“Big Brother is watching you.”
Orwell’s clear implication is that we will be a docile, good little herd if we know what’s good for us. I have co-opted his dystopian view to my own ends often. From Halloween until Christmas morning, “Santa is watching…” is likely the most oft repeated phrase in the household.
In truth, I think Orwell only got half of it right. Someone is watching you, but it’s usually not Big Brother. Sure the Government and its NSA arm are in the news for snooping into what we’re watching online, searching for on Google, and even who some of us are calling. What’s far more pervasive, and potentially insidious, is the little sister, nondescript neighbor, or casual passerby not just watching but listening, recording, vining our every move.
The surveillance state we’re unofficially living in raises some interesting questions. At a macro level, the point of constant surveillance is to deter bad behavior in our society. At a more personal philosophical level it’s said that character is ‘what we do when no one is looking’.
So ring in the death of character? Someone’s always looking.
It’s tempting to think that where we might lack character we gain sense with the knowledge that our every move, our every word is being recorded both for immediate distribution and for posterity.
Evidently not. Both character and common sense are in critically short supply if headlines are any indication.
Take the recent admssion by V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald that he lied to a fellow veteran about being in Special Forces. The V.A. has had very persistent and vexing credibility issues. Six months into his term he’s caught in the kind of lie that Veterans and non-Veterans alike cannot abide by.
With all due respect to the Secretary, there simply is no explanation for overstating your valor to anyone let alone a fellow Veteran. No amount of spin cycle can erase the stain from the former Procter and Gamble Tide brand manager.
Why did he do it?
I’d like to think it was innocuous. He’s a salesman. The key to sales is establishing a rapport and some common ground. The Vet he was speaking with was in Special Forces so McDonald said he was too. I get it. I don’t agree with it or condone it but I get it. If the person of your dreams accidentally bumps into you in a bar wearing a Patriots hat and Tom Brady jersey you might make like you’re Pat the Patriot even if you’re from Buffalo. That’s the storied “white lie.” At the Secretary of the V.A. level, however, it’s the unpardonable black and white lie.
To me the answer to the question of why we misbehave is self-evident. It’s in our DNA. The more interesting question is why we do it knowing we’ll get caught. Why isn’t the thesis that oversight leads to control panning out?
You cannot tell me Brian Williams did not know full well his tall tales would come back to haunt him. He’s no fool. Nor is Bill O’Reilly. The police officers who choked a man to death in broad daylight in Staten Island or the ones in Washington state just this week, knew they were being filmed by many.
Getting away with it is off the table, yet they did it any way. Rob Ford, Anthony Wiener and Eliot Spitzer were both politicians at the highest level (Spitzer was even a District Attorney!) These are men who understand evidence, yet they not only committed the “crime” but also left a trail of digital breadcrumbs as evidence leading right to their doors.
Cornell’s Jeff Hancock has written brilliantly about this. One of his beliefs is that digital lying, that is writing something not true as on a resume or plagiarizing someone, is going the way of the dinosaur. Everything is verifiable— and quickly. Makes sense, though there are still dolts that do it.
I contest that living under a million points of spotlight has actually made us more craven and depraved as opposed to the “with increased media coverage we just see more” line of explanation. The pressure for perfection has built to such a level that people are acting out their demons writ large and small in ways they know to be wrong but cannot rein in.
I think Orwell was closer to the truth when he proclaimed, “On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”
All these cameras are not catching terrorists or criminals so much as they’re catching us at our weakest points. Surveillance leading to accountability and the death of lies is the biggest lie of all as it turns out.