Previously in "Technocracy," I've discussed the disturbing trend in censorship among technology providers, ranging from Internet Service Providers (whose refusal to honor peering agreements cuts off their customers from certain segments of the Internet's network of networks) to the decision of video-sharing giant YouTube to censor videos based on vague standards of politically incorrect content. While it's relatively easy and fairly obvious to focus on the activities of technology services where restricting content is concerned, there is another and possibly even more dangerous aspect to these issues. That danger is a new openness, a willingness on the part of American citizens and their counterparts worldwide to live their lives publicly. The implications of this societal trend bode ill for civil rights and personal privacy within technologically advanced societies.
The trademarked slogan of YouTube is "Broadcast Yourself." If you're at all familiar with the site, you know that it is possible to spend hours clicking link after link, watching perfectly ordinary people doing everything from talking to the camera about their opinions, to reviewing knives and shooting firearms, to playing music in local bands, to trash-talking each other and leaving "video responses" for each other's posts. In some cases, videos catch the consciousness of popular culture and become "viral" – they turn average individuals into Internet celebrities. The most popular of these are even staged for the explicit purpose of creating a viral video, to garner publicity for those involved. If you've ever watched the famed "Star Wars Kid" wielding a broomstick like a light saber, marveled at the repressed hatred of Michael "Kramer" Richards shouting racist invective at a heckler, or chuckled as alleged comedian Pauly Shore was punched out on stage by an angry "redneck" (the latter video, it turns out, was completely staged), you've watched a viral video and you've participated in this societal trend.
The abundance of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook mean the trend extends far beyond video-sharing sites alone. The purpose of a social networking webspace is to share aspects of your life publicly – to post pictures of yourself and your friends, to state your opinions in your blog, to comment publicly on others' pictures and blog posts. The cross-referenced network of public information and opinions creates a vast web of insight into the individuals involved. Many of us have argued with someone on an Internet message board, someone who included a link to a personal website or MySpace page. It is possible to learn a great deal about that individual by going to those pages and then using, say, Google to search for key terms, names and other data disclosed on those pages. All of these disclosures are perfectly voluntary. In a world rife with "reality" shows whose participants will endure almost any degradation for a few minutes of mild celebrity and fame, it's a relatively easy thing to tell the world all about yourself on a website or a blog.
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In and of itself, this is not so terrible as long as the people involved are aware of the risks they assume when they tell the world about themselves. (Some individuals have famously lost jobs, or been denied them after interviews, because of racy pictures posted on social networking sites, or thanks to websites that painted them as less than desirable candidates.) The real danger, however, is that when we as citizens can all garner a certain amount of fame thanks to readily available social networking and sharing technology, we become increasingly comfortable with our private lives becoming public. That comfort becomes, in turn, a complacency with living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. This once chilling and dystopian prediction by George Orwell is now a commercial reality show – whose premise is watching the soap opera that is ordinary people living in a house full of cameras.
"Civilization," Ayn Rand said, "is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." The disturbing trend in technologically-driven celebrity, in the making public of the previously private lives of thousands if not millions of ordinary people, is that of a regression back to that public, tribal existence. We are devolving, from a "civilized" society in which privacy is presumed or granted by default to a savage society in which private lives are increasingly revealed through our own willingness to share them. As this becomes more and more common, we raise fewer and fewer objections to the culture of public surveillance that now plagues us. Video cameras watch a remarkable percentage of public (and some private) spaces through which we travel every day. If we are comfortable with telling strangers on the Internet all about our private lives, how can we object when the State points its recording equipment in the same direction?
It is very unlikely that this trend in social networking and public exposure will be reversed. If anything, as personal video cameras become cheaper and more common and as the Internet becomes more and more interwoven in the fabric of our day-to-day lives, we will devolve even further. Our lives will become more communitarian, not less. The only thing we can do, therefore, is remain vigilant with regard to those disclosures that are voluntary versus those that occur as a result of invasive government action. The former is a reality of popular culture. The latter is an unacceptable breach of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and must be guarded against at all times.
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