In any case, I'll be periodically releasing new Strange Horizons installments here. Eventually, I'll bundle them up and release them as Volume 2.
Without further ado, I give you installment 21 and encourage you to download Volume 1 from Smashwords for free. As always, reviews are greatly appreciated.
Perhaps too close. There is a point where utility and benefit give way to intrusion and abuse. Right now, that point is often defined when a host site asks for your credit card number. An illustrative example can be found at Voyeur Dorm (www.voyeurdorm.com), which employs 26 cameras throughout a house (including bathrooms) to bring viewers every detail in the lives of seven female students. Voyeur Dorm insists that these are regular women living their daily lives. (After all, it’s common for “regular” women to say, “One of our favorite things is Chick Night. That's when we sit around in our sexy lingerie and drink wine and talk about boys and sex and what we want for Christmas.”) In exchange for being in the spotlight, Voyeur Dorm pays their academic tuition. Each woman signs a contract, including the agreement that there must be at least two women in the house at all times. Access fees start at $34 per month.
Strange Horizons 21: The Star of the 21st Century Peep Show: You
Original publication: December 1998
My first exposure to George Orwell’s 1984 was via Books on Tape. I’d been plowing through the novel in 15-minute increments during my daily commute for about two weeks. Normally, I find audio narration to be soothing, an edifying balm for road rage. But the tale of Winston Smith and his fantasies of freedom was particularly gripping, and I would often sit alone in a parking lot, listening in the winter’s darkness.
I was driving down a busy road one day, about two-thirds into the novel. Winston and his illicit lover, Julia, were reveling in their hope for the future and contemplating their vapid place in society.
“We are the dead,” he said.
“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.
“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.
And right then, I knew that Winston’s entire life—all his dreams, ambitions, and humanity—were suddenly over. Big Brother had found them. Still cruising at 45MPH, I jammed on the brakes in shocked amazement. Amazingly, no one hit me.
John Hurt as Winston Smith in MGM’s 1984.
Part of what makes this moment so overpowering is that in a world where one’s every move and thought is carefully monitored, Winston stands nearly alone as an icon of personal freedom and rationality. His capture represents the ultimate triumph of intangible authority and the final, heartrending loss of individuality for all time. Because Winston, of course, is us. You, me, Everyman. Each day, we fight to preserve our individuality and intellectual freedom against the onslaught of advertising, mediocrity, and culturally sanctioned “dumbing down.” Without the shield of privacy allowing us the space to pull back, unobserved, and think, we are defenseless targets for Big Brother’s programming, be he governmental, corporate, religious, or otherwise.
The specter of Big Brother looms large in all our minds. Take the recent movie Enemy of the State, which portrays the U.S. government as being able to keep surveillance on virtually any aspect of our private lives. (Will Smith...Winston Smith. Hmm.) But viewers might be hard pressed to identify which is the bigger concern: fear of the Feds or fear of violated privacy. Those who would answer the former are, I think, missing the big picture.
Webcams are on a meteoric rise. With hardly a $100 investment, anyone can take live images and post them to the Internet for global viewing. Practical applications include monitoring of traffic conditions and enhanced footage of breaking news. With additional setup costs and increased bandwidth pipelines, images move from still to live motion. For instance, in high school, had I been able to carry on virtual conferences with a fellow student in Madrid, I might never have given up fourth-year Spanish. Webcams have the power to open our eyes on an unprecedented scale and bring us all closer together.
Free tuition is a tempting carrot these days, and the ability to carry on an otherwise normal life is arguably better than alternative, more exploitive professions. But Voyeur Dorm has taken traditional male fascination with “the girl next door” to a new level. Unlike a visit to a strip club, this is a look into seven people’s private lives, from corn flakes to contraceptives to couching out. These are people who have supposedly made peace with the cameras—and behind them countless thousands of potential viewers—thereby sacrificing what we would normally define as their privacy.
Is it possible for humans to live contentedly without privacy? The slick advertising at Voyeur Dorm would have us believe so. The assertion is that after a short while, inhabitants cease to be aware of the camera’s presence, relax, and go on with their lives. Officials at Voyeur Dorm did not reply to my inquiries. Likewise, Jennifer of the similarly slanted JenniCam.org declined to be interviewed.
For those that believe privacy is a personal zone of solitude, essential for psychological health, Voyeur Dorm would have us question whether privacy is a condition in the mind or a shifting area of “my space” about our bodies. If in the mind, then it follows that one could stand naked before a camera and an audience of millions and still preserve a sense of privacy since presumably none of the viewers could see one’s thoughts.
That some of us are capable of living with these conditions while some are not indicates to me that there may be a shifting under way in our cultural perception of privacy. This is not as radical as it may seem. For instance, co-ed public bath houses have been popular in several cultures throughout history, although you must search into esoteric retreats to find them here.
