One aspect of our world today that is not commented upon enough amid all the noise of the news cycle is the 24/7 monitoring of our daily activities. A great deal of the ever-present peering into our personal lives is tied to our commercial and financial activities; some of this surveillance is protecting us from fraud, but a much larger portion is designed to better understand our spending habits in order to sell us more junk we don’t really need with money we don’t actually have. However, the more worrisome monitoring of our lives is that which supposedly protects us from international criminals and terrorists—and which has turned us all into germs parked under a very big microscope.
I suppose it is a perverse tribute to the power of the algorithms embedded into the very fabric of our lives today, but we are continually made aware of needs we did not know we even had thanks to the pop up ads on our browsers. Even the helpful viewing suggestions on Netflix are busily compiling a list of our dreams and desires drawn from our viewing profiles, which will immediately be used by businesses to prod us into even more spending and track our purchases down to the very last stick of chewing gum. Although I appreciate it when my credit card company calls to check whether I just purchased lawn furniture in a store five states away from where I actually live, I twitch a bit when I am called about an item I’ve bought that was flagged simply because it fell outside my “purchasing profile”. I realize I’ve probably fallen into a blandly predictable pattern in my life, but need I be reminded by MasterCard just how boring I have become?
Even within my four thin walls, my electronic footprint of daily activities, helpfully logged by my devices and Internet service provider, are keeping a fine record of my life, activities, and thoughts. Sometimes, just to be a rebel, I will pull a physical book off a shelf or search for information on Google that does not interest me in the least—simply to screw with the system. This is my mild and ineffectual revolt against Big Brother. Of course, fifty years from now we might all be grousing about the government-mandated technology embedded in our refrigerators that chastises us when we don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much about the tyranny of our technology today.
However, the oddest aspect of our conversations when we talk about the constant spying into everything we do is just how much of it is justified by the need to keep us secure in a seemingly ever more insecure world. Having entertained myself this morning by counting all the cameras that recorded by daily bus commute to work—and will today monitor my movements on my college campus throughout the day—I cannot help but contemplate how little privacy I have once I step outside the walls of my home. How sad is that?
However, all of the snooping that swirls around our daily lives and spending pales in comparison with the broad and disturbing reach of the national security state’s ceaseless sifting of our activities.
We are, of course, regularly reassured that international drug lords and bloodthirsty terrorists are being foiled by the alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies vacuuming up every facet of our lives with little concern for our confidentiality. However, since the passage of the Post-9/11 Patriot Act, we also have seen an explosion in the number of private corporations that work under government contract and spy on every aspect of our existences and the world around us. According to an article in The Nation last year, the “intelligence-contracting industry… is worth about $50 billion.” Just to give that huge but amorphous number some context, this means that private companies engaged in all manner of surveillance are today an economic behemoth with roughly the same revenues and reach as FedEx.
This translates into the political punch necessary—via campaign contributions, consulting fees, and promises to locate jobs in key legislative districts—to perpetuate their power and further expand their mandates. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that no one with any actual ability to influence contracting or legislation will ever, ever suggest that our national security apparatus needs to be trimmed—there is simply too much money sloshing around the system for it to be otherwise. All those wonderful taxpayer-subsidized paychecks have rendered this sprawling and largely unaccountable system impervious to change or reform, which is exactly what often happens when our government decides it is time to “protect” us—the functional outcome is that the livelihoods of many others are forever protected at our expense.
I am certain that all manner of fanatics and dead-enders have been stopped by a suspicious phone call, bank withdrawal, or illegal left turn that was identified and flagged in a database somewhere. However, this might not be as comforting as we might like to believe. The recent horrific sniper attacks in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and 527 people injured, should give us pause for reasons that go beyond the terrible facts of the crime. The shooter apparently smuggled both a veritable arsenal and an unbelievable amount of ammunition into a major downtown hotel in a city that might have more cameras per square foot than almost any other in the United States. As frightening as the actions of this madman where, the perhaps even more scary fact is that none of the surveillance technology nor the people tasked with operating it had a clue about what was going to happen—until it did.
The inevitable response to this incident and so many like it has, of course, been a call for yet more monitoring, restrictions, and expanded governmental powers to protect us. No one who hopes to win an election is ever going to say that they are simply incapable of protecting everyone from the random horrors of life. This would to call into question the broad purpose of government as it has come to be defined over the past century, an increasing powerful and intrusive set of overlapping entities that claim to be able to keep us safe and happy if we fork over enough tax money.
As the regulatory and police powers of the state have increased and sought to save us from the anxieties generated by foods with insufficient fiber, people who might disagree with us, and sharp scissors, the obvious failures mount up—and the only ones who seem surprised are those who still somehow believe that the solution to every problem is to give government (wait for it!) yet more regulatory and police powers. This is, ultimately, a circular and self-defeating fool’s errand. Even if we put a camera inside every home, a cop on every corner, and a microchip in every individual, we will still not be safe from life because life is an inherently unsafe and potentially upsetting endeavor. Even the best choices sometimes have bad outcomes, and random weirdness and cruelty will never be eliminated from our world no matter how many forms we are required to fill out.
Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo the illusory security provided by living my life under the camera’s unblinking eye. Perhaps something bad will happen to me or someone whom I love as a result, but such is life. In fact, it might be much more of a life—exciting, risky, and completely ours to navigate—than the silly and scolding simulacrum we now have. Just as G-o-d is unable to prevent all of the pain that is part of life, so can we be certain that G-o-v cannot insulate us from every potentially dangerous situation, object, or person. This might seem awful to some, but perhaps we simply have to live our lives, deal with the consequences—and whine a little less about the uncertainty of it all.