men and satisfy the male desire. The assumption is that the one who looks has the privilege to do so. A gaze without restriction or restraint implies the freedom in choosing how to see the world. The one receiving the gaze is then objectified, marginalized, and oppressed as they cannot control their own representation.

Social media changes the dynamic of the gaze partly because the internet space is devoid of spatial-temporal conditions. Neither time nor space is fixed online. The “all-to-all” communication model removes the need for physical proximity to other participants. The geographical location becomes irrelevant while enabling two-way conversation between many people simultaneously. The converging of the real and cyber-space gives the perception of occupying multiple spaces at once.

Time online is just as fluid and liquid as space online. The distorted sense of time in social media is not solely due to its addictive quality but also the literal presentation of time on the platform. Contents that appear on one’s feed don’t appear in a temporal order. Food picture sits next to a news headline from a week prior, next to ads and suggested posts via algorithm (a calculation of the future in advance). The understanding of time diverges from the classical uniform unfolding of the past/present/future and into a strange kind of synchronous asynchrony.

In her essay, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment On Vertical Perspective” Hito Steyerl describes that the current world is a post linear perspective world, one that dismantles the preconceived notion of stability in this world, thereby pointing to the liberation found in groundlessness.

When engaging with the Internet, there is a disorientation of time and space, which is like falling. The state of free-fall allows for the production of multiple perspectives and visualities. As the traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered, the sense of balance is disrupted, perspectives are twisted and multiplied, and new types of visuality arise. Falling, as Steyerl theorizes, signals a departure of a stable paradigm of orientation, which has situated concepts of subject and object in the art historical context.

In the digital age, the gaze is multi-directional, bringing about a more complex power play than the one-directed gaze in art and film history. As both active makers and displayers of images, all users are subjects and objects of the gaze. The distinction between spectator and spectacle is blurred because all users are equally both. The Internet grants anonymity when browsing and autonomy when constructing an online biography. This may trick one into believing that they hold the superior position of the gazing voyeur and active autobiographer. But one must not forget that they also hand over power by voluntarily allowing themselves to be looked at. The primal desire for social approval coupled with the paranoia of invisibility leads people to constantly shape their representation to earn attention and positive social judgment.

A crucial aspect of the digital world is hyper-digital connectivity; it is all-accessible by everyone. Even if not explicitly stated or described, all users speak to an imaginary audience and expect their presence. The audience here implies an ambiguous greater public instead of a designated group, so this dialogue of the gaze is more or less free-floating. There is an expectation to be seen and judged by others and a simultaneous expectation to see the self be seen and judged by others.

Gaze as Power

The panopticon was initially conceived as a supervision system for laborers by Samuel Bentham. Jeremy Bentham later re-envisioned it as a type of circular institutional building with a single watchtower at the center, whose watchman could observe (opticon) all (pan) occupants of the facility without them ever being able to discern whether or not they were being watched. The carceral model was meant to serve as an effective means of “obtaining the power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

The idea of the panopticon as metaphor for power was coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his Discipline & Punish. The panopticon is the ideal device for the disciplinary society due to the constant fear of surveillance. The individual is aware that they are constantly monitored, making power visible. However, they are uncertain of the unequal gaze of the onlooker. They don’t know for sure if they are being watched or one of the others. An indefinite discipline happens where the watchful gaze becomes internalized even if the observer may be absent.

In the digital age, the panopticon has evolved. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han distinguishes the digital gaze from the optical one. The digital medium lacks the gaze. The digital panopticon doesn’t rely on the central optical perspective; it operates aperspectival. Aperspectival screening is illuminated from all sides: the digital gaze is all-directional and all-pervasive.

Surveillance happens through data collection, and Internet platforms monetize data for profit. Social media platforms like Instagram do not steal any data. People provide their personal information in exchange for the free use of the platform. While the motive may not be to serve a political end, these platforms still reserve a monopolistic position because the power of the panopticon resides within the system. As Foucault described, the basis for the disciplinary society is the possibility to monitor everyone in every moment. General social media goes far beyond simple observation in its capacity to track behaviors and record activities.

Social media and the Internet are truly revolutionary forms of social control where people unconsciously act in a way functional to the system. In other words, because the gaze is not felt, there is a false sense of liberation, in which freedom is then exploited. Online participation, such as liking and sharing, is how autonomy and agency are utilized on the platform. The more people have an active role and feel engaged in social media or the web, the more likely they feel free. But to what extent is this freedom truly liberating if every movement can be tracked and monitored?

The acquired false sense of security softly indoctrinates people and turns them powerless to resist. How personal data is actually used for an ulterior purpose is beyond the knowledge of a regular user whose understanding is largely limited to the information provided before hastily being asked to tick a consent box. Apart from the dangers posed by the government that considers itself justified and empowered to spy on its people using technology, the greater concern is the troubling implications for the normalization of centralized oppression and social inequality. Without caution, there is the risk of an apparent power imbalance where the economic model/surveillance state is only being run to benefit the select digital providers that grip the operating powers of ubiquitous technology.

