It took all of maybe three months living in New York City for me to realize that I really didn’t give a shit about privacy. I was sitting on the couch of a girl I’d been on a couple of dates with and we were talking, when I happened to glance out her open window and into the apartment directly across from us on the other side of MacDougal Street. Standing there, in front of her own open window, was a naked woman. As in head-to-toe, full-frontal. Why she was naked I didn’t know and of course didn’t care. She could’ve just figured out the secret to cold fusion and wanted to call CERN as quickly as possible and therefore hadn’t bothered to get dressed; it wouldn’t have mattered one bit to me. All I cared about was the fact that I was getting a pretty impressive peep show and I didn’t even have to debase myself in a dark, tiny room just off Times Square that smelled like Clorox and cigarettes had a mysterious waist-height hole in the wall leading to — somewhere. Strangely, for all my various experiences up to that point, I’d never seen anything quite like what I was witnessing and for the next half-hour, despite several attempts, I couldn’t take my eyes off the nude figure not more than a hundred feet or so from me. I continued watching it, in fact, right up until my date asked me to please leave and never come back.
What I started to understand that night is that in New York City — Manhattan especially, stacked on top of each other like lab rats in numbered drawers — it was naive and stupid to expect complete privacy. Your neighbor in the next apartment could hear you. The guy on a date with somebody you didn’t even know across the street could see you. If you were being stabbed by a stranger in the alley next door to your building, everybody would know it and there’s a pretty good chance nobody would do a thing about it. And so, in short order, I became one of those people, like the woman across MacDougal Street: someone who never much worried about who could see me or what they could see me doing. Propriety was merely a matter of distance and ignorance: If you personally were right outside my high-rise window peeking in, chances are it would have bothered me; widen the scope of possible offenders to hundreds and put them far enough away to where I couldn’t tell for sure who was watching and who wasn’t — make the eyes invisible — and who has time to care?
More than once in the past couple of years I’ve brought up the name Jeremy Bentham in the stuff that I write. For those who weren’t paying attention — and really, who can blame you if you weren’t? — Bentham was a British philosopher and sociologist who, among other things, first proposed the idea of a new kind of prison where thousands of inmates could be watched by a single guard tower in the center of a circular complex but the inmates themselves could never tell exactly who was watching them or if anyone was at all. It was revolutionary — and it was called the Panopticon. I’ve brought up Bentham again and again for the simple reason that his unholy creation has now come to fruition on a massive scale, one that for all his genius I guarantee he never could’ve imagined. We’re all living in Bentham’s prison. We now exist in a digital, social media, telecommunications Panopticon. What’s more, while it’s easy to argue, particularly after the past few days, that the guards of this prison are members of the government and its various national security agencies, the reality is that we’re our own guards — our own wardens — and we willingly submit to incarceration in this nightmare almost every minute of every day.
It’s true that the NSA has been data-mining from U.S. citizens via both tech and telecom companies and the width of the dragnet cast may be cause for concern; this revelation is hardly a revelation at all and should surprise no one. But the reality is that we don’t need the government to dig to find out where we are, who we’re talking to, what we’re looking for on the internet, and so on because the very tech giants we fear are being wantonly raided by the NSA have been collecting data on us for years. And they haven’t been using it for anything so noble as national security. They’ve been using it to make money — millions in fact. Companies like Google and Facebook violate our supposed privacy as a matter of policy, selling our searches to companies looking to target us with specific ads and actually turning us, on occasion, into unwitting pitchmen for crap we’d never in a million years want our names associated with. Wireless behemoths like Verizon, meanwhile, may be at the center of a maelstrom right now for turning over metadata to government agents armed with FISA warrants, but guess what? As recently as three weeks ago Verizon was called out for turning over the personal data of its customers to big business through a program called Precision Market Insights (which could amusingly be shortened to “PrIsM” if you felt so inclined).
This has been going on for years and not only is there nothing you can do about it, most people have barely cared. What are you going to do, drop off Facebook? Leave the internet? Throw your cellphone away? The bottom line is there’s nothing you can do. As a recent article in the Huffington Post said, you simply cannot reasonably expect to exist in the modern world and not have your private information sold off for a profit. So you shut your eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. You tune it out and go about your business, even though you know the prison guards are watching you.
Even if you can get past the notion that there are unseen forces monitoring your every move, vast entities that consider you little more than a set of not-so-secret longings and fascinations to be stoked and marketed to, you still have to contend with a potentially far more immediate and invasive violation of your privacy. Just last week, while most of us were losing our minds over the possibility of the NSA having access to the pictures of Grumpy Cat we were circulating to people who secretly hate us, a woman named Steph Strayer was single-handedly trying to destroy a guy who had the bad luck to be sitting near her on a train ride out of Philadelphia while he apparently bragged about how much he enjoyed cheating on his wife. Steph, you see, not content to simply tuck her earbuds deeper into her ears like the rest of us do when a nearby conversation annoys the piss out of us, whipped out her cellphone and snapped a picture of the offending asshole; she then posted that picture on Facebook and crowdsourced for the poor bastard’s identity in the hope that he’d be publicly shamed and would, I’d imagine, get a serious talking to by his wife (one that would likely involve a packed-solid Samsonite Carbon to the side of the head). This story closely followed that of Adria Richards, a software developer who tweeted out a picture of two guys she says were making sexist jokes behind her at a tech convention — the resulting firestorm got everyone involved, including Richards, fired — and Melissa Stetten, who claims that married C-list actor Brian Presley spent an entire flight hitting on her, the details of which she live-tweeted.
None of this is meant to argue that idiot men have to worry about how they comport themselves around women these days — it’s meant to argue that everyone apparently has to be on their best behavior at all times these days. Why? It isn’t because you never know who’s watching you. It’s because everyone is watching you. You’re always under surveillance. Everyone is connected to the social media hive mind. Whether you’re jacked in yourself, by yourself, putting your own information out there for all to see, or the person next to you is commenting on what’s going on in his or her general vicinity and you just happen to be a part of the action, you have no expectation of privacy anymore.
You can let this paralyze you. You can let it make you crazy. Or you can let go.
You have no idea where the guards of this prison are or how many of them there are at any one time. But you always know they’re there. You have no idea exactly who’s watching you. But you know you’re being watched. That’s the Panopticon.
But if you don’t know who’s watching, whether it’s the NSA or the guy sitting across the street from you on a date, is it really that big a deal? Remember: distance and ignorance. Widen the scope big enough and far enough — make the eyes invisible — and who really has time to care?