I am/watching big brother :
privacy, irony, and the art of surveillance

Matthew Amster

"I like to watch"—Chauncy Gardner in the film "Being There"

Not long ago, the words "Big Brother is Watching You" evoked images of Orwell's nightmare, a work of fiction focused on the plight of a harrowed man living in a society where privacy is the most precious of commodities, one nearly worth dying for, or at least barely worth living without. As the year 1984 came and went, our ideas about this dark Orwellian vision have gradually faded. The early post-1984 years were not ones in which technology was emblematic of repression, but of freedom. We saw images of people on mountains with powerbooks in their laps, liberated from their cubicles as the computer became portable and "we are the world" a slogan for something other than cultural imperialism. Then came the "web"—the most metaphorically useful and emotively benign word we have adopted thus far to describe the internet—and its latest incarnation the wireless web.

With the new technology, our offices are now equipped to record not only when you come and go and who you talk to on the phone, but even every keystroke you type. Every web page you load, every e-mail you send, can be easily monitored. Finally, after all those years of loving our machines, we are allowing Big Brother to creep in. We now have court cases where texts have been recovered from hard drives and presented to grand juries as evidence, even allowing evidence that consisted in part of unsent emails. Remember Monica Lewinsky's emails to Bill Clinton, the ones she never sent? Should anyone's emails, deleted or not, whether foolish love letters written in haste or devious political tracts, ever be allowed as admissible evidence? Should Harvard deans be fired for having kiddy porn images on their home computers? These are the kinds of questions every employer (and we can hope, employee) faces each day as they decide how to regard the technology in front of us. Is web browsing a private or public act? What can or should companies be able to do with the storage tapes backing up their local area network files? Can the FBI get a warrant to watch me surf the web? It sounds like a joke, but there it is—in each and every one of our hard drives, on each of our browser caches—unwittingly entrusted to our system administrators and ISP: our privacy is on the line or, at least, our on-line privacy is.

Many of us also believe these technologies have opened up new possibilities for both freedom and personal control in our lives. We have begun to envision cybercitizens commuting to work on an information superhighway, telecommuters at home with their kids, their cars parked in the garage as everyone else (still in the "old economy") sits in mind-numbing traffic. I know this cybercommuter well, I see her roller blading on the local bike path with the T-shirt "One Less Car." But, if we are to trust the evening news, this empowering side of the emergent broadband infrastructure that we all so desperately want, is but one side of the proverbial floppy disk (remember those?).


privacy and techniques of power

Maybe you never really worried about privacy as a technology issue so much as a moral issue, but consider this: A patent was recently issued for a device that can sample and analyze air above a person's head, including samples of dead skin. In the patent's application, one suggested use was for airport security, to detect explosives or narcotics being carried on a person's body. The concept is that the air surrounding each of our bodies rises as it is warmed and will form a natural plume, carrying, among other things, flakes of dead skin that pass through our clothing and can be captured above our bodies at any given time. The patent claims such a device could be used to sample a person's DNA, perhaps in a device as simple as the metal detectors we walk through at airport security checks. Such bodily invasion may sound unrealistic now, but think of the applications for criminal detection. It could even render obsolete the need for a passport. Would it be worth it? Personally, I do not want others to be able to sample my DNA with such ease, even if I am willing to accept a person scrutinizing a video image of the contents of my luggage. I may even accept the idea of surveillance cameras on the streets to "protect" us, but do I really want to undergo the equivalent of a genetic rectal exam for the sake of our collective security?

Let's put this in some historical perspective for a moment. As Richard Sennet, in the Fall of Public Man, observed, the growth of the European metropolis during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, represented a blossoming of the possibility of privacy in people's lives. As people moved into the city, they found themselves freed from the gaze of their immediate neighbors and were in turn liberated from the need to depend on the household as the primary place of secrecy and discretion, as was the norm in village life. In the city, one could exist in relative anonymity; in this new context, such things as fashion and style of dress, became all the more critical in denoting a person's social status to strangers. Properly attired, one could walk the streets with the reasonable expectation that nobody in particular/everybody was watching. But, in some ways, the more eyes that were upon you, the less conspicuous your actions might have seemed, so long as you conformed to accepted norms of dress, speech, and behavior.

