On our morning walks, my dog Meika ambles next to me with her nose to the ground, enthusiastically sniffing the canine “blogs” posted on trees, shrubs and fence posts. I imagine the comments, archived in cascading style sheets of urine, go something like this:
“Cody was here at 7 a.m.”
“Jasper likes this.”
“This is Shadow. I just ate some grass.”
“Gizmo likes this.”
It took eons for the ancestors of dogs to evolve their pee-mail messaging system. It’s taken less than a decade for human beings to start marking digital territory through social networking. There are similarities. Last time I checked into Facebook, woozy with tryptophan from a Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the evening, it was all fenceposts and shrubs. Like leg-lifting pooches, the posters’ central theme seemed to be, “Here I am! Here I am!”
I know a few people who post with such obsessive frequency that I can’t imagine them relaxing into their constantly updated outings and holidays. I’m so distractible myself, I very rarely spend time on Mark Zuckerberg’s clock-sucker. A few minutes of surfing his site can turn into several hours of missing time. It’s like a sedentary alien abduction, with
Facebook’s tractor beam hijacking your eyeballs and sucking personal information straight through your fingertips.
I could go on about how “Total Information Awareness,” the mass surveillance wet dream of Bush-era neocons, has been outsourced to the private world (by design or default), with many of us spying on ourselves voluntarily, right down to the minutest details of our lives. But that cautionary note is about a half decade too late, what with Edward
Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s all-seeing panopticon, and all our noses stuck in wide-open mobile devices.
Advances in social networking have moved so fast that Ondi Timinor’s 2009 documentary We Live in Public seems almost quaint now. The film profiles the late ’90s exploits of
Internet pioneer and dot-com millionaire Josh Harris. The “Warhol of webcasting” placed more than 100 willing artists in a huge human terrarium under New York City, with multiple webcams constantly tracking their every movement. For weeks, there was no privacy for anyone in this concrete underworld. Wherever they went — to bed, the toilet, the shower — it was all displayed on monitors dotting the underground space.
Harris’ disturbing project, called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” was created after he “became interested in controversial human experiments which tested the effects of media and technology on the development of personal identity,” according to an entry in Wikipedia. This included “interrogation artists “trained to psychologically brutalize fellow participants into confessing their most humiliating memories — all on camera. Alcohol and food available were available 24/7 at an 80-foot long dining room table. There was a gun range with a wide selection of arms and ammo available on the floor below.
Within weeks, Harris’s underground scene disintegrated into a rat’s nest of interpersonal conflicts. Police, suspecting it to be some kind of millennium cult, shut down the operation on Jan. 1, 2001.
As a coda to his designed-to-fail “art experiment,” Harris outfitted his apartment with 30 motion-controlled surveillance cameras and 66 microphones to expose he and his girlfriend to months of 24-hour global ogling on weliveinpublic.com. His Manhattan-based Petri dish of auto-surveillance turned predictably rancid. The girlfriend walked and
Harris burned through cash, connections, and any remaining goodwill among potential investors. The former dot-com millionaire decamped to a New England apple farm and then hightailed it to Ethiopia to start anew.
His seeming experiments in sociopathy, presumably designed as a warning, predated the explosion of mobile social networking by nearly a decade. “As time goes by we are going to have our lives increasingly exposed in very personal and intimate ways, and we’ll want that to happen,” he prophesied in the film.
Today we all live in public, though some attempt to control the exposure wisely through privacy settings and limited online activities. The reason social networking sites are as free as a walk around a park is because the product is you — specifically, your personal information. And with so much hyperlinked treats to sniff out, most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to think about who’s at the other end of the leash.
The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 17