At a party a few years ago, a young reporter bounded over to my cluster of social nodders and, with the breathlessness of a born tweeter, chirped: “What’s the new hot thing?!” I replied: “Anonymity.”
She looked befuddled. I continued: “To be Googled and to have nothing turn up. That’s hot.” Too late, alas, even then.
In these post-Snowden days, the notion of anonymity is ludicrous. But so it has been for some time, though recent disclosures bring pause even to the habitually inured. While Americans bemoan their loss of privacy, it is helpful to recall our own role in this gradual process of, shall we say, regurgitative knowingness. That is, our apparent willingness to show and tell every little thing in the quest to be known. Fame and Celebrity are by comparison higher callings than whatever compels strangers to display, say, their tongues (or other points of anatomical interest) in the public forum of social media. These acts of baboonery, not so feigned after all, are unsubtly reminiscent of chimpanzees, who, unconsciously aware of the camera’s hostile intrusion, try to offend it with grimaces, grins and lingual extrusions.
Now, suddenly we’re offended that national security operatives are following our behavior patterns? Whether Edward Snowden, the self-admiring 29-year-old who decided to save us from ourselves, if not our enemies, is hero or villain will keep us amused until time tells. Most likely he’s a hybrid of the two, the heroic concentrated mostly in his having spawned an urgent and overdue debate about the costs of privacy in the service of security.
Who else is watching?
Meanwhile, Americans are scrambling to read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the subject of my high school thesis. One of my more ironic literary friends called to recite Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” scene wherein another famous Snowden, mortally wounded, literally spills his guts.
Early infatuation with Huxley and other prescient writers — George Orwell’s Big Brother seems suddenly cuddly — made me rationally paranoid, yes, but mostly aware of the tyranny of caring. It comes gently at first — we only want to protect you — but soon-ish becomes oppressive.
Distracted by our gadgets, we hardly notice until a Snowden materializes. We love Google Earth because we can see our very own houses on our very own laptop screens. Wow. But who else is watching?
When I visited then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at his post-9/11 “Command Center” — a vast room filled with gigantic plasma screens and computer arsenals manned by military personnel — he pointed to my South Carolina office building on one of the screens. I asked Thompson if he could tell me whether my assistant was there. “Not yet, but soon,” he said.
Fast forward to the set of CNN’s “Parker Spitzer” a couple of years ago when I asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt what options were available to people (like me) who might find his “Street View” a little creepy. “You can just move,” he said.
Well, no, you can’t. There’s no habitable place left on the planet where one can move to escape the data stalkers. Speaking of which, a peeve more personally concerning than whether Edward Snowden discovers where I get my tasteful highlights — or, as the Obama campaign mastered, which candidate I might support given my proclivity for same. Online shopping. Take one little tiny peek at an item of even remote interest and you are owned by The Thing. Once, I Googled a purse that, turned out, cost $1,200. I moved along. Not so fast, hissed the serpent.
A full year later, I’m reading about immigration reform and suddenly the $1,200 purse slithers into view, imprinting my brain with temptation I didn’t invite. But, yes, I did. I Googled. I oogled. And, though I resisted, I am henceforth captive to an automated data pimp.
Know this: Whatever you have done online is known. Whatever you will do will be known.