In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.
The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.
Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.
The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, adapted by prisons, schools, and CCTV surveillance systems around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. The presence of a watcher isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.
These days, Americans don’t need a formative year in post-Soviet Romania to be uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.
Yet now it’s not just the state watching us — it’s also businesses. Uber tracks our movements and fires drivers for sharing links to bad reviews on their personal media, but says it doesn’t. Facebook uses emotional manipulation to collect behavioral data, but insists it’s no big deal. Google compiles secret profiles through wiretapping despite swearing it hasn't and won't.
So, who's watching what? And do we care?
In 1985, media theorist Neil Postman compared Orwell’s dystopia with the brave new world imagined by Aldous Huxley. While Orwellian fiction imagines a world controlled by constant surveillance, Huxley’s protagonists are neutered not by information control but infotainment glut. People won’t need a Big Brother to take away their autonomy, posits Huxley — in their “infinite appetite for distractions,” they’ll willingly give it up to be placated with easy laughs.
“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Twenty years later, here’s some numbers to that distraction appetite: Upworthy’s headline pablum promising surprise, tears, and faith in humanity gets 75 thousand shares per article — twelve times its closest competitors (which include an aggregator of “funny amazing stories,” a fake news site, and the site best known for personality quizzes). Ellen’s Oscars celebrity selfie remains the most retweeted tweet of all time. And President Obama most recently went viral for using a selfie stick.
What distinguishes this particular moment, perhaps, from the dystopian visions of Orwellian control and Huxleyan glut is the degree to which the tools of communication are in our own hands. This is initially promising, but quickly depressing when you look at what we’re doing with that power.
Luke O’Neil, writing on the phenomenon of viral content, uses the example of last winter's ubiquitous (and fake) photos of snow-covered pyramids in Egypt:
“For most, the photos were just another thoughtlessly processed and soon-forgotten item that represented our now-instinctual response to the unrelenting stream of information we're subjected to every waking hour: Share first, ask questions later. Better yet: Let someone else ask the questions. Better still: What was the question again?”
Convenience is seductive. We may be uncomfortable with the idea that our own government and corporations have unprecedented, unacknowledged, and possibly unlawful access to our behaviors online. But we’ve learned that giving up information about ourselves is easy, and we like the rewards. Gmail ads are so creepy, we say, we really shouldn’t be this comfortable with bots reading our emails, but … they work, you know?
We are all also closer than ever to celebrity. “And you can, too!” is the promise of our country and no time more so than now, when every silly thought, pet video, potential meme takes us one step closer to the one that might make us accidentally famous. Amusement glut is a drag to call out when we know our own diversions will get us attention. Also, look at the silly dance this kid just did. Also, what was the question again?
We’ve grown up free, but the psychological effects of omnipresent visibility are hard to shake.
With the tools in our hands, we have some measure of control over what stories we share and what systems we buy into. We are beginning to find inflection points of agency towards a more open and trustworthy ethic of communication — we’ve fought for net neutrality, and built work-arounds for organizing via social media, and started using adblocker on our personal browsers.
And there’s John Oliver, whose method of rude jokes atop vigorous calls to action is providing a best-of-both-worlds alternative. The April 5 episode of Last Week Tonight was one of the most effective explanations of U.S. government surveillance programs to date, done through an unholy partnership of Edward Snowden and sexting. Oliver prompts,
“This is the most visible line in the sand for people: can they see my [nude pictures]? Look inside that folder. …Let’s go through each NSA program and explain to me its capabilities in regards to that photograph.”
Snowden proceeds to give an amazingly coherent breakdown of who has access to what; Oliver alerts American audiences that a critical vote to reauthorize NSA spying under the Patriot Act is coming up on June 1; and everyone leaves laughing.
There can be more, of course (not all of us can so sublimely pivot from sexts to the Patriot Act). There needs to be more — our framework for understanding and action is anemic at best. Ultimately, it does begin with us.
As creators, disseminators, and consumers of media, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves the same old questions of justice — and to learn the answers. Who has access to these tools? Who owns their functions? Whose identity, privacy, or livelihood is compromised in their use? Does what I use, create, and share uphold and honor collective society?
Catherine Woodiwiss, @chwoodiwiss, is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.