Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763
In the past, Americans have wanted elbow room, a piece of the pie, forty
acres and a mule, a bottomless cup of coffee, or a good ten cent cigar,
but privacy was easily achieved. Just grab your musket, stride into the
wilderness, and you were set. There was nothing to disturb your solitude
but mosquitoes and grizzlies.
We didn't even lock our doors. We encouraged solicitors. Traveling
medicine shows, Avon ladies, Fuller brush men, neighbors, and the
irritating freckle-faced kid who lived next door-all were welcome.
Then the telephone and car were invented, we started locking things up,
putting "Do Not Disturb" signs on the hotel room door, and building the
gated communities so beloved by cults and the nouveau riche.
But there are different privacies we don't mind surrendering. If you go
to Amazon.com, for instance, and order a Meg Ryan movie, for instance,
the helpful bot will give you a list of other Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep,
and Sandra Bullock movies you might enjoy. Customers seem to like this.
Our financial institutions think nothing of selling our credit
information to whomever wants it. But all this leads to, near as I can
tell, are phone calls at dinner time, offering either (a) a trip to Las
Vegas, (b) time-shared in a condo, or (c) reduced mortgage. These calls
are annoying, but I'm not entirely sure they pose a grave threat to
privacy and the capitalist system, especially if you're like me, and
never answer the phone.
Certainly, identity theft is a problem, along with fraud, junk mail,
spam, unwanted phone calls, and the assumption by some stupid website
that just because I ordered THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, I would also be
interested in THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS. As it happens, I would be,
but I don't want the Internet to know that.
A mere ten years ago, people were afraid that the government had too
much information about us, but were perfectly willing to tell the
private sector their favorite color, movie, book, love partner, dog,
teevee show, car, and whatever else the private sector wanted to know
about you, so it could "better serve us." Now, there's a backlash
against that. Legistlation in various states is being put forth to
protect our privacy- well, our financial information, which is what we
seem to mean by privacy.
Now, with little public objection, the feds have created a brand new
Pentagon bureaucracy, which will launch what it likes to call Total
Information Awareness, headed by Admiral John Poindexter, whom you might
remember as one of the geniuses behind the Iran-Contra affair back in
the eighties, and who not only withheld information from the public but
also willfully purveyed dis- and misinformation as well.
There is irony in the fact that an organization devoted to mining our
personal information is being run by a liar, or at the very least an
expert in casuistry, and not a little hope.
It might be called Total Information Awareness, but as long as it's run
by people with blinkers on, I suspect it will be Partial Information
Awareness at best. Databases, after all, are the new frontier. A man
could wander out there forever and never be found.
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JWR contributor Ian Shoales is the author of, among others, Not Wet Yet: An Anthology of Commentary. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2001, Ian Shoales