Art, Design and Digital Voyeurism

With the unveiling of Moleskine’s The Detour Book, a peek into the notebooks of more than 250 of today’s most creative thinkers, our culture has welcomed yet another artistic method of voyeurism into our lives – and coffee tables. Certainly art has played a role in voyeurism throughout history, yet over the last decade, the Internet has [not surprisingly] morphed from supporting actor into a leading lady of curiosity and exhibitionism. Below, an exploration of art, design and online voyeurism – and how the Internet is shaping the future of our society.
To be fair, the term ‘voyeurism‘ is a stretch. The Internet is hardly a window into our private lives, and if it were, today’s society seems perfectly comfortable engaging in activities with the blinds wide open. Sites like Post Secret and We Feel Fine illustrate a collective culture that wants little more than to be heard, seen and validated. Both web sensations have spawned books where users anonymously submit their feelings to be analyzed, projected and – surprisingly enough – published. Yet can we really call it voyeurism if the participants are willing?
Not likely. Instead, it seems the Internet has spawned a generation of exhibitionists. From the displaying of heartfelt sketches to the contents of our refrigerator, we’re actively engaged in participatory voyeurism – sacrificing our privacy for a continuous stream of validation. In other words, we’re living in a proverbial Philip Johnson creation, an idea not lost in the art community. Nor the photography one.
Yet what is to be said for true digital voyeurism? Twenty years ago, a quick hop on the subway might mean running into an old girlfriend. Today, it could mean finding a new one – with or without your permission. Which begs the question: can privacy be invaded if anonymity is in tact? In a modern-day Sophia Calle’s Address Book, online art installation Anthroposts (created by digital artist Noah Pedrini) collects hundreds of sticky notes from around the world, displaying its contents in a hauntingly interactive fashion. Your grocery list could be scattered among the many. So could your phone number.
It’s an ethical dilemma that has been explored ad nauseam. In a recent Tate Modern exhibition, photography curator Simon Baker suggests that society has always had voyeuristic tendencies but now, the Internet is enabling those tendencies. “The exhibition is meant to be a critical look at the issues that surround voyeurism and surveillance. We are raising questions about boundaries, about technology. There are serious moral questions about who’s looking, how they’re looking and why they’re looking,” Baker says.
A recent study might provide insight into Baker’s thoughts. Surveying 2000 Facebook users revealed that most are actively engaged in the social network for little more than “social surveillance,” or virtual people-watching. Of course, the Internet cannot be blamed for our human’s thirst for curiosity, just as the camera’s invention in the 1800s cannot be marked as the beginning of surveillance. After all, shoes equipped with hidden cameras were established long before the term “web” stopped referencing little more than the day’s work of a spider.
Even so, the benefits of technology’s connectivity far outweigh the negative. “People can come to [Post Secret] initially out of curiosity or voyeurism, but then they still come across a very earnest secret from a stranger, that maybe is articulating a secret that they are keeping from themselves,” Post Secret’s creator Frank Warren writes. “When that happens, I think you can have an epiphany, and realize that you’re not alone with that secret. I think that can really start a journey that can lead to a transformation.”
Perhaps baseball legend Yogi Berra put it best: “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
Images courtesy of
Just for fun: The secret sketchbooks of today’s top artists: Lucy Hamblin, Allan Deas, Anthony Zinonos, Jane Reiseger, Jesse Draxler.
  • Very well said: “it seems the Internet has spawned a generation of exhibitionists”

    things like instagram and facebook can seem very self-indulgent sometimes.

    but overall fun, nonetheless.

    anyhow – great post!!!

  • I agree with Adi. Sometimes I feel self indulgent blogging about my family and instgraming my toddler. And I think about what you wrote here. Really interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love the direction your blog is going, and this very well written and thought out post is a perfect sample of it. Sometimes I let myself get sort of down on what we do and roll my eyes at myself, and think, do I really need to share all that? But I love the last paragraph there, and how it ends on a positive reflection. There have been so many times that I have read something and it has changed me, or changed the way I look at something. I think the older we get, we can either become stale and stubborn in our beliefs and view points, or we can challenge ourselves to try and evolve and improve. The internet has helped me try to become a better person anyhow. If we give it the right place in our lives, it can do more good than harm. But I still think I’ll resist jumping on the Vine band wagon, for some time anyhow ;)

  • the internet has opened up the world to us in the most wonderful ways, so a healthy dose of voyeurism combined with some exhibitionism seems fine if we can just show a bit of discipline with our time and restraint with our personal information (neither is easy).

    if we willingly click around the information vortex for hours on end we’ll likely just while away our time looking without actually doing (guilty). we’ll be smarter, but not necessarily deeper in our thoughts or in our personal relationships wherever we find them. like andrea, i’m also trying to close my eyes to the latest newest thing because just because we can doesn’t mean we should, although six seconds of that sunset would be awesome :). oh, i just smiled.

    • Love this thought, Cindy. I agree – and isn’t discipline at the heart of so many healthy practices?? :)

  • yes, including your last post about organizing our digital lives. i suppose exercising it requires taking some responsibility for our behavior and saying no or yes to some things. if only there was an app we could buy for $.99 to do it for us!

  • Goodness, I’m so glad I found your site! You are a great writer and have such intriguing content. It’s so nice to see original posts and ideas and actual writing out in the big blogging world.

    Elizabeth of The Corner Apartment

  • I appreciate the direction you’re taking. It is quite inspiring to read an individual’s thought provoking ideas. Thank you!

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