The Death of Private Life
By Wil Forbis
I live in San Diego, not far from my former home of Los Angeles where the Donald Sterling scandal recently erupted. Sterling, billionaire owner of the oft beleaguered L.A. Clippers, was exposed as a racist when recorded comments he made about minorities were released to the media. Sterling now seems to be gearing up for heavy battle with the NBA over whether he will maintain ownership of his team.
The situation reminded me of the recent Michelle Shocked controversy. The former alt-rock singer-turned-Christian made questionable comments about gays* during a live performance and her career was just about destroyed when a recording of the show made its way onto the internet. Like Sterling, Shocked was undone by the ease with which people can record their environment.
* As I wrote at the time, I think Shocked's comments were more complex than many assumed.
Only a few weeks after the Sterling situation emerged, rapper Jay-Z was caught on video being attacked by his sister-in-law. Again the point was made: prying eyes and ears are everywhere.
Of course, this particular zeitgeist has been a long time coming. During the 2012 U.S. Presidential content, the most damaging event Mitt Romney faced was the release of a videotape in which he, at a private fundraiser, damned 47 percent of Americans as dependent to government handouts. And let's not forget comedian and "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards' racist rant from several years ago, again recorded by a private citizen. For that matter, does anyone remember the beating of Rodney King?
It's seems a safe assumption that this sort of thing will only get more prevalent. We are entering an age where every phone is a camera AND a tape recorder. Google Glass eyewear allows people to film their surroundings with a voice command. We may soon have small, unmanned drones be flying about with cameras attached.
Of course, so far these "caught on tape" debacles have only affected the famous and the powerful. This is for obvious reasons. If a billionaire or celebrity makes racist or bullying statements, it's news; when the guy at the corner bar does it, it merely generates a yawn. But one has to wonder: when the cameras are everywhere, will they eventually point themselves at moi?
You might say, "Cameras taping little old me? What would they expect to find? I'm a saint among men!" But are you comfortable with the possibility of any comment you make finding its way to your boss? Your lover? Your mother? Your priest? It's easy to be on guard when you are in "polite society" but less so when you are among friends. (Recall that Donald Sterling thought he was on a private phone call with his girlfriend.) We all have our offhand comments, our momentary indiscretions. What's kept us from being damned by them is that they usually fade from people's memories. But digital recordings never fade.
One might question whether all the world will really soon be under surveillance. In truth there are plenty of good reasons to keep the camera running. People have been monitoring their babies and their babies' nannies for some time. We may soon extend this variation of helicopter parenting into our kids' toddler and teen years. People now have apps that let them check in on cameras watching their houses. Businesses do the same. How can you know whether or not you are being watched or listened to?
Can you trust your friends, your coworkers, your acquaintances---anyone with a camera or audio recorder really--- not to use what you do and say against you? Humans are a funny bunch. We can get along great, but once we see someone who seems to have broken the social contract, who is engaging in behavior that violates our mores, we can become unhinged*. Then, like the mob going after Frankenstein, we demand blood.
*Evolutionary psychologists might argue that this behavior is encoded into our genes. As a species we've spent tens of thousands of years existing in tribes where deference to the group was essential to its survival.
If the day arrives where the common man finds himself faced with the very real possibility that his every word or deed can be used against him, we will have two options. One is to embrace the death of private life, to fully commit ourselves to our public, "polite society" personas---the version of ourself that is ever on guard against any slip of the tongue or faux pas. Our second choice would be to say, "fuck it," and not be so ready to damn every folly of our peers. To acknowledged that we all have flaws and imperfections. And to acknowledge that most people are more likely to adjust their behavior when they don't feel like they're on trial.
Yeah, that'll happen.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.