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Hal Niedzviecki
Hal Niedzviecki. Photo by Adam Smith

60 Seconds with Hal Niedzviecki

"The more we entertain ourselves by looking at other people's lives, the less we connect to them as human beings"

If you’ve had an eerie feeling that Facebook, YouTube, blogging, Tweeting and the reality-TV revolution add up to a radically new and mostly unexamined set of social norms, your fears are hereby confirmed. In The Peep Diaries (City Light Publishers, 2009), Hal Niedzviecki (BA 1994 UC) argues we’ve created a new “peep culture” that is altering society’s values. Lisa Bryn Rundle talks to Niedzviecki about his book and documentary airing on CBC next year.

What is peep culture?
In pop culture, we spent most of our leisure time watching celebrity talents. In peep culture, we’re watching ourselves, our friends, our neighbours and strangers around the world go about their lives.

When did the term come to you?
I was playing with the idea of peeping Toms…and just the whole idea of peep.

And it’s a really fun word to say.
Ya. Peep. Peep. The story of peeping Tom is that he peeps at Lady Godiva who’s riding her horse naked through the town. Everyone else averts their eyes; only peeping Tom looks. The legend is that he’s alternatively struck blind or dead.

I would have looked.
I write about this: we’ve moved from using Tom as an example of what we shouldn’t do to an example of what we should do. Now, we not only would have looked, we would have aimed our cellphone cameras.

What’s the weirdest thing you did in the name of research?
Those are still coming with the documentary. I did a lot of weird things, including having dinner with a bunch of amateur sex exhibitionists.

The book was anointed by Oprah’s magazine as a “summer must-read.” How did the Oempire discover your book?
I really don’t know. But Oprah herself is kind of the high priestess of peep. And I think she is not unaware of some of the consequences of peep culture.

What’s the documentary covering?
The documentary is basically picking up where the book left off. The idea is that I become as peeped as possible. There are cameras where I sleep and eat, and I hired a private detective to investigate me.

Other than total lack of privacy, what’s your biggest worry about peep culture?
The rise of pseudo-community. The more we entertain ourselves by looking at other people’s lives, the less we connect to them as human beings. If everyone is an entertainment commodity, then it’s very easy to just turn the channel. It’s all moving so fast, it’s time to talk about some of the implications and the hidden agenda of technological change.

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that you share the name of the malevolent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Yes, I have noticed. My father actually named me after HAL.

Shut up! HAL is one of the greatest villains of all time!
I know.

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