or much of the twentieth century, 1984 was a year that belonged to the futurea strange, gray future at that. Then it slid painlessly into the past, like any other year. Big Brother arrived and settled in, though not at all in the way George Orwell had imagined.
Underpinning Orwell's 1948 anti-utopiawith its corruption of language and history, its never-ending nuclear arms race and its totalitarianism of torture and brainwashingwas the utter annihilation of privacy. Its single technological innovation, in a world of pig iron and pneumatic tubes and broken elevators, was the telescreen, transmitting the intimate sights and sounds of every home to the Thought Police. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. "You had to livedid live, from habit that became instinct" Orwell wrote, "in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
It has turned out differently. We have had to wait a bit longer for interactive appliances to arrive in our bedrooms. Our telescreens come with hundreds of channels but no hidden cameras If you want a device with a microphone to record and transmir your voice, you are better off with a multimedia PC or, for that matter, a dedicated Internet connection: hook up your camera and turn on the switch that Winston Smith could never turn off. People in large numbers are doing just this: acting out their private lives before online cameras, accessible to the world. Grim though Orwell's vision was, it never encompassed the Dan-O Cam (H. Dan Smith at work in his office in Fresno, California) the LivingRoomCam (watch children and pets at play: "personal publishing of personal spaces"), and scores of similar Internet "cams"evidence that some citizens of the twenty-first century anyway, will not be grieving over their loss of privacy.
And yet. . .
Information-gathering about individuals has reached an astounding level of completeness, if not actual malevolence. So has fear of information-gathering, if not among the broad public, at least among those who pay attention to privacy as an issue of law and technology. Hundreds of privacy organizations, newsletters, annual conferences, information clearinghouses, mailing lists, and Web sites have sprung into existencea societal immunesystem response.
The rapid rise of the Internet surpasses the grimmest forecasts of interconnectedness among all these computer dossiers. Yet it defies those forecasts as well. Strangely enough, the linking of computers has taken place democratically, even anarchically. Its rules and habits are emerging in the open light, rather shall behind the closed doors of security agencies or corporate operations centers. It is clear that technology has the power not just to invade privacy but to protect it, through encryption, for example, which will be available to everyone, as soon as the government steps out of the way. The balance of power has already shifted from those who break codeseavesdroppers and intelligence agenciesto those who wish to use them. In these closing years of the century, we are setting the laws and customs of a future built on networked communication, giant interlinked databases, electronic commerce, and digital cash. Historians will see our time as a time of transition. But transition to what?
"There's a very important and long-term debate taking place right now about technologies of privacy in the next century," says Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "Privacy will be to the information economy of the next century what consumer protection and environmental concerns have been to the industrial society of the twentieth century."
Privacy is a construct of our age. As a tradition in law, it is young. When Louis Brandeis issued his famous opinion in 1928 that privacy is "the right to be let alonethe most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men," he was looking to the future, because he was dissenting; the Supreme Court's majority was upholding the right of the police to tap telephone lines without warrants.
"In the beginning, there was no such thing as private life, no refuge from the public gaze and its ceaseless criticism," writer Theodore Zeldin, a social historian, in An Intimate History of Humanity. Then, he says, "the middle classes began cultivating secrets. In villages and small towns, the secret life was rare. The neighbors knew far more about one's intimacies, from breakfast habits to clandestine affairs, than in any city of the twentieth century One's shield, if a shield was needed, was a formal civility: rules of discourse that discouraged questions about money or sex. The pathological case of the private person was the hermit-hermits, by and large, have disappeared. The word is quaint. In a crowd, we can all be hermits now.
"Privacy means seeing only people whom one chooses to see," adds Zeldin.
"The rest do not exist, except as ghosts or gods on television, the great protector of privacy."
In public opinion surveys, Americans always favor privacy. Then they turn around and sell it cheaply. Most vehemently oppose any suggestion of a national identification system yet volunteer their telephone numbers and mothers' maiden names and evengrudgingly or not Social Security numbers to merchants bearing discounts or Web services offering "membership" privileges. For most, the abstract notion of privacy suggests a mystical, romantic, cowboy-era set of freedoms. Yet in the real world it boils down to matters of small convenience. Is privacy about government security agents decrypting your e-mail and then kicking down the front door with their jackboots? Or is it about telemarketers interrupting your supper with cold calls?
It depends. Mainly, of course, it depends on whether you live in a totalitarian or a free society. If the government is nefarious or unaccountable to individuals or if you believe it isthe efficient ideal of easy-to-use, perfectly linked and comprehensive national databases must be frightening indeed. But if, deep down, you feel secure in your relations with the state, then perhaps you are willing to let your guard down: put off till tomorrow your acquisition of that encryption software, send your e-mail in the clear, perhaps even set up an Internet camera at the kitchen table or discuss your sexual history with Oprah.
Certainly where other people's privacy is concerned, we seem willing to lower our standards. We have become a society with a cavernous appetite for news and gossip. Our era has replaced the tacit, eyes-averted civility of an earlier time with exhibitionism and prying. Even borderline public figures must get used to the nation's eyes in their bedrooms and pocketbooks. That's not Big Brother watching. It's us.
