The new electronic exhibitionism is evolving rapidly. First came the trash-talk shows the origin of the species. Then, only two years ago, we started hearing about women giving birth on the Internet and Netcasting all the events taking place in their bedroom. This year CBS accelerated the descent of man with "Survivor," making MTV's show about moody kids in an apartment and cop-propaganda shows of the type pioneered by Fox look like dinosaurs. And now "Survivor" already finds itself sharing the exhibitionistic TV environment with other modern mutations.
There are older styles of American exhibitionism, of course. I think immediately of those unsolicited confessionals we've all suffered from waitresses and other casual encounterees, and the aggressively obscene and insulting T-shirts and bumper stickers favored by those inhabiting the left tail of the bell curve. Indifference toward one's own privacy comes from the same mental universe as indifference toward others', and in the early 1830s Tocqueville had already detected a neighborly nosiness that he thought characterized American culture at the ground level. It disturbed Tocqueville but not most Americans who were on the receiving end of it. They "had nothing to hide," after all. When I was growing up, I got the impression that asking a nosy cop for a warrant was like confessing that you were a criminal, and probably a foreign criminal to boot.
In the 1970s, a friend of mine who had studied some of the basic financial privacy and protection texts, including Harry Browne's, got interested in opening a Swiss bank account denominated in Swiss francs, as a hedge against the Carter inflation. According to those texts, it was possible in those ancient days to establish such an account without baring all of one's financial affairs to the IRS and other Organs of State Security. But when my friend asked an officer of his Indianapolis bank about the mechanics of it, instead of discreetly ushering him into a private office where the matter would be murmured over in dignified fashion, Zurich-style, she stood in mid-lobby and brayed in a voice that probably penetrated to the parking lot, "Wow! You're SNEAKY!" Bingo. That's the good old American mentality I'm trying to describe.
That nosiness and acquiescence in nosiness served the interests of democratic conformism. It was bad enough in the old days, but the new electronic exhibitionism is much more sinister. Nancy Nall, a columnist for a daily paper in Fort Wayne, Ind., got right to the heart of it in a piece she wrote in 1998. She'd come across "a posting in the alt.kids newsgroup, from a proud new father, asking everybody to stop by his Website and see baby Danielle on the 'Dannicam.'" Hitting the site, Nall found that "sure enough, there's a camera apparently mounted on the crib headboard. Danni's sleeping at the moment. Amazing."
Nall went on to make an observation that is simply brilliant, and simply terrifying: "George Orwell, who published 1984 in 1949, dreamed a society in which one's every movement is scrutinized by the Thought Police. His mistake, though, was imagining that we wouldn't like it, that we'd find it oppressive and soul-destroying." ("All the world's a stage: auditions packed," The News-Sentinel, June 8, 1998, p. 1F)
Freedom-loving technophiles of an optimistic bent need to gird their fundament for a painful encounter with shoe leather. Once again under the rule of Polite Totalitarianism we have met the enemy, and he is us. The Ministry of Love won't have too many budget worries when we buy our own equipment and bug ourselves.
It's impossible to say what proportion of Americans will be inflicting Netcast surveillance on themselves 10 or 20 years from now surely a minority, probably even a small minority, although I hope that in saying so I am not myself coming down with the 24-hour optimism. But one thing does seem certain: it will become vastly more common for our everyday public comings and goings to be not merely surveilled via videocams but also Netcast.
Already traffic at certain intersections in big cities is broadcast, if not Netcast, 24 hours a day. Just today the news nets headlined a story about fatalities caused by motorists who run red lights, interviewing police bureaucrats who want to "address the crisis" by installing cameras at more and more intersections. According to one of the police-propaganda shows "Best of the World's Worst Drivers" Airstrip One, pardon me, Great Britain, is far ahead of us on this point. Police surveillance cameras positively pepper the urban landscape and not just at intersections. Still not satisfied, residents of various English towns are clamoring for cameras on every street.
Electronic surveillance will be far more common, though only a small part of that surveillance is likely to be self-inflicted. What will be largely self-inflicted, and more or less universal, is people's tolerance for surveillance. In a decade or two, many fewer Americans will consider self-buggers to be weirdos and cranks. Whether or not most Americans actually join in on the self-bugging, they will be much more accustomed to watching and being watched. What we're seeing is the mainstreaming of exhibitionism; self-bugging is merely the cutting edge.
Our informal Ministry of Truth the established media is working, deliberately or not, in parallel with agencies of the official regime to make sure we find omnipresent surveillance not "oppressive and soul-destroying" but actually entertaining. Already millions of us do find it entertaining to watch strangers blow their nose and scratch their ears and squabble among themselves.
In 1984, Winston Smith speculated that, for all he knew, the Thought Police watched everybody that is to say, all Party members all the time. When I first came across that passage, as a somewhat obsessive 13-year-old, I resorted to some rough calculations and concluded that in order to get that job done the Thought Police would have to employ several million watchers. But in the world of 1984, the point was that the telescreens were there, and Smith never knew at any given moment that the Thought Police weren't watching.
In our 21st-century world, highly advanced computer software may take the place of some of those watchers, keying on disapproved speech, behavior, and belongings. The principal difference, though, is that it won't even occur to most people to exercise care about what speech, behavior, or belongings they expose to the cameras.
Winston Smith carefully controlled his facial expressions, seeking to avoid "facecrime." And when I used to imagine public behavior under the totalitarian gaze, I envisioned numb serfs maintaining expressionless faces, indulging in a minimum of gestures, looking neither left or right, shuffling silently past the regime's bull-necked thugs.
That's not what the Polite Totalitarianism of the future will look like. It's not even what the present variety looks like. Remember the crowd of mindless exhibitionists in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the terrorist-threatened 1996 Olympics? That's more like it. There they were, merrily boogying under the glowering gaze of dark-uniformed, heavily armed, helmeted security-police gorillas. In Polite Totalitarian America, the serfs don't sullenly plod past the regime's bull-necked thugs. They gleefully dance past them. The Centennial Park partying was a grisly spectacle that shocked me more than the bomb did when it finally went off. It did more than shock me; it demoralized me. Whether or not that was part of its purpose, it certainly was part of its value for the regime.
The most demoralizing aspect of it all was my recognition, at last, that those heedless people really didn't have anything to hide. And what of the few who do have something to hide? That's where the rubber meets the road, or, rather, where the rubber truncheon meets the skull. In our super-exhibitionistic future, we SNEAKY types are really going to stand out.
July 13, 2000
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