"You had to live you did live, from habit that became instinct in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized," Winston worries in George Orwell's classic novel, 1984.
All Winston yearns for is a place outside of the all-seeing electronic eye of the Telescreen, a private place that Big Brother's penetrating gaze can't reach. So Winston picks up a journal on the black market, a "thoughtcrime" he knows will sign his own death warrant. And yet, while Winston's varicose vein aches, while panic overtakes him, he writes himself to death by the unshakable urge to have a world to himself, to have words to himself, to have a private place. Winston dies for this unreachable place, for his privacy.
"OMG, Winston, chill out"." as one of my undergrads might languidly sigh, while at the same time deftly posting the big weekend plans on Facebook under her desk. And when she leaves class, this student might post her exact whereabouts at the Sun Valley Mall on her profile to 1,000 friends through Facebook's recently released Places , or the competing technology Foursquare , both of which use GPS technology to triangulate her location. All her friends can then converge at Hot Topic, and afterwards, post their purchases on Blippy , a service which allows users to share what they've bought, where, and for how much.
My student can be her own Big Brother and what's more, she wants to be. Unlike Winston, she hopes someone is watching, and listening.
This minute-by-minute sharing is not a fad, but rather, represents the emergence of a culture of digital exhibitionism. A July 2010 study by PEW's Internet and American Life Project found that "Millenials," or Digital Natives, those who have grown up wired, with computers and the internet as part of their upbringing, will "make online sharing a lifelong habit." My student will "lead society into a new world of personal disclosure and information-sharing using new media," a culture which not just the very young, but adults of all ages, (including those born before the publication of 1984, in 1948) are joining in record numbers by participating in social media, according to an August 2010 PEW report .
We no longer share Winston's fear that we're being followed, but rather, we fear that we're not being followed.
Unlike previous, pre-digital cultures, who hid from the electronic eye of the Telescreen, the modern, cyber-self yearns "to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook," William Deresiewicz mournfully opines in his lamentation "The End of Solitude." We yearn for the screen Winston shuns. While Winston, a product of a digitally antiquated culture, most feared that his most private thoughts would be found and exposed, we fear that they won't be found, that we won't be found, that we'll remain lost, anonymous in the crowd.
"The great contemporary terror," Deresiewicz observes, "is anonymity."
In a culture that fears privacy (or at least is apathetic towards it), who can blame my student for her bored sighs? In an age in which Big Brother is better known as a TV program than an omniscient tyrant, Winston's suicidal urge for privacy seems almost as obsolete as retro as, well, the real 1984, which is nearly a decade before my students were born.
Privacy is Passe'
Privacy is passe', and according to numerous reports, the government sees great investigative promise in our relentless public honesty. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently uncovered a 2008 memo by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that encourages agents to exploit our "narcissistic tendencies" to make virtual friends of strangers for the purpose of surveillance. Our tendency to share with our followers provides "an excellent vantage point " to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities." Further, EFF also found that during Obama's 2008 inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security "monitor [ed] social networking sites for "items of interest.'" Wired's Noah Shachtman reports on the Central Intelligence Agency's efforts to surveil social media through investments in technology start ups this surveillance includes all social media, not just those who are suspects (This seems like a strange investment, given that Schactman reports that the NSA "it is said, can tap into any electronic communication" already.")