Living with Big Brother (8/00)

In June, a blue-ribbon US congressional commission on terrorism released some recommendations that made civil libertarians cringe. To prevent possible terrorist attacks, the panel, including a former CIA director and the Army general who investigated a 1996 attack on US troops in Saudi Arabia, suggested the loosening of restrictions on FBI wiretapping and increased surveillance of foreign students. Even the conservative Lincoln Legal Foundation feels that this cure "is worse than the disease," arguing that the current threat doesn’t warrant the suspension of constitutional rights.

Unfortunately, most people barely noticed the dispute. But even if they had, it’s unlikely that too many would have expressed concern about the civil liberties and privacy implications of more wiretapping or spying on students accused of no crimes. After all, it’s terrorism! And despite a US preoccupation with individual privacy, surveillance of everyday life has become so commonplace that it’s difficult to resist such government intrusions. Video cameras perch around banks, airports, hospitals, ATMs, stores, freeways, and building lobbies and elevators. In the US and Europe, people often feel safer with cameras observing streets and parking lots. Some consumers do object to the collection of information on shopping preferences by Websites and stores, yet most accept it as a harmless trade-off.

According to Bill Gates – who should know – within a few years, computers will be able to scan video records to find a particular person or activity. In his book, The Road Ahead, Gates says he can envision (but doesn’t 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 writes. In the future, Gates suggests, many people may 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, some people put their private lives online. Meanwhile, thousands line up to be watched by cameras (and a worldwide TV audience) 24 hours a day. On TV shows like Survivor, The Real World, Making the Band, and Big Brother, "contestants" willingly surrender their privacy in the hope of winning fame or fortune. Although these programs do occasionally provide interesting insights into group behavior, they also promote voyeurism, while 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 provides protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the State, and US Supreme Court rulings suggest that there may be a constitutional right to privacy from government invasions. But there’s no protection yet from the new technologies, and the dramatic expansion of private surveillance, along with a public embrace of "big brother," make it harder to impose restrictions.

The real 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 act 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.

In such an environment, news that the intelligence agencies of the US, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand operate a system of satellites and computers that can monitor almost all of the world’s electronic communications (TF, Feb. 2000) barely registers as a problem. After all, we’re all being watched some of the time, anyway. The more "spying" we learn about – or participate in – the less unusual or disturbing it becomes.

For a public already suffering from societal narcissism – addicted to vicarious, "mediated" experiences, fearful of dependence and aging, haunted by unsatisfied cravings, and full of repressed rage – it’s a prescription for more alienation and cynical detachment from reality. Being watched may provide a false sense of security, and watching others may be titillating and fun. But it also undermines the impulse to act authentically, while numbing both the watcher and watched.

Still, when the price of the "documented life" is better understood, hopefully those won’t be trade-offs most of us are willing to make.