Are we all Edward Snowden? The lecture as a spectacle in the Zoom era
Teleprompter script for a performed essay by Gabriel S Moses
*In black: text to be read out loud
*In red: stage cues
- Start Audio Rec
- Start Zoom!
“Can anyone hear me? Hello...”
Those were the first words by Edward Snowden when I had the chance to watch him talk live from Russia.
slide: SNOWDEN smiling
This was back in 2019, pre-Covid when conferences were still held on-site.
slide: 36c3 venue
There, I was fascinated with the meticulously executed theatre of Snowden’s act.
slide: Snowden+hand - wide shot
By “theatre”, I don’t just mean the melodrama of his particular story. I mean the entire conscious execution of his speaking style:
slide: Snowden+hand CU
There’s his huge image smeared on the screen before us; then there’s his choice of attire, possible makeup, gesticulation; the particular backdrop he chose;
slide: Snowden speaking
and, of course, his acting skills in front of the webcam. Woven together with Snowden's historical-political momentum and the momentum of his presence at this conference, his talk was nothing short of a spectacle.
Back to me
I constantly keep in mind the spectacle of Snowden’s public speaking when looking at other instances of public speaking
—especially when looking at talks and panels in conferences and festivals.
There are many types of talks that seem like the farthest thing from a spectacle; like, say...
Slide: Cliché academic speaker
a cumbersome academic talk. But actually, academic talks are also my main focus here.
Because I find that comparing these academic talks to the…
Back to me + point at myself
Snowden spectacle helps underline the changes that academia, or “academic-styled speaking” undergoes in the various ways it is “put on display”.
Granted, Snowden is not an academic; he’s more of a splice between a hacktivist-journalist and an intellectual that talks like a tech-guru.
Slide: Snowden reading
But he oftentimes displays himself academically. I mean this in the way he takes his time to didactically lay out his very well-prepared arguments.
He’s approachable, but always eloquent and composed, and constantly refers to recent studies, and researched documents and findings. He does this to convey credibility, and he doesn’t have to be an academic to do so.
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Academic-knowledge has by now become more than a way of acquiring and verifying the quality of knowledge. It also comes with a distinct performative embodied style.
Slide: transmediale 2019 shot
And something funny happens to this academic style when you have a bona fide academic, speaking in a conference or festival, in the same line-up with art-performances and high-profile public speakers like Edwards Snowden. If you compare all these performances, suddenly, the aesthetics, theatricality, and poetics of the boring academic speaker are also accentuated. When all these traits are brought to the fore, the academic style, too, reveals itself not just as a performance, but also as its own spectacle.
I would say that the academic lecture was always a spectacle, even if unconsciously, even when seeming dull and distant.
Because, at its core, the academic lecture bears a likeness to the priest delivering a sermon to the congregation.
Slide: Medieval university
And this is no coincidence.
After all, in the West, the early medieval universities in Bologna and Oxford evolved from much older Christian cathedral and monastic schools. The sermon in the immense church functions as theatre meant to convince the congregation of the absolute truthfulness of the word of god. Similarly, the jargon of an academic-lecture, the program ceremonies, and the architecture of impressive historical institutes that house it—all these too, are part of a display of power; of a claim on authority on vast fields of knowledge; of a claim for credibility. To me, this kind of display constitutes a spectacle—though an academic might not rush to admit it.
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I will leave for later the debate on the destructive or constructive qualities of the spectacle. I will only say, it’s hard to resist its appeal.
In the current fast-paced, clickbait, post-Trump media-era, I don’t think I’m stretching it when I say that “making a spectacle of oneself”, consciously, is what critical thinkers often end up doing in order to become influential to wider publics.
Slide: Zizek image
Snowden is just one example of a few critical-thinker who perform their “self-spectacle” extremely well.
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I’d like to try to draw a possible trajectory to how we arrived at the “Snowden moment”.
The transformation of the informed lecturer into an informed entertainer, or an “infotainer”, was radicalized by the centralizing of the internet, already well over a decade ago.
Platforms like Facebook and YouTube run on an “infinite scroll concept”. This concept works best for packaged concise content that can compete over users' limited, divided attention. This brought on new attempts to compress complex scientific and intellectual ideas into better fitting formats. One of these formats resembled short elevator pitches and entertaining, humorous motivational speeches, which were inspired by, well, Silicon Valley tech-gurus.
Slide: TED speaker
This emergent hybrid format is best exemplified in TED-Talks. There, an acclaimed personality in their field— such as a neuroscientist or sociologist—would be given, say, 5 to 15 minutes to sell an idea and see if it catches on.
Slide: “Ideas worth spreading”
As the slogan of TED-talks goes: “Ideas worth spreading”
Suddenly, the academic style merged with that of the tech-guru.
You could then think of Edward Snowden as a speaker who figured out how to do the “stay at home” version of this stylistic merger.
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But then came COVID-19 and the lockdowns started, and everyone all became the stay-at-home versions of themselves. Also, we, teachers, lecturers, and public speakers, were stuck giving talks from our rooms. And so, suddenly, from slick TED-talkers, acclaimed critical thinkers turned into this.
Video: Naomi Klein
Like Snowden, Naomi Klein here is a public intellectual who also employs an academic style for credibility and is also stuck at home. But in this video, she’s the farthest thing from a slick TED-talker.
She more resembles her audience, also stuck indoors on Zoom.
Slide: YouTube Influencer
To me, she looks like a teenager YouTuber shooting videos from her living room—pretty much how I look like right now.
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So this suddenly got me puzzled:
When this stay-at-home style becomes a new default for any keynote and panel, does it mean we’ve all become Edward Snowden?
