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Open topic: Eyes, eyes, baby

Eyes eyes baby
Illustration by Brent Holmes
Illustration by Brent Holmes

Am I paranoid, or is Big Data watching and analyzing my every move? Yes.

I was in another city, which shall remain nameless, visiting a 70-year-old woman who may or may not have given birth to me many years ago, when I saw clearly how the threat of surveillance controls behavior. We’d had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We walked to her car. A truck was parked a little too close, over the line, possibly door-dinging hers and definitely making it difficult for her to squeeze in.

“Asshole,” said the woman who, purely for the sake of storytelling, I’ll call “Mom.” And then: a screeching noise, a horrendous, scratching, definitely criminal noise. This woman, who for more than 40 years I’ve known to be basically kind and non-felonious, was keying the side of a pickup truck.

“Oh, my God! Mom! Stop! What are you doing!?” I yelled, and then, in a swift, courageous move, I ushered her into the car and we got the hell out of there. A brief discussion followed, wherein I fumbled with high-minded words like “right” and “wrong,” and she explained the eye-for-an-eye state of parking etiquette in her retirement town. I said things like “property damage” and “crime,” but these words seemed to miss the mark. It wasn’t until I noted, almost as an afterthought, that there are surveillance cameras in many parking lots, that she agreed it was time to quit pursuing vehicular vendettas. Besides, she assured me, it was a temporary loss of judgment.

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“But did you really see a surveillance camera?” she asked worriedly.

I should’ve felt satisfied. But instead, I suddenly resented the omnipotence of surveillance. I already spend a lot of time and energy trying to ignore the many creepy-smart technologies that watch our every move in 2016, but now I was using the threat of it to control mothers. I mean others. Flashbacks to social concepts I learned in college filled my head: philosopher Michel Foucault’s take on philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” prison building, where everyone could be watched by a single watcher but could not know if they actually were. Basically, the theory is that the mere threat of surveillance, whether it’s actually happening or not, has the power to normalize people.

It’s a disturbing phrase, “the power to normalize people,” fraught with images of mad scientists tinkering with lobotomies to achieve thought control. Back when I stared at books that didn’t stare back at me, I pored over Foucault’s 1975 Discipline and Punish, which addressed the forthcoming panopticonish design of everyday institutions like schools and offices, which would control and normalize behavior. Long before we knew about the deep dives into surveillance that technology would allow, Foucault wrote, “Visibility is a trap.”

But I was young. I was surveillance-free and naked when I wanted to be, and I thought those ideas seemed mostly applicable to sci-fi flicks. Flash forward 20 years and, oh my panopticon, we live in there, in here, under the watchful eyes of “the power to normalize.”


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I’ll come right out with it: I’m paranoid. I like(d) my privacy. I liked my freedom to navigate a world that wasn’t busy navigating me. There was autonomy in not being followed by GPS. There was joy and challenge and self-reliance in getting lost. There was intrigue in perusing ads that were made for a larger swath of consumers than just those who shared my algorithm space, based on my patterns of online consumerism, my patterns of Google searches, details drawn from my social-media profiles, my uses of words in emails or texts that trigger ads in my Google results or Facebook feed. I text my spouse, “Don’t forget to pick up Advil, please.” Moments later, a headline on my Facebook feed says, “Studies show ibuprofen destroys your intestines. Click for (agonizingly slow, ad-laden) slideshow.” 

Plenty of people love these conveniences, this bending of the world to match their interests, the ease with which they’re fed articles that match their worldview. But I can’t help but think about what I’m missing, what I would see if I had different patterns, what I might learn and understand about others if I weren’t reading information tailored to me.

I also enjoyed the autonomy of not letting a social-media app — which, if I want to stay connected to society in these times, I need — strong-arm me into giving it access to my photos, my contacts, my GPS location, my texts, my camera, my mic. I enjoyed not having an app urge me to post my location at all times. Checking in at CVS! I don’t need the behavioral nudge of Facebook saying, Don’t you want to post these pics that you recently snapped? If I did, I would have.

Archaically, I suppose, I often wonder: Why is it okay for the manipulators of high tech and big data to slowly take over my decision-making? I’m not sure we’ll have to wait for artificially intelligent beings to conquer the world; we’re handing over control of our lives one click at a time.

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Here, then, is where I always seem to come off as a whackadoodle. I guess I can’t genuinely say that my leave-the-grid, Luddite fantasies are based entirely on my concerns about the social harms of silo-ization and a disappointment in the upkeep of privacy laws. There’s a fine line between wanting your freedom and just being thoroughly creeped-out by surveillance, aka the aforementioned paranoia. Years — years! — before the world noticed in a photo that Mark Zuckerberg covers his laptop cam with tape, I had taped that sucker shut on mine. It was about 2009, and an IT guy laughed at me, saying, “No one can see you,” while he took control of my cursor from another office and changed all my settings. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

But, really, who cares who sees you? Who cares if there are, horrifyingly, drone cameras disguised as flies buzzing around the world, recording everyone’s everything and adding it to Big Data, to be used to make society safer and your life more convenient? If you’re not doing anything wrong, what’s the problem?

The obvious problem is who gets to decide what’s “wrong.” The larger problem is that it’s dehumanizing. It chips away at the boundaries of personhood, of each person’s identity being defined in part by the ability to make choices about which thoughts and actions are shared and manipulated and used to control behavior, and which are not. Moreover, it’s creepy as hell, and I’m not ready to completely give in to a techno-lobotomy. And, finally — just get off my lawn! — I don’t want to check into the panopticon prison, where the threat of surveillance embeds in my deepest psychological impulses.

So, will that mom lady and I show up on a Google Maps image keying a truck? Unlikely. Has the idea of this changed my mom’s behavior? Yes. Do the ends justify the means? I would say, emphatically, no.