Digital Skepticism in “Digital Witness”
Music Video Analysis: “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent
by Colin Hodgson
Although the number of U.S. adults that use social media has doubled in the last decade, hostility towards social media has risen as well. According to a recent survey by The Verge, less than half of all Americans trust the three major social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) with their information. This anger has resulted from a multitude of issues such as the selling of personal data to third parties, overreaching censorship, lack of action to combat disinformation, and so on. The underlying current, however, is mistrust and fear of technology. While social media may be a new battleground for this struggle between humanity and technology, the conflict itself is extremely old.
Technology usually advances productivity and efficiency, but it doesn’t always lead to improved living standards. It can even lead to worse conditions if social advancements do not accompany technological advancements — just look at the mills of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the sweatshops of today. Companies often prioritize profit over the safety and well-being of their employees and consumers, and governments are generally slow to act for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and some not. This has led to a third group, artists, to be some of the first to ring the alarm in many cases.
In this article, I discuss two works of art — Metropolis by Fritz Lang and the music video for “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent — and how St. Vincent updates Lang’s warning of technology for contemporary times. Through her allusions to the German film, she cautions that the internet, specifically social media, could destroy the individual through the erosion of privacy by the attractive yet soul-sucking desire to reveal your life online.
“Digital Witness” is the fifth track of St. Vincent’s self-titled album, which came out on February 24, 2014, and won the Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album. The music video was released on January 31, 2014, and was directed by Chino Moya.
Metropolis was released on January 10, 1927, in Weimar Germany. It was an early feature-length film and was one of the first and most influential science fiction films, although when it was released neither it’s length nor subject matter were particularly celebrated by viewers or critics. It has only gained critical acclaim over the years, though, and has had a lasting impact on the science fiction genre. Interestingly, it is within the music video medium that the most frequent and direct references to the film appear. In America alone, artists such as Queen, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Janelle Monáe have paid homage to the German film. Digital Witness is one of the most recent videos to do so, but undoubtedly will not be the last.
Metropolis warns against technological advances without accompanying social advances. The fictional city is sprawling, rich, and abundant because a new and efficient way of generating energy. This energy, however, is powered by the majority of the population who are forced to work below the earth until they die. This type of society is what Fritz Lang feared may emerge, and unfortunately, his fears of immoral uses of technology still ring true. Even in his own time, he saw the development of weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare, and more horribly inhuman technological advances.
Metropolis depicts an insidious technology that enslaves people, robbing them of their individuality and turning them into a collective like an ant colony. This type of technology did not exist during the 1920s but many, including St. Vincent, argue that it exists today in the form of social media.
“Digital Witness” takes inspiration from the set design and choreography of Metropolis while updating it to the modern age. The buildings in the video are angular and expressionist, just like those in the film. There is hardly any nature, and concrete and man-made objects dominate the frame, which emphasizes how removed the internet is from the natural world, or reality. She also updates the colors to bright, yet lifeless and unnatural yellows, greens, and blues. The colors catch the eye but are unnatural and shallow, just like most things on the internet.
The choreography is deliberate and synchronized. There are several shots of people marching through the factory in unison, and the people in the classroom move as if mirroring each other. This type of movement shows the assimilation of these individuals into the collective; they move as one. The people marching outside are those who have become fully assimilated, whereas those in the classroom are in the act of assimilating. The teacher directs them what to do, and they practice by copying one another. Each pair looks similar but not identical, indicating that they are close but not quite finished in their assimilation. Presumably, they would look identical once the transformation is complete. Toward the end of the video, there is a shot in which they all hold hands, strengthening themselves as a group.
The descent from individuality into the collective is what St. Vincent suggests comes from using social media. You enter an echo chamber and your thoughts and ideas solidify into groupthink. You become identical to others in your echo chamber, and eventually, you act as one unit.
In Metropolis, there is an evil robot who is a replica of a human woman trying to save the workers, Maria. This robot brainwashes the people of the city and almost succeeds in tricking them into destroying themselves. In “Digital Witness”, St. Vincent takes on the role of the robot Maria and becomes the embodiment of social media. At the beginning of the song, she takes a commanding tone, just like the false Maria. She says she wants “all of your mind”, just as Maria brainwashes the citizens in the film. Lastly, St. Vincent’s movements are halting and robotic like Maria, and she styles her hair in an exaggerated homage to the character.
St. Vincent portrays Maria to show how social media is a two-faced temptress just like the character. Social media, just like the human Maria, promises to give its followers a better life. In Metropolis, it’s the promise of a unified society and better working conditions. Social media promises a more connected world in the hopes of democratization, equality, and instant access to information. In the film, the robot version of Maria distorts this idea and uses it to create an uprising among the workers to destroy the city, for the benefit of the unstable scientist who created the robot. Likewise, social media has led to the exact opposite of everything it promised. It has been used to undermine democracy, incite racial violence on the scale of genocides, and spread misinformation and lies.
St. Vincent is concerned with the erosion of individuality, which stems from all of the negative aspects listed above. By depicting Maria, she reveals the ugly truth that while social media may promote individuality, in reality, it destroys it, just like Maria used the socialist vision in an attempt to destroy society.
How does social media destroy individuality? According to St. Vincent, it destroys it with the help of the “digital witness.” Everyone who uses social media is a digital witness — the parent who posts baby pictures, the incel who rants on Twitter, and so on. As St. Vincent puts it, “If I can’t show it, you can’t see me.” Social media has effectively been designated the “real” reality, where something only matters if you post it. It’s like the old saying if a tree falls in the forest and no one posts about it, did it even fall?
St. Vincent sings, “people turn the TV on, it looks just like a window,” arguing that people think what’s on the screen is reality. In the video, there are no windows, showing how confined people are. In the yellow room, there are blinds without a window behind it, showing how the modern window (the TV) is not a window at all but merely another confining wall.
St. Vincent also criticizes the self-policing that has risen out of social media. The anonymity that social media creates allows people to attack others without repercussions.
This is evident through the use of the gaze in the music video. Many shots emphasize the gaze of St. Vincent and other characters, but they all seem to take on only two different qualities: a glazed stare with nothing behind it, or a vindictive glare as they watch those around them. These seem to be the two states of being that St. Vincent believes are present in social media users. Either they are practically brainwashed and braindead, or they watch others like a hawk to find faults and criticize them. The glare sometimes makes the recipient cower in fear (at several points it is directed at St. Vincent), but mostly the glare is returned, creating a closed system of constant self-surveillance.
This self-surveillance is perhaps what St. Vincent is most critical of. Social media has essentially made privacy a thing of the past, and this lack of privacy is precisely what drives the erosion of individuality. Without privacy, everyone always operates in public, which causes them to act fundamentally different than how they’d act in private. In public, one must act in a way deemed appropriate by society or face embarrassment, ostracism, or worse. Social media publicizes one’s personal life, changing what is acceptable in private. This narrows the scope of what is acceptable and forces social media users to assimilate into the larger group.
Metropolis is a warning of technological advances without social advances. As Maria, St. Vincent takes on a physical manifestation of social media as she leads the viewers to become more dependent on technology and give up more privacy, essentially forfeiting their individuality to become part of the collective. Like most things on the internet, the colors are meant to distract and draw in with the ultimate goal of devouring the person, like an angler fish. There are many shots emphasizing eyes and the gaze, showing how everyone is monitoring/policing everyone else, just like on social media, and this self-policing is key to maintaining the groupthink that has been created.
Just as Metropolis was far ahead of its time, “Digital Witness” predicted the issues that stem from social media years before the general public became fully aware of them and the government began thinking critically of how to solve them.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on October 15, 2020.