At the same time, it should be stressed that privacy and nudity don’t necessarily coincide. Sites like Voyeur Dorm and JenniCam carry the possibility of observing their hosts engaged in nudity or sexual activity, but the real allure is in simply staring into someone else’s life. The image of a person sleeping quietly may be more intriguing than the removal of lingerie. This is a taboo space that transcends cultural etiquette. But when enough people begin to break the taboo, it ceases to exist, and our definition of privacy must be reexamined.
A visit to Yahoo!’s various sections on webcams reveals over 500 sites, many with adult content, and many more of a totally frivolous nature, including Oregon’s Mystery Hole (see www.europa.com/~edge/hole.html). At present, only a minority of Webcams are designed to peer into people’s lives. But still shots of the great outdoors will only hold interest for so long. Interpersonal communication is what binds the Internet together, and the plethora of online bio pages can be taken as a harbinger of Webcams to come.
As we welcome webcams into our lives, most of us will not jump to leave the gadgets on 24 hours a day (at least not without credit card payment). But familiarity breeds more frequent use. Witness the spread of being “in touch,” from early telephone to cell phone to today’s global satellite paging. We may bring webcams first to the office, then the living room, and then...? What may seem absurd today could become commonplace down the road.
Webcams, like telecommunications in general, have the capacity for much goodness and productivity. But we have a tendency to abuse these little powers and allow them to dominate our lives. Without conscious effort, they can entrap us and make us dependent on them. Try going a week without usinging a phone or cable line if you doubt my point. We are a society which worships being “connected.” My fear is that webcams and other similar technologies have the potential to alter our private boundaries and undermine our psychological fortitude if we let them. Moreover, by replacing physical with virtual contact, our fundamental capacity for interpersonal communication is threatened. It all might begin as a fad and, for some, erotic curiosity.
Students of history may recall that many Native Americans were extremely averse to having their photographs taken, claiming that the camera was stealing their soul. Perhaps now, over 100 years later, with our culture of industry and technology having all but eradicated theirs, we may find that the Indians were right all along.
~ ~ ~
Obviously (and predictably), webcams have gone from being a rare novelty in 1998 to ubiquitous today. We have them embedded into every notebook PC and smartphone. Perhaps more importantly, we have video cameras mounted at highway roadsides, above intersections, and in nearly every place of business. Ostensibly, all of these cameras are for our benefit. We use them to stay in touch, plan our travel, and protect us from the dangers of crime.
At the same time, though, while enjoying all of these benefits we are becoming habituated to the presence of surveillance. Maybe there’s a human watching the other end of that video feed, maybe not. Sometimes, we don’t know. Increasingly often, we don’t care.
Today, Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam.org is sometimes credited with ushering in the age of reality TV. She shut down her site after a nearly eight-year run, citing a shift in PayPal’s policies against vendors dealing with nudity. However, as Ringley herself noted in a VH1 segment (according to Wikipedia), “I really am enjoying my privacy now. I don't have a Web page. I don't have a MySpace page. It's a completely different feeling, and I think I'm enjoying it.”
If Ringley, the godmother of privacy self-invasion, finds that she values having personal boundaries, what does this mean in a time when we are overrunning our lives with social media? I follow people on Twitter who update dozens of times per day. I have Facebook friends who view the site as a sort of multimedia diary, cataloging their activities compulsively.
I find Facebook increasingly disturbing—not because I find the site particularly evil or anything. If Facebook wasn’t serving in the role of Pandora, other companies would (and probably are). Many of us seem to feel this need to project ourselves into the world for everyone to see. Perhaps it’s a form self-expression, a validation that we are unique and significant. I suppose that in writing these words, I’m doing much the same thing. I’m showing you my thinking rather than my face (lucky you) in the egotistical surety that my opinions somehow matter. We all want to matter. It’s the four-year-old in us saying, “Look at me! See what I can do?”
But are we so anxious to have that self-expression that we’re willing to give up our privacy for it? Look at Facebook’s recent trend toward facial recognition and using it to help friends “tag” one another. Google already uses my information searches to fine-tune how marketers access my attention. It’s only a small jump from there to Budweiser targeting ads at me because a friend tagged a photo of me drinking a beer. Would PETA want to know if there’s a picture of me wearing a fur coat or leather jacket? What if a friend, thinking it funny, posted a tagged picture of you disciplining your child? Would the police or government be interested to find shots of me shooting off illegal fireworks? What if fundamentalists or hate groups started sending messaging to those in pictures showing gay/lesbian relationships—and what if the recipients were dangerously depressed teens?
|Facebook tagging in action. Not so funny when it’s your name associated with the tag, is it?|
In the age of privacy, we had more freedom and ability to moderate how others see us. Increasingly, though, we are giving up that freedom and putting those abilities in the hands of others. Our preconceptions about what privacy is and how it should be applied are starting to fray. I reposted an article on Facebook the other day about how to opt out of face tagging “recommendations,” and a friend good-naturedly chided me. He seemed genuinely bemused by my concerns. After all, it’s all just about fun and sharing.