“You had to live – you did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
-Winston Smith worries in George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984.”
All Winston yearns for is a place outside of the all-seeing electronic eye of the Telescreen, a private place that Big Brother’s penetrating gaze can’t reach.So Winston picks up a journal on the black market, a “thoughtcrime” he knows will sign his own death warrant. And yet, while Winston’s varicose vein aches, while panic overtakes him, he writes himself to death by the unshakable urge to have a world to himself, to have words to himself, to have a private place. Winston dies for this unreachable place, for his privacy.
“OMG, Winston, chill out,” one of my undergrads might languidly sigh, while at the same time deftly posting the big weekend plans on Facebook under her desk. And when she leaves class, this student might post her exact whereabouts – at the Sun Valley Mall – on her profile to 1,000 friends through Facebook’s recently released Places, or the competing technology Foursquare, both of which use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to triangulate her location. All her friends can then converge at Hot Topic, and, afterwards, post their purchases on Blippy, a service which allows users to share what they’ve bought, where, and for how much.
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My student can be her own Big Brother – and what’s more, she wants to be. Unlike Winston, she hopes someone is watching and listening.
This minute-by-minute sharing is not a fad; rather, it represents the emergence of a culture of digital exhibitionism. A July 2010 study by PEW’s Internet and American Life Project found that “millenials,” or digital natives – those who have grown up wired, with computers and the Internet as part of their upbringing – will “make online sharing a lifelong habit.” My student will “lead society into a new world of personal disclosure and information-sharing using new media,” a culture which not just the very young, but adults of all ages, (including those born before the publication of “1984,” in 1948) are joining in record numbers by participating in social media, according to an August 2010 PEW report.
We no longer share Winston’s fear that we’re being followed. Instead, we fear that we’re not being followed.
Unlike previous, pre-digital cultures, who hid from the electronic eye of the Telescreen, the modern cyber-self yearns “to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook,” William Deresiewicz mournfully opines in his lamentation “The End of Solitude.” We yearn for the screen Winston shuns. While Winston, a product of a digitally antiquated culture, most feared that his most private thoughts would be found and exposed, we fear that they won’t be found, that we won’t be found, that we’ll remain lost, anonymous in the crowd.
“The great contemporary terror,” Deresiewicz observes, “is anonymity.”
In a culture that fears privacy (or at least is apathetic towards it), who can blame my student for her bored sighs? In an age in which Big Brother is better known as a TV program than an omniscient tyrant, Winston’s suicidal urge for privacy seems almost as obsolete – as retro – as, well, the real “1984,” which is nearly a decade before my students were born.
Privacy is Passe
Privacy is passe, and according to numerous reports, the government sees great investigative promise in our relentless public honesty. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently uncovered a 2008 memo by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services that encourages agents to exploit our “narcissistic tendencies” to make virtual friends of strangers for the purpose of surveillance. Our tendency to share with our followers provides “an excellent vantage point … to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities.” EFF also found that during Obama’s 2008 inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security “monitor [ed] social networking sites for ‘items of interest.'” “Wired”‘s Noah Shachtman reports on the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to surveil social media through investments in technology start-ups; this surveillance includes all social media, not just those who are suspects. This seems like a strange investment, given that Schactman reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) “it is said, can tap into any electronic communication already.”
In this spirit, President Obama, who won his campaign largely by tapping into social networking, is now on the forefront of tapping it yet again – wiretapping it, that is. Obama has not only defended Bush’s warrantless “information dragnets,” but appears to be increasing their scope and invasiveness. According to another report in The New York Times, the FBI – supported by the Obama administration – has launched a proposal to make collecting information easier by mandating a “backdoor” which allows all net communications – Blackberry, Facebook and Skype, for example – to be unscrambled and read by law enforcement so as to comply with a wiretap warrant. The FBI argues that they are essentially attempting to keep up with the rapidly changing times to execute legally warranted taps, whereas critics see this tactic as another method which compromises innocent Americans’ privacy. To the EFF, this proposal is a clear effort to cut the locks off the public’s private communications.
The boldest example of this trend is Senate Bill 773 – the CyberSecurity Act of 2009 – that would provide the executive branch a “skeleton key” to major private networks. SB 773, reported on as Project Censored’s “third-most censored story” of last year, would give the president the power to essentially “shut down” private networks in case of a national digital emergency. Further, the bill would allow the government the power to survey private networks considered “critical to national security” and would compel “these companies to ‘share’ information requested by the government.” Again, the Obama administration argues that the bill is not an imposition, but a necessity to “protect the American people.”
Just five years ago (a year after Facebook was founded), any of these measures would have arrested the news cycle. After Bush’s NSA spying program was revealed in 2005 by The New York Times article In 2010, though, the prospect of these massive information dragnets seems far less controversial. Far more articles were published about falling starlet Lindsay Lohan selling a photo of herself wearing a SCRAM ankle bracelet – which tracks her movement and alcohol use – than were published about SB 773 or any of these cases in which warrantless surveillance is legalized. In other words, we appear to care more about a device tracking Lohan than being tracked ourselves.
The public’s dribbling attention to government surveillance shows us that a profound cultural shift has taken place – in less than five years. This does not appear to be a fad, but rather a trend that suggests we are entering a Blabber New World, in which we – like Winston – expect to be followed, watched and scrutinized all the time.
A Blabber New World
Marc Prensky, the technology expert and educator who coined the eponymous “digital native” term, asks in a recent article, “Should a 4-year-old have an i-Phone?” His answer is “Absolutely” (though they shouldn’t be able to receive calls from their toddler buddies). Prensky believes that this technology – that the iPhone – is “their birthright.” If a kid can’t afford an i-Phone, then there “ought to be public subsidies,” so “every kid in school – especially primary school” can be plugged in, as that is their future – plugged in. (Lest you think Prensky’s suggestion is too far out, a pilot program in California, supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is replacing textbooks with iPads in six public middle school math classes.)
Given how profoundly our culture has changed in a scant five years, I wonder what sort of world these four-year-old cyborgs will enter. The children of the digital natives – the networked natives – will never have known a world in which they weren’t always connected to the public at all times, and will grow up with a living record of their lives made public from the moment their parents posted their sonograms on Facebook.
What can privacy mean to a person whose first step is a matter of public record?
And how will networked natives read “1984”? How will they relate to Winston, a man who desperately avoids the very screen that they are likely reading his tale on? How will they ever know a world outside of the all-seeing electronic eye, a world in which they live a life whose every sound could be overheard, and every moment scrutinized? A life in which, what’s more, they may want to be perpetually watched?
As our children gaze at the screen on which they read “1984,” how will they feel about Orwell’s final lines of the novel:
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”