Sunday, October 24, 2004

As humans, we have been gleefully watching people do stupid things for millennia. From the earliest Cro-Magnon lighting his beard on fire (to uproarious laughter from his fellow cave dwellers, no doubt) to the medieval court jester, and from the Barnum and Bailey Circus to the television-age addiction to “reality TV,” we love to watch people flounder and fail.

We like embarrassment; at least when it doesn’t happen to us.

Without a doubt, the headshrinkers could fill books analyzing our collective voyeurism; and in fact they have. Such obsessive satisfaction in the misfortune of others, and the burgeoning use of technology to share in it real time, however, carries with it a political component, and it is not positive. Simply put, the current obsession with reality TV has immunized American society to the changes wrought by pervasive government surveillance.

The American conception of personal privacy as a right has its origins in the long-held tenet of English jurisprudence that “a man’s house is his castle.” In modern times, the importance of privacy to our very way of life is eloquently captured by philosopher Ayn Rand in her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead,” in which she posits that “privacy” is the very bedrock of modern civilization. While not a purely American concept, the value of privacy has taken root in our society more than any other. Indeed, it is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution — the government cannot invade our persons, homes or papers to gather evidence against us without a good reason for doing so; private lives are, well, private.

In the olden days, this actually meant something. People were outraged when someone’s laundry, be it clean or dirty, was aired publicly without a good reason. Instinctively, Americans distrusted anything that scrutinized their daily activities. Gossip, though practiced quietly, was a bad word.

Today, however, one need just do a little channel surfing during prime time to see just how far removed we are as a society from such quaint notions of propriety. Though the concept of “reality television” is almost as old as the medium itself (Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera” premiered in 1948), the past decade has seen an explosion of increasingly sophisticated, sensational and salacious programming that plumbs the most brackish depths of our collective appetites for sex, violence and humiliation.

From the networks to cable to the Internet, beautiful and ugly people alike are on display all the time in their most intimate moments for our viewing pleasure. At the click of a button, we can watch people getting fired, cheating on their spouses, consuming live beetles, drinking their own urine and submitting to copious amounts of plastic surgery. We can watch our fellow Americans fighting, lying, stealing and hating; proudly being as stupid as stupid can be.

Perhaps this is just a symptom of our larger consumer culture, in which notions of civic responsibility and the golden rule have been supplanted with the unending search for gratification. Perhaps our love for “The Apprentice,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Fear Factor” reflect a deeper yearning for some sort of cathartic need to watch people do silly things, safe in the knowledge that it’s not us.

But when we start seeing shows actually called “Big Brother,” we need to start asking other and far more serious questions.

I, for one, do not relish the idea of a camera in my home, or on every street corner, or at every monument in the nation’s capitol. I would much rather go about my daily business invisible to the world, and secure in my anonymity. Unfortunately, most folks, especially the younger viewing audiences that form the viewing pool for most reality shows today, apparently see it differently. They want the affirmation of their peers. They want to be noticed. They want to be desired. In such a world, is it really surprising that most children would probably put being on the cast of the “Real World” higher on their lists of things to accomplish than admission to Harvard?

This thirst to be “up in people’s business” has a darker side. In recent years, the specter of terrorism has allowed the government to set up its own reality TV show, which pipes the details of our daily lives — whether driving, walking or flying — directly into the government’s studio. Through counter-terrorism initiatives like the airline profiling program known as CAPPS II, the neighborhood informant initiative called Operation TIPS, or the mother of all surveillance programs, aptly named Total Information Awareness, the national security establishment since September 11 is moving aggressively to set up the infrastructure to put us all on candid camera all the time.

And it’s just going to get worse. Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration — not the voters of this country — approved radio transmitters being implanted under our skin. Remote imaging technology (that is, x-ray vision) is becoming more and more sophisticated. Spy cameras are becoming smaller and cheaper. Cell phones and GPS systems in vehicles can now be used by government agencies to find us and listen in to our conversations.

The only thing that can stanch this “better living through surveillance” technological onslaught is if we get exercised about it, and insist on a rebirth of the notions of decency and personal responsibility that built this country and kept us, until recently, from opening each others’ mail. For the new generation, however, weaned on reality TV and immune to indignation and shame at the most intimate details of their fellow citizens’ lives being electronically splashed into 50 million homes each week, a few thousand cameras in a large American city recording their movements causes hardly a flutter of concern.

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International.

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