V for Vendetta was written in the early 80s about a fictional 90s Britain, which has become a totalitarian state. Gays and immigrants have been exterminated, freedom has been extinguished, and the powerful rule the weak with utter contempt. It can always happen “here”, wherever “here” happens to be.
However in this dystopia, the good fight is fought and victories are achieved– totally unrealistically– by a single man. Late in the storyline, the freedom fighter known as “V” manages to cripple the government’s surveillance infrastructure, and broadcasts a message to the people, ending with this:
“To commemorate this most glorious of evenings, Her Majesty’s government is pleased to return the rights of secrecy and privacy to you, its loyal subjects. For three days, your movements will not be watched, your conversations will not be listened to, and ‘do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law. God bless you, and goodnight.”
Although there is plenty of powerful stuff in the book, this bit really struck me. Three whole days where no one is being watched? That’s a pretty nice gift. The degree to which we’re watched now is pretty grim. Every time you use an ATM card, check your email, or make a cellphone call, you’re leaving a digital trail. Grocery stores and credit card companies monitor your purchases and create databases of your buying patterns. And let’s not even get into Echelon/Carnivore/DCS1000. Every store and workplace has security cameras, and increasing amounts of businesses install cameras facing the outside world. More and more traffic lights have cameras mounted on them. High-tech spy satelites apparently have the ability to see just about anyone, anywhere. And hell, I just read about a high school that is forcing its students to wear ID badges with tracking devices in them at all times.
I don’t mean this to be a “the CIA and the Illuminati are controlling our minds with the flouride in our drinking water” conspiracy rant, just pointing out the extent to which we can be surveilled, if the right people wanted to do so. We do not have the “privacy and secrecy” in our lives that V refers to above, and the way that we all cope with this frightening fact is to just pretend that we do have it.
But to some extent, this desire for privacy and secrecy is mysterious. Some things we want to keep secret because they might negatively effect our public image, like a particular sexual preference or a medical condition. Some information we want to keep hidden because it could be used to hurt us, like credit card numbers or your drug stash. But even if someone gathered information about us that they could never use in any harmful way, I think many of us would still be upset.
I think this is because control over information about ourselves is vital to our social relationships. We choose when to give it out, who to give it to, and how much to give them. You tell strangers very little about yourself, you tell acquaintances more, and to those special intimate friends, you’ll tell very sensitive things.
Just as importantly, this doling out of personal information is almost always reciprocal. You tell me about what you had for dinner last night, I tell you about the movie I saw last week. You tell me about your stamp collection, I tell you about my favorite band. You tell me about about a scary surgery you had as a child, I tell you about the death of a loved one. When you tell someone something about yourself, you can usually expect them to respond in kind. This back and forth builds trust, leading to deeper disclosures, thus deepening the relationship.
Therefore surveillance and data-gathering force you into a one-sided, trust-less “relationship”. You lose control over the information that makes up your life, and in exchange, you receive, at best, nothing.
No wonder we get so upset about it.
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