A few years back, the City came up with a proposal to install cameras at busy intersections to catch red-light runners. It seemed like a reasonable idea; improved public safety at little or no cost in either equipment or personnel.
To the dismay of its proponents, the idea ran into a lot of political flak from those, mainly on the Libertarian right, who saw it as just another manifestation of a governmental culture of surveillance, control and intimidation. A bunch of 'em testified before City Council; I remember thinking of them as harmless, paranoid looneys, obsessed with black helicopters and nonexistent official conspiracies.
Well, let's fast-forward to right now. We don't hear much about the dangers of catching traffic light scofflaws with automated cameras any more; in fact, since Oklahoma City, the voices of the paranoid right have largely been stilled. The only difference is that the imaginary dangers that the crazies ranted about have become our daily reality.
A Council member allegedly sneaks a peek at a naked lady on his computer, and it's all over the papers a few days later. Tampa installs so-called face recognition software, which is capable of recognizing (and tracking) anybody in its database. Information technology has given companies (and the government) the tools to compile vastly detailed personal dossiers about all of us. What we buy at the supermarket, what Web sites we visit, when (and if) we pay our bills, where we live, whom we associate with, what periodicals we read, what candidates we support, what beliefs we hold, all are an open book.
Ask those who compile and use these dossiers, and they'll tell us that it's all for our own good; Amazon.com just wants to make our shopping easier, the government just wants to give political decision makers the tools that they need to serve their constituencies.
That may be; but let's consider what kind of society we're creating, and how different that society will be from any American society in the past.
Ours has always been a country of fresh starts, of new beginnings, of continual re-creation. In Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." He could not have been more wrong. Look at literature: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, On the Road, and virtually every other book in our literary canon are about movement, transformation and rebirth.
Our national myth is one of freedom, possibility and change. It's a dream of wide-open spaces.
Those spaces are disappearing. The naked ladies that Charles Wingate may or may not have glanced at will follow him throughout his life, a ghostly trail clinging to his electronic persona. And what about you? Ever bounced a check, or for that matter gotten a speeding ticket, argued with your spouse, been arrested?
Given the ubiquity of such information, and its apparent neutrality -- it's on the record, right? -- political assassinations become a lot easier. Mayor Mary Lou didn't have to dig up dirt on Wingate; the system did it for her. All she had to do was to order up a phony-baloney investigation, and agree to issue a press release. (Is Wingate a sleaze? We can't prove it, wink, wink.)
We're living with a monster -- rivers of information that imprison us in our electronic personae. If your file records any deviation from societal norms, you're in trouble.
So what kind of a society will these technologies create? I suspect it'll be full of careful, timid, thoroughly tame folks. Given the primacy of the electronic self, people won't want to take chances, since even minor screwups will follow them around forever.
Get caught smoking a joint at a concert when you were 15? Sorry, no student loan for you. And if, like Bill Gates, you're a difficult, eccentric, inattentive student, too bad: Every school in the country will be teaching to a uniform national test, so you'll just have to conform.
There's a model for the kind of society that we're becoming. It's a country with a uniform national culture, rigidly defined hierarchies, and little room for innovation, originality or misbehavior. It's called Japan, and they're still wondering why the economy has tanked in a country where everybody works hard and obeys the rules.
I'd sure like to see some of those right-wing looneys back at City Hall. They'd be mad as hell that the City electronically snoops on all of its employees, and they might point out that, in a democracy, the voters decide who stays in office.
They might, but they won't. They're all gone. Where? -- I dunno, but think about it....
Maybe the black helicopters carried 'em away.