What Love Island can tell us about the surveillance state

Unlike the contestants we will not get to return to a world where our every move is not being watched

Maura Higgins of Love Island. Pic : Facebook

Maura Higgins of Love Island. Pic : Facebook


“Love Island” is a reality show that can be roughly described as a cross between “The Bachelor” and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Now in its fifth season in Britain, it is one of the highest-rated prime-time television programs in the country. Millions of viewers tune in six days a week for an unrelenting barrage of relationship drama recorded from every possible angle, using as many as 73 cameras and countless hidden microphones to capture it all.

It was only a matter of time before this sensation would be exported to the United States, and an American version will premiere Tuesday night on CBS.

Here’s the premise: Women and men are paired off and corralled inside a luxury villa on a beautiful island (the British version takes place in Mallorca, the American version in Fiji). As the days pass, they are eliminated in a variety of ways — sometimes by audience vote, sometimes by introducing a gender imbalance that forces the contestants into a game of musical chairs, but for heterosexuality.

The last couple standing gets a smallish cash prize (it’s around $62,000 in the British version; the American prize has not been revealed).

But after subjecting themselves to constant surveillance, most will end up “dumped” over the next four weeks. “It’s so easy to forget the cameras are there,” goes the common refrain, when contestants are eliminated and trotted out in front of a live audience, often to review a highlight reel of their greatest hits and most reviled misdeeds. It barely seems plausible when the contestants (who are required to wear swimwear at nearly all times) are always wearing extremely prominent microphones around their necks like fuzzy black pendants.

But ubiquity breeds familiarity, and eventually even reality show contestants, who have signed a stack of legal consent forms just to participate, forget the price of constant surveillance. “Love Island” is a product of the zeitgeist for many reasons — the show peddles its own makeup line and populates itself with minor Instagram influencers — but it is the absolute surveillance that makes it a cultural touchstone.

Trapped in an extravagant vacation house where all the clocks are purposely set to the wrong time, the contestants have nothing to do all day but eat, sleep, drink, gossip, or become the subject of gossip. Forbidden to read magazines, watch television or surf the internet, the contestants increasingly gravitate toward generating drama, propelled by an intolerable vacuum of boredom.

They say nasty things about one another, forgetting — or not caring — that all will be aired eventually. They manoeuvre behind one another’s backs, tell bold-faced lies and “sneak off” to have sex in the privacy of a separate room — that’s set up with more cameras, of course. The encounters are filmed and broadcast to the world. Each “couple” shares a bed in one giant bedroom where rivals and former partners can stare each other down as they settle in to sleep.

As the weeks wear on, some of the contestants seem to resign themselves to their total lack of privacy, going as far as to have sex in the common sleeping room.

Nobody goes on “Love Island” thinking he or she has something to hide. In that respect, the contestants represent a solid chunk of everyday individuals who have halfheartedly consented to surveillance for the reason that they just don’t see what the big deal is.

As contestants are eliminated, they emerge before a cheering (or booing) audience, slightly stunned and blinking rapidly in the bright lights, the memory of life on “the outside” rushing back to them. They often seem genuinely startled to remember that they’ve been having sex on camera all along — or, more devastatingly, to discover that they’ve received the villain edit.

Having “something to hide” depends on the eye of the surveillant. Reality show contestants and law enforcement targets alike can have the minutiae of their lives restitched together into an indictment.

“Love Island” serves as a cautionary tale of how quickly the expectation of privacy will erode in the face of ubiquitous monitoring. But reality shows — including the aptly named “Big Brother” — aren’t really allegories of the surveillance state.

The Love Islanders, after all, eventually get to go home. We should fear how our liberties and our own behaviours will be warped by the proliferation of cameras on every street corner, on every car dashboard and in every pocket.

But we should be more afraid of how impossible it will be to tell that we’ve changed. There will be no “outside” for us to leave for, no surveillance-free home to return to. In a real surveillance state, even the surveillants must live under the all-seeing eye. Without an “outside,” there are only other contestants within the bubble to film, monitor and confront one another. And what’s worse — being watched by Big Brother, or being watched by your fellow increasingly crazed and desperate comrades?

Sarah Jeong is a member of the New York Times editorial board

New York Times service

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