04 November 2006

U.S.A. - under surveillance always?

We live indoors. We walk outdoors from our houses into our cars, only briefly passing through the open air. We live behind walls and our neighbors are unable to see us shower, sleep, stare at the walls or pick our nose. Most people would be outraged if they were told that they could no longer expect such privacy and that friends, neighbors, or the government would be watching them go about their daily routines, knowing that they'd be constantly monitored.

Yet this is the direction we're moving in terms of the life of the mind. Sadly, many Americans who would be outraged at the thought of someone looking in their windows as they got dressed yawn at the thought of someone monitoring their phone calls, book purchases, video rentals, and web surfing. According to at least one international comparison, we now rank as poorly as China and Malaysia, categorized as surveillance nations.

This matters for so many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that we have yet to reach the pinnacle of development, a peak that simply does not exist. Old social constructs - old worlds of theocracies, aristocracies, and robber barons - never willingly give up control. Challenges to their control is always initially perceived as subversive. If the state is successful at monitoring our thoughts and communications, where is the room to challenge the state, how do we further develop in ways that are a threat to the old constructs?

And if history teaches us nothing else, it is the inevitability of this: governments that put in place measures to protect the state inevitably use those measures to protect the governing party or administration. There is no exception to this rule - only differences in the time it takes for someone to make the inevitable leap.

Perhaps the simplest distinction between good and bad government is this. In a good government, the individual's life is private and government policies and practices are transparent. In a bad government, the government's policies and practices are private and the individual's life is transparent. In just the last century, we have spectacularly evil examples of this very thing in Mao's China, Stalin's USSR, and Hitler's Germany.

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