Did you realize that facial recognition software developed for humans is being used on pigs? And did you also realize that every selfie you take is being used to train some of that software? Somehow, this is connected to the Veery bird and how its migration patterns can predict how severe hurricane seasons are. Puzzled? Then take a look at the first episode of Connected, a docuseries hosted by journalist Latif Nasser. Read on for more…
CONNECTED: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Shots of the really well-appointed son of journalist Latif Nasser.
The Gist: Why are we in the bedroom of Nasser’s son? Well, first of all, Nasser is the host of Connected, the new Netflix docuseries. And in the first episode, about surveillance, he is fascinated with the fact that every night he puts his 2-year-old down in his crib and then watches him on the video baby monitor, not just to see if the kid is OK, but to just observe.
It leads him to discuss how surveillance — both the good and the bad kind — is endemic to the existence of all living things. In the episode, he hopscotches from the woods in Delaware to a pig research farm in Scotland, to a facial recognition exhibit in Milan, to a cafe in Paris to a zoo in Palm Desert, CA. And what he attempts to do is connect the different kinds of surveillance together to paint an overall picture of how and why we are observers.
In Delaware, he finds out that the migration patterns of the Veery, a tiny bird species, can accurately predict how severe an upcoming hurricane season will be. If they leave for their Brazilian destination early, watch out. Then in Scotland, he finds out that facial recognition technology is being used to not only distinguish between pigs on a farm, but even try to correlate expressions with feelings.
In Milan, he sees that facial recognition is a technology that dates back close to 60 years (and whose original files are still classified), and when he looks at the wall of shots that the software used to “learn” faces you can clearly see the transition from mug shots to the use of celebrity photos off the internet to the current use of billions of social media selfies.
That’s also part of the surveillance story, where Nasser talks about the “privacy gap.” We seem to want privacy but are willing to give it up to get something we want… like a mate. He meets a journalist in Paris who found out that Tinder had an 800-page dossier on her, and based on her swiping history, she can pinpoint the times she was most vulnerable (eep!). Finally, in Palm Desert, Nasser learns about a dating app of sorts, one that zoo directors use to match up animals of a species — especially ones that are endangered — to mate and reproduce.
Our Take: Watching the first episode of Connected left me a little flummoxed. I want to absolutely love the show. For one, it’s produced by Zero Point Zero Productions, who established the artsy look of docuseries like this with Anthony Bourdain’s various shows. And Nasser, director of research for WNYC’s Radiolab has a fun presence that takes these topics and brings them down to earth.
But what I’m sensing with this show is that the connections Nasser makes can feel like a stretch at least once per episode, and he’s not quite sure of the tone he wants to strike when he talks about these various topics. Not that I didn’t lean forward during parts of the first episode, like when the French journalist plopped a massive pile of paper on their cafe table to show Nasser just how big Tinder’s dossier was on her. But it just seemed like at times that Nasser was taking too light of an approach with his narrative and wasn’t able to give the serious connotations of an issue like surveillance the gravity they deserve.
His jokes are a bit corny, like when he says to the pig scientist that “this is the least halal thing I’ve ever done,” but that’s just part of his goofy persona; the big mound of hair, the silly shirts he wears are all there to show that Nasser has personality, dammit. But I was also a bit squinchy with his use of his own son in the very first scene, then a talk with his cousin as Nasser tries to help him with his Tinder profile. Both those segments could have been cut and the episode would have been just as effective.
Still, the topics Nasser explores, like “Poop”, “Dust” and “Clouds” have us interested in seeing how he makes the connections from the small to the huge, so we’ll likely keep watching.
Sex and Skin: Nothing of that sort here.
Parting Shot: “In the meantime, we watch animals, they watch us, and we all watch each other.” Then he tells the giraffe that he’s standing next to that the monologue is over.
Sleeper Star: None. This is Nasser’s show. His kid was cute.
Most Pilot-y Line: That final line cited above feels like too cute of a wrap-up for a show about such a heady subject.
Our Call: STREAM IT. For sure, watching an episode of Connections will leave you wanting something with a bit more depth. But Nasser has a winning presence and some of the places he visits are utterly fascinating, which is more than enough of an attraction for us.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.