Or have we become the polar opposite? Or maybe a degraded version of his?
We resemble Snowden in the way we appear; self-confined, exiled in a room somewhere in the world—I could be in Leipzig now, I could be in Russia. I can’t always tell where a lecturer is by their generic bookcase or Zoom backdrop.
Still, Snowden’s backdrop seems a lot slicker than any professor’s bookcase or the backdrops Zoom offers. also his lighting seems a lot more pro. So even when he’s stuck at home, he still looks tech-guruee to me.
Slide: Zoom gallery view
Then again, we resemble Snowden in the way we too become “talking heads” inside our digitized frames. Still, Snowden seems to know: 1. exactly what we see of his face, 2. when we are looking at him, and 3. for how long. We, on the other hand, seem completely exposed.
Slide: Dildo shot
Not only because we often forget to remove private items from our bookshelves. In some cases, in a large Zoom-panel, it might not be our turn to speak, but another participant might decide to put us on full-screen to enjoy us picking our teeth while we’re just listening in.
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So again, which one is it? Is the “Zoom moment” the epitome of the “Snowden moment” or is it something else altogether?
One huge difference is made clear by this comparison:
Snowden came prepared for his grand online-emigration. We didn’t.
He invested enough time in advance to hone this move online; to establish his digital performance as part of his brand. The rest of us Zoombie speakers? We were completely caught off-guard by the drastic move online.
By now, one full year into the pandemic, most of us seem to practically refuse to master basic principles of proper lighting, let alone directing our eyes to a webcam.
Many academic-fashioned speakers don’t realize that their passionate, carefully articulated arguments don't look as powerful when they’re hunched over, looking down. If you’re not elevated from the audience behind a podium, you don’t look formal when you’re reading from the page below you in the dark. You look timid and lost.
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But to me, this isn’t at all a temporary goofy mini-crisis. And if we understand the larger crisis the Zoom moment hints at, just like any good crisis, we can also turn it into an opportunity, particularly for the academic style:
More than an amusing generational technological gap, the Zoom moment is the moment when a much longer existing gap forces academia’s tired performance to stretch until it tears at the seams. And when that happens, once again, academia’s unaddressed spectacle—its concealed dramaturgical performance—is revealed. But this time, it is revealed by ripping it inside out and watching it collapse.
And here’s the thing:
I think this is a very necessary collapse!
First, for a very pragmatic reason:
It spurs some lecturers to stop going through the motions and to try upgrading their style.
Slide: Shoshana Zuboff
Some gear-up. They fashion their homes into professional TV-sets and try to meet the stay-at-home TED-talk Snowden-standard. This also helps protect them from the pervasiveness of streaming from home.
But don’t some also take inspiration from the more contemporary “social media Influencer style”?
Video: Casey Fiesler
That was just a snippet from a Tik-Tok video by an academic called Casey Fiesler. She realized that TikTok is a primary source of communication for today’s coming of age youth, and she wants them as her public, so she talks to them in a style they can relate to.
I personally also favor this “influencer approach” but for another reason: It offers a kind of spectacle that can be sophisticated much further.
And this brings me to my second reason and final point:
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The Zoom-moment merely highlighted the same economic truth that both Edward Snowden and Influencers figured out long ago: We are always on display, we are walking spectacles, for better or worse. In today’s information economy, the “spectacle of the self” is what sells, so you better learn to hone yours so that it works for you.
Also Naomi Klein seems to understand this very well. To push her argument, she interrupts her academic-styled talk with an Influencer-styled intervention:
When she invites her family into the living room, she makes a spectacle of herself. But this is a self-reflective spectacle. It’s a spectacle that invites us to reflect on its performativity—by its undoing.
It’s both a very efficient and thought-provoking spectacle. Klein deliberately breaks the illusion of her formal intellectual setting to appear more honest and to make us sympathize with her struggle as a work-at-home mother. These disclosures make us buy into her message completely. Ironically, Klein hones her self-spectacle by honing its collapse.
But we can sophisticate this even further:
Slide: Mom Klein/Intellectual Klein
Klein’s jump between formal and informal spectacularities hints at a truth that we are still taunted with, by her teachers, the self-revealing Influencers: And the truth is that the self-revealing spectacle remains a spectacle all the same. It is a mesmerizing display of revelation. Just like the Snowden style, the TED-style, the older academic style, and the preacher’s style that came before them. Klein’s style too mesmerizes us by its performance to distract us from something else:
from the way it sells us credibility.
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The bottom line is, there is actually a lot to gain from this new mediatized “spectacular turn” because more than ever, spectacles invite us to hack away at their performances, in an endless self-reflective process—and it is a very necessary process. It is the process of exposing the concealed power dynamics we sometimes don’t even realize that we are perpetuating even in the way we talk about the way we talk.
Turn backdrop off
Get up and stretch in the background
Fiesler, C., Dr. (Producer). (n.d.). #stitch with theannalytical why #fandom can be better than #computerscience class. I’ve got the research receipts! #womenintech [Video file]. Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://www.tiktok.com/foryou?is_from_webapp=v3&is_copy_url=1&item_id=6935930116459547909#/@professorcasey/video/6935930116459547909
Klein, N., Taylor, A., & Taylor, K. (2020, March 26). How to Beat Coronavirus Capitalism (Part 1). Lecture.
Snowden, E., & Robert, T. B. (2019, December 29). Human Rights at a Global Crossroads: Whistleblowers and the Cases of The Snowden Refugees and Edward Snowden. Lecture presented at 36th chaos communication congress (36C3: Resource Exhaustion) in Leipziger Messe, Leipzig.