So too, with the proliferation of the web, like some majestic virtual city, we sense that we can surf in relative obscurity. In the early years of the web, we talked a lot about web sites devised to allow people to send email with complete anonymity. But, six years later we are still wondering about cookies and on-line security, even we adapt to cyber life as our predecessors adapted to city life. Yet we also feel liberated because we can sit at home, or in a cabin, or on that mountaintop, using our personal digital assistant to read, write, view images, trade stocks, buy books, download road maps and driving directions, compose love letters, or, perhaps even, if the need arise, work. Pretty soon we will be able to do this all underwater, lest the scuba enthusiast be denied her/his democratic right to buy shares of Yahoo in after-hours trading or purchase the newest Harry Potter book on Amazon.com. What does all this have to do with freedom or privacy anyway?


Orwell, the web, commercial television

For one, consider the concept of the live Web cam, the benign grandchild of Orwell's "Big Brother is Watching You," recently turned into a full-scale commercial phenomenon with a spate of reality-based TV programs. For those who are keeping track, first we had the Hollywood versions—"The Truman Show" and "Ed TV" (as well as MTV's "Realworld")—and now (during the Summer 2000 TV season) the new reality-based shows "Survivor" and "Big Brother". (Now really, naming a show "Big Brother"? Isn't that a bit like having a course in biography writing called "Mein Kampf"? Orwell must be turning in his grave. But I digress.) Before considering what these shows are doing (or not doing), I feel compelled to ask the question: "Why do we like to watch?"

The most obvious argument is that we watch because we don't already know what is going to happen, but this seems too simple. Perhaps the real reason is that we watch because we secretly hope to see something we are not supposed to see. The comparison with sporting events is appropriate: with sports the outcome is ultimately unknown, even if you are pretty sure who is likely to win. One could argue that it might be worth watching because you never really know what will happen. Certainly this is the case with live TV in general; it is always possible for a fight to break out, for someone to make an embarrassing mistake, or for a Roberto Bengini to go berserk. This is one reason to watch. As compelling as this explanation seems, I am not really happy with it. After all, most of the TV and films we see are entirely predictable and yet we, as a society, consume them with a passion. Why? Because they show lots of sex and violence. So, I might be arguing the most obvious reason we want to watch reality-based TV is not for the uncertain interpersonal dramas which might unfold or their deep sociological implications, but because the prospect of witnessing raw unedited sex and perhaps even a good fight is simply too titillating to pass up. Of course, there will be some societal variation here; for instance, the producers of the Dutch version of "Big Brother" made a concerted effort to pick people who might actually start screwing in front of the entire nation (which they did!), where the American producers of the CBS "Big Brother" show were inclined to structure the group to maximize conflict as well as facilitate some flirtation. Both shows had something inescapable in common: they offered live studies of humans in captivity.

In primate studies, it is often asserted that there are limits to how much we can really learn from animals such as Chimpanzees, in zoos. It goes without saying that the best studies of "natural" behavior will be those conducted in the wild. But, in fact, it is difficult to observe behavior in the wild and at least some zoos or labs provide better opportunities for devising effective surveillance techniques. Frans de Waal's classic work on Chimpanzees, based on a small breeding population in the Arnheim Zoo in Holland, is an excellent case in point. On the one hand, there is little doubt that the behavior of the Chimps was influenced by their captivity. On the other hand, it offered the ability for people to closely observe them year round, to get to know their personalities and life histories, watch alliances form and falter, families and friends interact, and, ultimately, to see the inner workings and emergent aspects of their "politics" and "history" unfold. Even if it was "merely" Chimpanzee Politics in captivity, the results remain impressive. So too, we might assume, watching humans in captivity should be a riveting and interesting sociological experiment given proper surveillance techniques.

As an anthropologist, I could claim that I watched for "scientific" reasons, that is, to see the social experiment unfold. And surely there is much to this. But the truth is, it is much baser even for me. In addition to the ethnographic potential, the insight into how these personalities would intermingle and affect one another, I too, as the advertisers most certainly were banking on, was looking on to see the same things everyone wants to see: sex and conflict, or, to switch to the 'other' show, who will survive. Without this potential, ratings would surely fall and I (and the rest of America) would switch to the simulated version we get in our other "normal" TV shows—which make less pretense of not mediating our view (and here I include the news)—the print media and films from which most of our entertainment comes. Most of this human drama is predicable, and yet we still watch.

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