Dancing off the jeebies of a recent police scare at a Sound Tribe Sector 9 show, I stumbled upon what could be one of the greater truths of our era. Modern American culture places a premium on being watched. To be seen or heard about through an artifice of media – be it Newsweek, Facebook, YouTube or a karaoke bar – is a desirable thing. Through repeated mass exposure, one stands to increase social stature. To live a more public, that is, less private, life is to be a person of covetable significance. The more strangers know of you, the better.
This cultural more extends from the bloggers and booty-shakers of Internet 2.0 to the fake, tanned surgery junkies of Hollywood to the ‘underground cities‘ of domestic surveillance – the NSA, CIA and FBI.
We like being watched – and we are.
It’s essentially instinctive. The first time a sentient brain recognized itself on a still pond’s surface, it was fascinated to see its self where its self was not. America, the land of (imported) plenty, has the singular potential to take human instinct to the utmost extreme. Of course, this manipulation of human nature is used for political ends.
The cult of celebrity starts small and innocently enough, at school plays, talent shows and spelling bees. As we mature, we come to know faces on television and on the glossy covers of supermarket tabloids. Later in life, this gradual inoculation evokes in us a ceaseless hunger to be seen to the point where we voluntarily share the minutiae of our lives with an anonymous public. After this, the conditioning is complete. To emulate the celebrities we’ll never meet and always be told to revere, we welcome the sacrifice of our freedoms.
On personal profile sites Facebook and MySpace we freely reveal who we know and how we spend our time. Thirteen million Facebook users update their ‘status‘ message every day. Seventy-six million unique visitors pass through MySpace every month. As much as we value our right to privacy, it seems young Americans will voluntarily waive it if it means people will look at us. The eye in the sky certainly won’t need to strain itself if citizens casually drop their exact whereabouts, attire and likely illicit behavior on Twitter.
“Goin out wit da homiez to central park. gonna burn some chronic!!“ may be the last you hear of an unlettered classmate in the future.
As we live and function as consumers in daily life, we leave behind a trail of information about ourselves. We punch time clocks, commute monitored roadways, swipe personalized credit cards, relay phone messages, check into airports and leave the digital fingerprint of our IP addresses on every webpage we browse. This information is tangibly created and recorded. If you had the inclination, you could trace every step of an individual’s existence. Anonymity has left America.
Pundits will have you believe that this information is sought after by ‘cyber-terrorists‘ and identity thieves, but what they really mean is the NSA. The National Security Agency, or ‘No Such Agency‘ to its employees, is the most technologically sophisticated, socially penetrating and fiscally wasteful eavesdropping machine ever devised. Its Maryland headquarters lies behind cement barriers and electrified fences lined with barbed wire, watched by motion sensors and patrolled by attack dogs and guards toting assault rifles. It’s a 30,000-employee city, one of the largest municipalities in the state. It imports raw data by the terabyte and exports 80 percent of the federal government’s so-called intelligence. Following September 11, the NSA and similar redundant agencies were expanded to an authoritarian degree that would make Orwell’s head spin.
Their job, see, is to identify, locate and capture dangerous anti-establishment terrorists. But how do they know where to look? Just pick anyone suspicious. How do they know who’s suspicious? That’s anyone’s guess. The federal government sure doesn’t know, as the NSA is capable of refusing to disclose sensitive files as it did in the 1999 Echelon case. What do they monitor? Any form of information – phone calls, e-mails, faxes, traffic footage, security footage, footage from those weird little black domes. Have they ever watched you? No one can know. And that’s the whole point.
The scheme is sold under the premise of ‘security,‘ which is a dumbfounding example of doublespeak. ‘Security‘ in America means to be constantly at risk of arrest with the government the only witness.
Our mental defenses against a surveillance culture are weakened by the aforementioned cult of celebrity. Gradually we forget the importance of keeping things to ourselves, forget the importance of holding things private, forget the importance of taking personal power over others‘ knowledge of our lives. All this we forget, and think: Well, if I’m being watched, at least I’m important to somebody.
As I jogged to the Filmore lobby to take a 15-second leak between hour-long sets of funky techno rock, there loomed a massive plasmascreen blaring advertisements. Attractive, porcelain-skinned faces swam over the screen’s mass, hocking pharmaceutical products with big fake smiles and long lists of side effects. Through their manic testimonials, I wondered if any of them would ever see MY face. The abyss peered also into me.
If the government could read CHEYA CARY’s mind, they’d know he’s thinking of you. Send him comments, rebuttals or haikus at firstname.lastname@example.org.