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Monkey See, Monkey You

Video: Monkey Business


The idea for this video spawned from a single, hilarious tweet:

In a deceptively simple package, this tweet highlights both the surveillance seeping through through our devices, and the primitive, helpless state we’re left in in those devices’ absence. Dozens of similar tweets riff on this headline, and it’s impossible to know the idea’s origin. But that’s not the point. With any meme, what matters most is that it exists in the first place; that a certain awareness amuses enough people — to the point it’s posted, shared, and remixed. The impulse came from somewhere, and that somewhere is always worth exploring.

Locating the source behind this meme was easy — a PBS Nature show called Spy in the Wild. Somewhere between Planet Earth and Inspector Gadget, the series deploys animatronic spycams to “infiltrate the natural world to film surprising behavior among wildlife from around the globe.” Browsing the show’s website I discovered, to my delight (and horror), the robot monkeys’ co-stars:

“Spy Orangutan, Spy Croc Hatchling, Spy Meerkat, Spy Egret, Spy Tortoise, Spy Prairie Dog, Spy Macaw, Spy Sloth, Spy Cobra, Spy Bushbaby, Spy Squirrel, Spy Adelie, and Spy Baby Hippo.”

Image: © John Downer Productions

Twitter memes aside, the show itself is practically a meme as it is. I mean… Robot spy monkeys? On one hand, this makes it a softball for further internet jokery. But on the other hand, it invites examination of the show’s coincidentally happy landing into the web memescape — in which “going viral” is any show’s holy grail. Here lie traces of the show’s shaky ideological grounding and potentially exploitative nature. To substantiate these concerns, I’ll leave it to these Reddit AMA questions for the show’s producers:

These comments are hardly surprising. If I found a limp hunk of metal that loosely resembled me, I’d probably be traumatized too. And were the robots necessary? Surely, stashing the cameras in trees and rocks would’ve been easier, cheaper, and more animal-friendly.

According to the show’s site, the robot spycams are intended to “reveal animals as having emotions and behavior similar to humans: specifically, a capacity to love, grieve, deceive, and invent.” While this sidesteps concerns like those voiced in the Reddit questions, it at least hints at one of the show’s objectives — rendering the animals similar to humans; making them relatable. This focus on “relatability” is common to most nature shows, and also happens to be strongly associated with memes. After all, what is a meme if not a satisfyingly accurate reflection of some precisely human experience?

Animals, especially those most easily anthropomorphized, tend to be particularly useful in achieving the ever-so-valuable currency of relatability. The “me when my phone dies” tweet and its variants suggest Spy in the Wild succeeded on this front. So it’s no accident the scenes that caught the most traction online featured the series’ most humanlike animals (langur monkeys and gorillas, instead of, say, cobras and crocs).

But still, why the spycams? Well, here’s my theory. Due to rapid ascent of privacy issues into the cultural conversation, the experience of being “spied on” has suddenly become #relatable. As algorithmic and artificially intelligent forces extend their authority over our lives, we increasingly crave cues in relating to this mysterious tech. Entertainment opportunists line up to satiate this hunger, for better or worse.

Spy in the Wild seems to have sprouted out of these digital-centric concerns — over AI, big data, automation and the rest. The robots aren’t simply recording the behavior of their animal counterparts, they’re spying on them. The cameras aren’t concealed discreetly, but they’re fashioned Terminator-style to glint in one eye. It’s not enough to see an orangutan operating a saw — we also need a robot orangutan competing to saw the log faster. Rife suspicions about robots “stealing our jobs” and social media “killing our privacy” are both threaded into and reinforced by the show’s creative decisions.

This digital undergirding also manifests in Spy in the Wild’s use of perspective. Shooting the animals with distant telephoto lenses would’ve been just fine in the TV era, when viewers were inherently detached from the production of the content onscreen. A clear audience-performer distinction, however, is much harder to find on the web. Now that everyone’s sucked into the conversation, “capturing the action” looks a little different than it used to. In the world of bits, the observer lies within the action, even catalyzes it.

So in Spy in the Wild, the camera isn’t just a camera; and the robots aren’t simply props. The robot spycams are the crux of the show: the point of view, the underlying tension, and the force driving the action. They aren’t ornaments to the scene, but they are the scene in itself. Like an episode of Punk'd, the entertainment derives not from the subjects per se, but from how the subjects have been played upon; left out of the joke.

