Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Surveillance Society

While walking around Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island this past weekend (I was there on a short holiday), I ran across this sign:

I understand why we feel the need for surveillance at almost every turn. We've been told so often that it will make us safer that we've actually come to believe it, even though we're also told that crime is getting worse, and we need to have more police officers, and prisons, and tougher sentencing... all things that shouldn't be required if in fact the increased surveillance state in which we now live really did make us safer.

It's not just video cameras on every street corner, and in every yard, however. With every post on social media networks like Facebook or Twitter, we are willingly submitting to not just the surveillance state, but a surveillance society. Our privacy isn't being taken from us; we're offering it up on the altar of belonging to a "community" of "friends" that we've never actually met, and probably never will, but with whom an increasing number of people are willing to share the most intimate details of their daily lives.

The truth is that we want to be watched, because it makes us feel as if we matter, and that we're part of something. But what does this say about us, and our inability to find true meaning and connection in this world?

This new "something" isn't real, however, and it has a cost, one that we're paying each and every day that we parade our private selves in the public square without discrimination. We are selling ourselves short, and we are selling ourselves out, as we settle for living vicariously through strangers over living in the real world with true friends.

I think there's great potential in social networking to make meaningful connections, in much the same way that people used to have "pen-pals"... similarly, one can use it for marketing, and that's a useful enough thing as well. But when it goes to the point that we essentially make ourselves into a commodity, it's gone too far - and sadly, I think that's where we're headed.

Paul Kimball


AJ Gulyas said...

With regard to becoming commodities, I read an article recently which posited that Google's "product" is not webapps or search results but rather the users of those products and their freely shared information.

I'm not too worried about people our age (over)sharing, but I'm seeing a growing number of young people in my classes who simply believe that sharing every intimate detail of their life is not just normal but necessary. This isn't limited to online interactions. I make it clear that I don't need to know the reasons why a student needs to make up an exam, but I often get information about their lives that I don't need and certainly don't want.

I'm not sure if this oversharing is the result of social networking or if social networking apps are the result of our desire to share in an age when we are far-flung from our families and friends.

Paul Kimball said...

Hi AJ,

I think you're quite right about the generational difference between people our age (let's say anyone over 30), and people who are younger, particularly people under 25. Every generation has differences of course, but I think for the first time we're really facing a difference that is paradigm shifting, in a way that liking the Beatles over Elvis or Sinatra was not, and that's largely because of the way that technology is changing how we interact with one another... and how we interact with ourselves.