Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763

Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales
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Consumer Reports

Neo-frontiers | 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, 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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04/24/02: From child murderer to milk hawker
04/10/02: New realities
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03/12/02: Life in the warehouse
01/28/02: Shoes and food
01/24/02: Suspension of disbelief has nothing to do with whether we accept something as real or not
01/22/02: Save the Grand Ole Opry?
12/15/01: If you truly want to appeal to the lowest common denominator
12/11/01: KNITTING!
12/07/01: Conspiracy by the 'fat suit' lobby?
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11/15/01: Literary tips in a jar
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07/31/01: Catchphrase history of the world
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07/17/01: Homogenized hegemony
07/13/01: Applying Newton's First Law of Physics to textbooks
07/10/01: The dumb and the dead

© 2001, Ian Shoales