Friday night topic: Should we all be paranoid now?

— 4:36 PM on October 30, 2015

I just finished reading Walter Kirn's article in The Atlantic about mass surveillance and privacy issues, entitled If you're not paranoid, you're crazy. Kirn explores the extent to which advertisers and governments have been collecting and using data on our habits—the things we already know—and asks whether freedom is compatible with today's tools of surveillance and the ways they're wielded.

The issue isn't just about government. He also considers how constant surveillance alters our everyday interactions with other people, like this episode from a tire store that he recounts:

We set out for the data center on a spare tire, stopping along the way to fix the old one at a Firestone store. Its employees dealt with us in an upbeat, tightly scripted manner that appeared to stem from their awareness of several cameras angled toward the service counter. The situation reminded me that the ferreting-out of secrets is merely one purpose of surveillance; it also disciplines, inhibits, robbing interactions of spontaneity and turning them into self-conscious performances. The Firestone employees, with their smiles and good manners, had the same forced cheerfulness I’d long ago noticed in my Facebook feed, a parallel universe of marriage announcements and birthday well-wishes straight out of the Midwestern 1950s. Both were miniature versions, it occurred to me, of the society we’d all soon inhabit—or already did but had yet to fully acknowledge.

Creepy thought.

Kirn's article includes a bit of scaremongering and takes a few shortcuts, but the questions it raises—about how the new tools of constant data collection are changing the world around us—are still worth considering.

And I agree about one thing. I've already apologized to at least one paranoid, Linux-using acquaintance in light of our creeping awareness of the extent of state surveillance. I had judged things wrongly. Given the potential for abuse made possible by new technology, paranoia sometimes does seem like a rational response to the current situation.


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