Image: © John Downer Productions

The robo fluff monsters certainly don’t fool the real animals, but that doesn’t matter. To the producers, the more important spectator is the one sitting on the other side the screen (aka you!) and whatever it takes to draw a laugh or an awe takes priority. Any confusion or suffering to the real animals is just collateral. So while Spy in the Wild claims to capture “natural behavior” in the wild, its actual entertainment value rides on the artificiality of its constructed situations.

This all reminds me of a scene from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, in which Jim Carrey climbs inside an animatronic rhino to spy on the bad guys. After the rhino’s fan craps out he’s forced to strip down and find a way out. This scene (which, in middle school, I thought to be the absolute funniest moment in cinema) follows a similar blueprint as Spy in the Wild. In both, the supposed “observation” taking place is completely aside the point; the spying is just a narrative device — a source of drama, irony, and humor.

The experience viewing Spy in the Wild mirrors that of the mortified tourist watching Ace seemingly birthed out of the rhino. Despite being provided a grossly incomplete view of what’s going on, our narrative-seeking minds can’t help but to connect the dots to form a story — however grotesque it may be. The show hangs the narrative bait, but ultimately the story happens in our minds.

This sort of narrative manufacturing is endemic to the nature genre. Like any show, shooting wraps and editors squeeze down mountains of footage into a handful of selects, then painstakingly arrange those into something that resembles a narrative. Narrations are laid over the top to seal the deal — ascribing humanlike traits and desires to the animals. All of which makes the end product more readily absorbed by our narrative-oriented minds.

Artificial or not, these narratives supply the genre plenty of both entertainment and criticism. Storytelling purists argue the narratives are dishonest. Scientific purists argue they don’t address the real issues with enough rigor. Well... DUH! They're not made for science; they’re not even made to educate. They’re made to entertain, and most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. Would you rather read a scientific publication on sloth endangerment, or listen to David Attenborough narrate epic clips of a sloth’s river-crossing journey for love? Yeah, me too.

But stories do more than just entertain. As a wise person once said (many wise people, actually): culture creates stories, and stories create culture in return. Once you have a meme to describe something, the meme will consequently shape your experience of the thing. The “relatability” of a meme can then be a self-fulfilling prophesy: reinforcing the conditions it emerged from. This is the feedback loop we’ve come to associate with disparities in media representation — such as, how movies teach children whether they look more like heroes or villains, damsels or jocks. Nature documentaries, as innocuous as they may seem, are not free of these dangers.

With the gamut of human complexity on offer, Spy in the Wild memefies our most vile tendencies — not love like Attenborough’s sloth, but spying and voyeurism. Even worse, as an audience we relate not to the spies, but instead those being spied upon. We can’t help but to side with the helpless and confused animals because we share their slot in the hierarchy — made subordinate to those monitoring from a distance via Bluetooth monitors and algorithms. Spy in the Wild not only normalizes spying, but also champions those conducting it — as earnest, objective practitioners of “science.”

So if we are the monkeys being spied on, then who are the producers on the other side of the screen? What strings do they pull, and how? Who’s telling our story, and who’s reaping the profits?

Well, that’s what the video’s for! If you haven’t already, take a gander at this essay’s more visually-oriented sibling — Monkey Business. Hope it makes you laugh; hope it makes you think; and most of all, I hope it makes you think about why you’re laughing. And hey, share with a friend while you’re at it!

Thanks, as always, for joining me on the VU JA DE Express — aboard which we journeyed from memes to relatability, and boomeranged right back (with guest appearances from David Attenborogh and Ace Ventura along the way); so if you’re still with me, congratulations.

In case you’ve forgotten by now, a clever tweet shot me down this rabbit hole; and it turns out the contents of another tweet have finally hoisted me back out. Here’s your think-piece to cap this one off:

“Perhaps we have even more to fear from people who act as if they were computers than from computers programmed to pretend to be human.”


Some more bananas for ya:

Marshawn Lynch Narrates Planet Earth

Hannity vs. Harris

The Tech Backlash We Really Need

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