Like any gossip, we trade information to get information. Over in the advanced research laboratories of the consumer electronics companies, futurists are readying little boxes that they believe you would like to carry aroundnot just telephones but perfect two-way Internet-connected pocket pals. They could use Global Positioning System satellites so that you always know where you are. They could let the Network know too: then the Network could combine its knowledge of your block-by-block location and your customary 11 A.M. hankering for sushi to beam live restaurant guidance to your pocket pal. Surely you don't mind if the Network knows all this.
It knows much more, of course. Here is w hat exists about you in government and corporate computers, even if you are not a particularly active (or unlucky) participant in the wired and unwired economy:
Many of these personal facts are innocuous in themselves. Some are essentially matters of public record. What matters is mere efficiencylinkage. Your birth certificate was never private; it was always available to someone willing to stand in line and pay a few dollars to a clerk at town hall. Computers and telephone lines make that a bit more convenient, that's allbut it turns out that proficiency in compilation, sorting, and distribution can give sinister overtones to even simple collections of names and addresses. Los Angeles television reporter, to make a point, recently bought a list of 5,000 children, with ages, addresses and phone numbers, in the name of Richard Allen Davis, the convicted murderer of a twelve-year-old girl. The company that sold the list, Metromail, boasts of compiling consumer information on go percent of United States households.
To David Burnham, the former New York Times reporter who wrote the admonitory Rise of the Computer State more than a decade ago, this inexorably more detailed compiling of information about individuals amounted to one thing: surveillance. "The question looms before us," he wrote. "Can the United States continue to flourish and grow in an age when the physical movements' individual purchases, conversations and meetings of every citizen are constantly under surveillance by private companies and government agencies?" And he added, "Does not surveillance, even the innocent sort, gradually poison the soul of a nation?" Does it? If so, we're like sheep to the slaughter.
The right to be left alone-privacy on Brandeis's terms-is not exactly the same as the right to vanish, the right to act in society without leaving traces, and the right to assume a false identity Most privacy experts who have studied the possible futures of money favor versions that allow for the cash rather than the traceability of checks and credit cards. That s appealing; we ought to be able to make a contribution to a dissident political organization without Lear of exposure.
Still, the people with the greatest daily, practical need for untraceable cash are criminals: tax cheats, drug dealers, bribers, and extortionists.
Most drivers prove willing to use an electronic card to pass through tollbooths without worrying about whether a database is logging their movements. Yet if cards like these replaced cash altogether, the net around us would unquestionably be drawn a notch tighter especially if we are lying to spouses about our whereabouts, or if we are simply planning to take it on the lam, Bonnie and Clyde-style.
In a past world of intimate small towns, people could disappear. The mere possibility was an essential aspect of privacy, in Rotenberg's view: "People left those small towns and reemerged in other towns and created new identities." Could you disappear today: abandon all the computerized trappings of your identity, gather enough cash, vanish without leaving a trail and start life again? Probably not. Certainly, there have never been so many invisible chains to the life you now lead.
On the Internet, we are re-creating a small-town world, where people mingle and share news easily and informally. But this time it is just one town.
Some of its residents advocate rights not just to passive privacy, the right to be left alone, but to what might be called aggressive privacy: the right to retain anonymity even while acting with force and consequence on a broad public stage.
Passive privacy is the kind elegantly described by the Fourth Amendment: "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." We do have a lot of papers and effects these days.
Aggressive privacy implies much more. Telephone regulatory commissions have listened to arguments that people have a right to remain anonymous, hiding their own numbers when placing telephone calls. On the Internet, surprising numbers of users insist on a right to hide behind false names while engaging in verbal harassment or slander.
The use of false online identities has emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Those who cannot reinvent a new self in real life can easily do so online. Sometimes they are experimenting with role playing. Most often, though, as a practical reality, the use of 61se identity on the Internet has an unsavory flavor: marketers sending junk mail from untraceable sources; speculators or corporate insiders trying to influence stock prices; people violating copyrights or engaging in character assassination.
Changing personae like clothingis that what the demand for privacy will come to mean? It's a game for people who choose a form of existence impossible in the old world, maybe hermits at that, hiding in digitally equipped homes, visiting by telecam. Something has been lost after all, in the rush to modernity: the chance to mingle freely and thoughtlessly in our communities, exposing our faces and brushing hands with neighbors who know what we had for breakfast and will remember if we lie about it.
In compensation, our reach is thousands of times longer. We meet people, form communities, make our voices heard with a freedom unimaginable to a small-towner of the last century. But we no longer board airplanes or enter schools and courthouses secure in our persons and effects; we submit, generally by choice, to the most intrusive of electronic searches. In banks, at tollbooths, in elevators, in doorways, alongside highways, near public telephones, we submit to what used to be called surveillance. In Orwell's country, thousands of closed-circuit cameras are trained on public streetspan, zoom, and infrared. Every suitcase bomb in a public park brings more cameras and, perhaps, more digital hermits.
We turn those cameras on ourselves. Then we beg for more gossip. We invent diamond-hard technologies of encryption, but we rarely bother to use them.
If we want to live freely and privately in the interconnected world of the twenty-first centuryand surely we doperhaps above all we need a revival of the small-town civility of the nineteenth century. Manners, not devices: sometimes it's just better not to ask, and better not to look.
Photo credit: Beverly Hall
Excerpted from What Just Happened by James Gleick.
Copyright © 2002 by James Gleick. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon,
a division of Random House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.