Gazing the Self

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage” describes a child’s (6–18 months of age) first moment of identification with their own image in the mirror. In this stage, the infant recognizes themself in the mirror as an externalized object and whole entity instead of various fragmented sensory elements (hands, feet, voice, et cetera), which have been the only things experienced before seeing the self in the mirror.

The reflection in the mirror creates a fictional unity, the “Ideal I”; the “perfect self” unified. This sense of coherence and mastery contrasts the child’s feelings of fragmentation about their own body, over which they do not yet have complete motor control. The infant identifies with this mirror image, yet at the same time, is alienated from it. The mirror image is an illusory optical presentation of a unified self but this self being an other.

A conflict is produced from this point on: identification and rivalry with one’s own image. For Lacan, the ego emerges at this moment of alienation/fascination with one’s own image. The ego is an imaginary function; the function of the ego is misrecognition, of refusing to accept the truth of fragmentation and alienation. The same rivalry established between the subject and itself is also established in future social relations between the subject and others. 

To exist, one has to be recognized by an other. The gaze of the other mediates and guarantees one’s image. The other is the dependent guarantor of one’s existence and a resented rival. One feels alienated in their very being.

In the age of Zoom, the entire day is on screens. Zoom’s front-facing camera presents a self-staring image and the screen becomes a mirror. This reflected image reveals the self as an other, offering a pseudo-third-person point of view. In Lacan’s mirror theory, only the child subjectively recognizes themself as an object for the hypothetical others. In a Zoom call, the other people are not imagined but actually present. The heightened sense of visibility on Zoom naturally causes hyperawareness of self-presentation, which is why many people find it so difficult to stop staring at themselves on Zoom calls. The Zoom gaze is a gaze of simultaneous fascination and alienation of one’s own image.

The fascination stems not only from a narcissistic impulse but simple curiosity too. Zoom face is unfamiliar because it is a mirror image of the standard reflection—meaning, all features are flipped. Additionally, the extreme wide-angle of the front-facing camera makes Zoom face even more uncomfortable to look at and adhere to. Hating your face on Zoom is the new hating your voice on the phone. The unfiltered Zoom reflection is a jarring revelation that usually has remained invisible to its very owner.

The self-staring Zoom gaze is unlike the posted-selfie online. The selfie is a single image, often an output of skillful angles, expressions, lighting, et cetera. It is born out of a desire to put the best digital face forward, a concrete image formation of the Ideal-I. The degree to which one can manipulate the selfie is endless since they have complete control over the image. A selfie is less an accurate photographic record of the self than a projection of intimate fantasy. The selfie serves to match the desired image one has of themselves in their mind. 

With contemporary technological capacities, one can be so accustomed to making others see them as they see themselves. The wish to perform an idealized self persists in a Zoom call setting. However, unlike the static selfie, a Zoom call is a live event happening in real-time with other participants involved. In contrast to a selfie that is a calculated production in solitude, the Zoom image is a spontaneous assembly in public. 

Zoom presents a foregrounded sense of visibility because the reflected self persists throughout the call duration. Such kind of environment inevitably provokes awareness of self-presentation. There is a specific expectation/wish to be perceived in a particular way versus actuality, as shown via the screen. In hopes to bridge the gap between the two, many are preoccupied with constantly self-surveilling and self-correcting their behavior. The inability to align one’s self-image in synchrony with the ideal despite all the arduous effort manifests as fatigue and exhaustion. 

The desire to see oneself as others do is crucial to forming and sustaining a viable sense of identity. The aforementioned Lacan’s mirror theory explains that mirrors have a social function, in that they reveal the self as an other, offering a third-person point of view. The self becomes an other in the mirror. The gaze of the other(s) is a reinforcement that completes the concept of the self— also termed the “looking-glass self.” The sense of self is based on how one imagines others will view them.

Using social interaction as a mirror, one reads the subtle nonverbal cues they receive to determine whether others view them as they view themselves. These cues, such as facial expressions or bodily gestures, flicker across, but most people are incredibly good at detecting and conceiving meaning from them. In social isolation, there is a lack of interpersonal gatherings. The forced solitude takes away the experience that only a person-to-person social setting can provide. 

The reactions from others are observed and interpreted through the mediation of our own minds to formulate a self-image. People rely on others’ impressions to nurture their views about themselves. The intersubjective moments that communicate subtle behaviors function as a looking glass. This mirror serves to gauge a sense of self and prove one’s very existence as an embodied presence in the world.

The common complaints about social isolation—feeling fragmented and scattered—are symptoms of the social self breaking down due to the absence of socialization. The contemporary collective feeling of fragmentation is like what an infant experiences before recognizing their complete image in the mirror. Isolation in a digital setting makes it so easy to believe that I am nothing else but a scrolling finger, a scanning pair of eyes, a fumbling mind with no clear belonging to either virtuality or reality.

The self-viewing Zoom gaze, then, anchors the sense of self. This circles back to Lacan’s theory. The deeper longing within the Zoom gaze could be the retainment and sustenance of self-identity that current worldly circumstances have corroded. The impulse to stare at the self could remind the collective need for mutual recognition. Every responsive gesture, to and from, is a signal that operates bi-directionally: each of us remains a vital presence for one another.