Approximately 70% of all Americans have a smartphone: 24/7 internet access, touch screen apps, and a video camera. A quick glance at any news feed or social media site reveals how these small, cheap and mobile devices are putting everything in our lives on the record. Teenage altercations in the cafeteria, body shaming photos taken in the women’s locker room, and racist epithets at the grocery store. It’s now reasonable to assume that everything you do or say in any quasi-public space is being recorded, either inadvertently or intentionally.
Big Brother may be watching you, but it’s the guy eavesdropping on your personal conversation at your favorite java joint that that puts you on display. There is no way of framing the discussion, putting things in context or curating the production fairly. It’s an improvised clip or a meme created and distributed in real time. Big Brother isn’t directing the epic behind the camera like Cecil B. DeMille. We are.
It’s easy to see the hypocrisy of our political figures who use social media to advance their aims, but who cry foul when they themselves are the unwitting subjects of the omnipresent gotcha moment. Everything is on the record when every place has a camera. It’s not just that we have become a nation of paparazzi. We're also the voyeurs who readily consume these indiscreet images.
Last summer I was in Manhattan with my family. A couple of young men took a photo of a homeless man near the New York Public Library. Much to their surprise, the homeless man violently confronted them. “What gives you the right to take a picture of me,” he yelled. The two laughed and moved on. It was clear that these young men thought that what they had done was perfectly acceptable.
Network news programs are now a montage of swanky high definition productions wrapped around shaky images moving in and out of focus. The video clip of Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight is a prime example. While we applaud the visual evidence that leads to justice, we also extend the victimization when we put these pictures into syndication. Battles, crashes, rapes, suicides and murders are now routinely posted to social media sites, and rebroadcast by reputable news organizations.
Why worry about Big Brother when we are spying on each other? Ironically, there is mounting evidence that the world is actually getting less violent. Just think about the wars of the last century to put our current situation into perspective. However, our views are not created by numbers or facts, but rather the ongoing narrative fed by the stories we tell each other. The world may be less dangerous today, but the images we see make it feel much more immediate, intimate and arbitrary. Our view of ourselves feeds our paranoia, and we can’t look away.
It’s reasonable to assume that these image-capturing technologies will become smaller, cheaper and more difficult to uncover. There is little the legal system can do to remedy the situation, and while there may be a niche market to develop detection technologies, this trend of inexpensive photographic gadgets will continue into the foreseeable future. So, it’s up to us. We can continue to witness the most sordid aspects of the human condition until we are emotionally numb, or we can cultivate a more discerning eye, develop perspective, and look away. And, if we happen to see Big Brother, chances are, he looks a lot like us.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio's project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.