Saturday, May 18, 2013

Total Exposure (or, how we gave up privacy and learned to love Big Brother)

Part Three of The Great Free Speech Robbery

In June 2000, a blue-ribbon US congressional commission on terrorism released some recommendations that made civil libertarians cringe. In order to prevent possible terrorist attacks, said the panel, which included a former CIA director and the Army general who investigated a 1996 attack on US troops in Saudi Arabia, restrictions on FBI wiretapping should be loosened and surveillance of foreign students should be increased. At the time, even the conservative Lincoln Legal Foundation said that the cure was "worse than the disease," arguing that such threats didn't warrant a suspension of constitutional rights.
     Most people barely noticed the dispute. But even if they had, even a year before 9/11 it was unlikely that too many would have expressed concern about the implications of more wiretapping or spying on students accused of no crimes. After all, the problem was terrorism.
     Despite the US preoccupation with individual privacy, surveillance of everyday life had already become so commonplace that it was difficult to resist such government intrusions. Video cameras perched around banks, airports, hospitals, ATMs, stores, freeways, and building lobbies and elevators. In the US and Europe, people often felt safer with cameras observing streets and parking lots. Some consumers did object to the collection of information on shopping preferences by Web sites and stores, yet most accepted it as a relatively harmless trade-off.
     According to Bill Gates, within a few years, computers would be able to inexpensively scan video records to find a particular person or activity. In his 2000 book, The Road Ahead, Gates envisioned (but didn’t directly recommend) a camera on every streetlight someday. "What today seems like digital Big Brother might one day become the norm if the alternative is being left to the mercy of terrorists or criminals," he wrote. In the future, Gates suggested, many people would choose to lead "a documented life," keeping an audio, written, and even video record of their everyday activities on a wallet PC.
     Once considered a threatening intrusion, surveillance has also become a form of entertainment. Using the Internet and video cameras, people proudly put their private lives online. Meanwhile, thousands line up to be watched by cameras (and a TV audience) 24 hours a day. On countless "reality" TV shows, contestants willingly surrender their privacy in the hope of winning (or in the case of many “celebrities,” recapturing) fame or fortune. Although such programs occasionally provide some instructive insights into group behavior, they also promote voyeurism, while indirectly undermining objections to other forms of surveillance.
     In the past, concerns about privacy centered on the government's activities. Thus, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution provided protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the State, and US Supreme Court rulings have since suggested that there may be a constitutional right to privacy from government invasions. But there is no protection so far from the new technologies, and the dramatic expansion of private surveillance, along with a public embrace of "big brother" to guard against crime or provide amusement, make it harder to impose restrictions.
     The most problematic issue isn't conventional surveillance – a bugging device installed with a warrant or a cop with a camera – but rather the indiscriminate use of video and other tools, along with the implications for manipulation of human behavior. Clearly, people who know they are, or may be, watched end up acting differently. Through a combination of design and commercial accident, businesses are grafting surveillance to Skinnerian theory, creating a powerful new form of conditioning. In the name of efficiency, employers use cameras and PC tracking programs to monitor and mold employees. In the name of entertainment, TV puts people in a competitive goldfish bowl, promoting the idea that being totally exposed is a privilege and, with winning behavior, can lead to financial reward or at least celebrity.
     For people already suffering from narcissism (a social epidemic whose symptoms include addiction to vicarious, mediated experiences, fear of dependence and aging, and unsatisfied cravings), a life of total exposure can become a prescription for more alienation and a cynical detachment from reality. Traditionally, the narcissist has been viewed as the "beautiful person" who can relate only to his or her own image. However, the contemporary definition also includes the characteristics already mentioned, as well as dependence on the warmth provided by others, a sense of inner emptiness, and boundless repressed rage.
     Narcissists can be pseudo-intellectuals or calculating seducers. Often, they are also fascinated with celebrities. Yet, even though such frustrated climbers tend to seek out the famous, they are often subsequently compelled to destroy their fantasy figures. If this was merely a description of a few "sick" individuals we might find some comfort. But patterns of narcissism affect millions and are reinforced daily. Perhaps most disquieting, the narcissistic personality is ideally suited for positions of power. Be warned: a narcissistic leader will sell him- or herself to win at any price.
     Selling oneself has become a form of work in our mediated world, and success often rests on the ability to project "personality" and/or an attractive image. Self-promotion also meshes neatly with an idealization of powerful personalities who represent what the narcissist seeks. Narcissists identify with winners out of their fear of being losers. Objects of hero worship tend to give meaning to the otherwise unanchored lives of society's emotional casualties. Yet mixed with idealization is an urge to degrade the object of one's admiration, sparked when the narcissist's hero ultimately disappoints. This desperate urge, intensified by the machinery of mass promotion, can turn even assassination into a form of spectacle.
     In such an environment, the knowledge that intelligence agencies in the US, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand operate a cooperative electronic surveillance system that can monitor almost all the world's communication barely registers as a problem. After all, we are all being watched some of the time anyway. The more "spying" we learn about, or participate in, the less unusual or disturbing it seems to become.
     Being watched almost constantly may provide a superficial sense of security, and watching others may be titillating and fun. But it also can undermine the impulse to act authentically, while numbing both the watcher and watched to the hidden threats posed to their freedom and healthy development. Hopefully, once the price of the "documented life" becomes better understood, those will no longer be tradeoffs most people choose to make.

Next: Merger Madness
(Total Exposure originally posted 3/9/09)

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