By John Patterson
Last week’s NSA leaks scandal had one scary side-story: a poll determining that a slim but clear majority of Americans weren’t worried in the least about the 360-degree, all-platform access that the eavesdropping agency apparently now has to their phone, internet and wireless communications. Orwell’s telescreen is part of our accepted digital furniture now, it seems, and Big Brother is regarded as a gentle protector rather than an iron-fisted tormentor even as sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocket on Amazon. And “precrime”, a sci-fi concept of considerable vintage, is now a real thing, apparently. Another good reason that the representative fictional American citizen of our broken times is the zombie.
For a country overly prone to citing its foundational documents and the rights enshrined therein – at least one of which, the fourth amendment forbidding unlawful search and seizure, has been roundly trashed by the NSA – this seems oddly quiescent and meek, not the kind of attitude that throws off the yoke of colonial power, subdues a virgin continent, builds an industrial behemoth, does for the Nazis and the Japanese, and puts a man on the Moon.
For anyone who ever believed that movies and TV would rot your mind, here’s the one time you were absolutely right. Hollywood has been softening us all up for years now, acclimatising us all to the notion that our every movement and conversation, our locations, routines and spending habits, are visible to, or purchasable by, others whose motives we cannot know. But relax … it’s all sublimely OK.
Think of the dozens of movies in which you see the pursued at one or two removes, on computer or surveillance screens, on tracking devices, blurred, the screen freezing here and there, rather than as a person unmediated by other screens, an analogue human being made of meat, not binary code. Already the pixellated quarry (whether it’s Osama bin Laden or Jason Bourne) is less human, more disposable, a target in a video game, an abstraction – just as he would appear in the sights of a drone. It’s a matter of perspective: as movie viewers we are accustomed to being situated on the side of the law, and thus are behind the lens or microphone or cloned phone or security cam tracking the killer, criminal or terrorist in the story. In reality, however, we are never in that place; we are always potentially in the place where that terrorist or criminal is: under the magnifying glass, on tape, in the crosshairs.
The NSA (unofficial motto: “Nobody Say Anything”) and Hollywood (unofficial motto: “Nobody Knows Anything”) have been feeling each other up at arms’ length for decades, but in the post-9/11 era the bromance became official, and surveillance-based entertainment, from 24 to Alias, from Spooks to Big Brother to Person of Interest, went global.