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Walter Kirn Alerts Us about Big Data and Big Surveillance

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 14, 2015: Walter Kirn (born in 1962), a self-described neurotic who has lived in Montana for almost 25 years now, has published "If You're Not Paranoid, You're Crazy" in the November 2015 ATLANTIC MAGAZINE, which is available at the magazine's website.

Kirn's piece is about our electronic gadgetry and our shifting sense of privacy.

But he does not happen to advert explicitly to the brave new world of audio and visual surveillance that George Orwell envisions in his dystopian novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1948) -- nor to Big Brother.

No doubt Orwell's sense of privacy was culturally conditioned, just as Kirn's sense of privacy is.

Toward the end of his lengthy piece, Kirn in effect admits that his own sense of privacy is culturally conditioned, when he discusses a certain young man's lack of concern about the electronic surveillance and data mining:

"I wondered whether a generation that found the concept of privacy archaic might be undergoing a great mutation, surrendering the interior psychic realms whose sanctity can no longer be assured. Masking one insides behind one's outsides -- once the essential task of human social life -- was becoming a strenuous, suspect undertaking; why not, like my teenage acquaintance, just quit the fight?"

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A bit later, Kirn says, "But I am too old for this embrace of nakedness. I still believe in the boundaries of my own skull and feel uneasy when they are crossed."

Too old to change, eh? Old dogs can't learn new tricks, eh?

Earlier in his piece, Kirn says, "It struck me that the search engine might know more about my unconscious than I do -- a possibility that would put it in a position not only to predict my behavior, but to manipulate it. Lose your privacy, lose your free will -- a chilling thought."

Subsequently, Kirn says that "yes, I'd become a little paranoid. I would have to be crazy not to be."

In the central part of the piece, Kirn recounts how he and a friend set out, on a lark, to investigate the suspicious-looking Utah Data Center in Saratoga Springs -- under the cover of night. For Kirn, the center represents "the age of Big Data and Big Surveillance." But a flying craft of some kind hovered over them in the air above and seemed to scan them. All they could see of it was its tiny blinking red light, although they could hear it. But then it flew away.

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Kirn says, "Loss of privacy seemed like a tiny issue, suddenly, compared with the greater loss the place [the center] presaged: loss of existential stature."

Kirn also writes of "the feelings of powerlessness stirred by the cybernetic panopticon [of Big Surveillance]."

So we in Western culture have moved from Orwell's portrayal of Big Brother to Kirn's sketch of Big Data and Big Surveillance.

Next, I want to invoke C. G. Jung's theory of the collective unconscious. According to him, each of us carries in our psyches a collective unconscious, which is the repository of collective memories of the distant ancestors of the human race.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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