A Watched Populace Never Boils
by Brad Templeton
People often ask why a loss of privacy — as would come from increased surveillance, TV cameras on all the street corners and a national ID card — is a restriction on freedom.
Some wonder it because they have fallen for the old fallacy that if you are innocent, you have nothing to hide. Some wonder it because there is already a lot of monitoring in society, particularly in our credit card transactions, and the walls have not come tumbling down.
Some welcome it, feeling that the extra surveillance will cut down on crime, and provide some increased level of safety or imagined safety.
But the truth is that invasions of privacy invade our freedoms quite directly. This is true even if the surveillance isn’t abused by the watchers, even though history shows that it always is.
When we feel watched, we feel less free. We censor ourselves and our actions. Sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ones.
We all know this. We all know the exhilarating freedom we felt when we first left home, out from under the watchful eye of our parents. Alone, unwatched, we could finally be ourselves, or even be new selves. Some people experience this even when they move to a new town. Some feel themselves reducing to their old, censored self during Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s a metaphorical version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which at the small end of things demonstrates how it’s not possible to watch something without changing it.
Yet the mainstream will never fear monitoring that much, just as it is more comfortable with censorship. What civil rights protect is not the majority, but the fringe. The fringe is usually feared by the majority, and most subject to its oppression.
Yet the fringe is the lifeblood of a society’s future. When I say a watched populace never boils, I refer to the ability to bubble with change and novelty. Yes, it also means unrest, for there are both positive and negative elements to the fringe. Yet the fringe today becomes the mainstream in the future. That is how a healthy, dynamic society works. That is how our society works.
You can’t have the same sort of counterculture in a monitored society. It gets driven even further underground. You won’t find the counterculture in the small towns where everybody knows one another. Usually the youth, full of anger and novelty and art and invention, leave those small towns to discover themselves in the city. Will they do it as well if mom, or big brother, is watching?
Would you have liked to be gay 40 years ago in a monitored society? Or an enemy of J. Edgar Hoover with modern tools in his hands? A far-left philosopher 50 years ago? A cancer patient trying to use marijuana to alleviate nausea today?
Consider as well the plight of the shy person in the surveillance society. They are many, and they are a great deal more sensitive to being watched. In them, the feeling of being noticed sets off an anxiety the extroverted will never understand, and they will fear the public arena. For many, it is how their brain is wired. They can’t "get over it" and accept the cameras. Have they no rights?
Even just ask the famous today if they like their lack of privacy. They like the perks of fame, but surveillance just gives everybody the exposed life of the famous without the nice tables at restaurants.
The founders of the USA knew this. They wrote much of their founding doctrine anonymously in the Federalist Papers. That legacy exists today online. Some online communities are destroyed by anonymous abuse, but others (particularly ones for discussion of sexual matters, or support groups for victims of unpleasant diseases ) could only exist with the anonymity they provide their participants. They are boiling, opening doors, and changing the world.
We might be safer if people had less privacy. We could be as safe as the people in the small towns, which have low crime rates. We would also be as lukewarm as the people in those towns; content but never boiling.