We All Live in the Truman Show Now
"What Orwell failed to predict is that we'd buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching." — Keith Lowell Jensen
Privacy matters because privacy and freedom are inextricably linked. To value one is to value the other. Freedom requires a few necessary preconditions. Without some level of security, we live under constant threat and fear of violation, a condition inimical to freedom. Without access to food and basic necessities, our minds are taken over by abject want and the drive for bodily needs. And without the ability to relax and simply be ourselves, free from spectators or surveillance, we are impinged at all times by psychological pressures that constrict freedom. For all but the most extroverted minority, we are not ourselves when we know we are being watched. It turns us into performers, acting a role “inspired by” a version of ourselves for the world to see.
The Siren Song of Safety
While security is a prerequisite for freedom, the two occasionally conflict. There are certain instances where safety should be given priority. For example, we should want to limit the freedom to take away the freedom of others. There are crucial but narrow parameters of this sort where the transaction is usually beneficial. As a general rule, however, we should be wary of trading away our freedoms in exchange for the promise of increased safety. Too often, it is a poor bargain. What we would gain in safety is often, at the macro scale, not worth the cost of the diminished freedom. More dismayingly, the deal is often not even lived up to. Americans ceded freedoms to the United States government in the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 for the promise of thwarting terrorism. 20 years later, the government, who has every incentive to find examples, can scarcely identify any terrorist plots prevented by the sweeping and invasive powers they gained over American citizens. We gave away large chunks of our privacy, and we got nothing in return but less freedom.
Recently, Apple announced that their new iPhone operating system will automatically scan the photo albums and cloud storage of all their users, without their consent, in order to find “CSAM” (child sexual abuse material). Nobody is going to object to cracking down on child sexual abuse in itself. What Apple is doing, however, in turning the one billion active iPhones into spy devices to indiscriminately surveil its users, is a steep cost indeed. Asked whether this system could be used for other purposes, or could be co-opted by governments or authoritarian regimes, Apple could only homina homina homina like Ralph Kramden. CSAM today, but what do they scan for tomorrow?
There are ways to catch criminals that don’t require violating the rights of a billion people. As Steven Pinker laid out in his “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, virtually every form of violence, including sexual violence, has declined over time, and continues to, on the whole. We achieved this without eradicating privacy. Why not let these same means continue to do their work and improve society further? But the powers that be — whether governments or corporations — will always demand the broadest and most indiscriminate tools with which to “protect” us. There are some tools so powerful that they cannot be wielded without also being abused, and the cure can be worse than the disease (assuming it even works to begin with). We must ask ourselves whether we still want to be the kind of society that lets nine criminals go free so that one innocent person won’t be wrongly convicted, or if we would imprison ten men knowing one is innocent to prevent the criminals from escaping punishment. Whether we still want to be the kind of society that takes reasonable measures to increase safety, but recognizes that a perfectly safe world is neither possible nor worth the cost, or whether we will opt for total security at any expense.
This isn’t just about Apple. They are simply the most recent example of a wider pattern happening across the board. Whether or not Apple follows through with this particular system, it’s the general direction we are inexorably headed down. There are a million and one different ghastly, abominable things that happen in the world. Take sexual assault. Even one is too many, as the popular refrain goes. Sexual assaults often have no witnesses, and can leave no evidence behind, becoming a matter of he-said-she-said in which a guilty perpetrator can escape justice. Why not install surveillance cameras in every room in every building in the country that can alert the authorities if any criminal behavior goes down? It’s undeniable that this would massively crack down on sexual assault, and probably many other crimes, too. What’s that, you don’t want the cameras in your home? “Why are you in favor of rape?” “Perhaps you’re a rapist yourself?”
Sooner or later, a government or corporation will ask us to trade a little freedom here, a little freedom there, in order to make us safer from one or another of the litany of evils in the world. Sometimes they won’t ask. To be sure, no one law, policy, or shifting norm is likely to usher in tyranny on its own. But the persistent drip drip drip adds up, and one day you wake up and realize that you gave it all away, and for what? It’s not just a matter of technological capability — the abolition of privacy marches on the feet of our acquiescence.
It should come as no surprise that the younger generations care less about freedom than their predecessors, because the younger generations also care less about privacy than their predecessors. Socialized in an environment of ubiquitous connected technology, where prestige hierarchies demand and reward the forfeiture of privacy on the altar of status, convenience, and conformity, there are adults in society today for whom privacy, as traditionally understood, is an increasingly strange, suspect, and antiquated concept. It’s not just young people anymore. Toward the upper end of this age range are people already into their forties. Can anyone wonder that the voluntary curtailment of our privacy has progressed in lockstep with shifting attitudes about the value of freedom? Privacy is coming to be viewed as something only sought by those who have “something to hide.”
This attitude was all but inevitable, since functioning in modern life has become virtually impossible without plugging oneself into this matrix of exhibitionistic, data-collecting, panopticonic mass surveillance. To resist conforming to this new norm is to set oneself apart, and thereby to invite suspicion. Who in society at this point doesn't have a smartphone, for example? The answer: troglodytes, the tech-illiterate, eccentrics, nutjobs, and homeless people. Only the very elderly are given a (partial) pass from social judgement, and not for too much longer. When a practice becomes pervasive enough, it generally becomes unavoidable without conscious effort. Such effort is only made at the fringes of society, who in turn come to embody the resistance, which naturally only marginalizes it further.
An interesting paradox is that in our thirst for individual self-expression, we are destroying our own individuality. As we broadcast more and more of our lives to the world, willingly subjecting ourselves to increasingly Orwellian surveillance, uncaringly moving in a sphere that logs a systematic permanent record of our whole lives down to minute details, we are sculpted by the pressures imposed by a life without privacy. Under the spotlight of the entire world, we become a shallow avatar of ourselves, projecting a false image designed to gain acceptance and dissuade suspicion. We become phonies, frauds, and politicians. Our behavior is ever more calculated, less authentic, and less human. We feel less comfortable to experiment, to think out loud, and to be heretical. And the most chilling part is that many people are so far gone that they cannot even make sense of what I’m describing. We are caught in a negative feedback loop that is destroying our privacy so profoundly that we are coming not only to lose it, but to no longer understand why it even matters. We are all living in the Truman Show, except unlike Truman Burbank, we know the cameras are there, because we've installed them ourselves.