Some time ago, I think it was around the time cell phones were coming into existence – or maybe it was earlier when transistor radios were the rage, or whenever the world took its first steps toward being perpetually interconnected – I had an idea for a novel. I never wrote it, but its setting was a time when government or governments required all citizens at birth to be implanted with a radio receiver located on the bone behind the ear so that appropriate government instructions could be delivered at any and all times.
I don’t recall specifically, and this was before GPS systems, but I must have envisioned governments that could track each individual. At any rate, the plot revolved around parents who refused to permit, or found a way to escape, the implantation. Not only would that defy the government, but it would also make their child the only “unconnected” being in the world. Obviously, he or she would be isolated. She wouldn’t hear what others heard, would be unaware of events around her, but most of all couldn’t be directed by government. That’s as far as I thought it out and it was fanciful fiction anyway.
About the same time, when identification started being required for everything and there was a concern about forged social security numbers or people who didn’t have social security numbers, I thought it would be a good idea to tattoo your social security onto your body at birth or at immigration. Put it on the bottom of the foot, or the buttocks or torso ( you could lose an appendage, after all), or in some place that wouldn’t be easily seen. The idea fit well with the receiver implantation. By the way, if you’re a nudist, the foot might be the best place.
Now, we get to today. My fantasy about a connected world is here. First of all, nearly everyone is electronically connected and it is voluntary. It is our postpartum umbilical cord. There are only a relative handful of people, mostly old, who aren’t connected in some way and they’ll die out. Any others will just be left out as my heroine in my never-written novel would have been. They’ll be irrelevant. And, this is all voluntary.
Involuntarily, we’re told that our government and probably other governments are compiling huge data bases collected from all our electronic (land line, too) transmissions and receptions. From this, on a needs basis (security supposedly) government can paint an accurate portrait of our comings and going, where and with whom, and for how long and how frequently.
That’s the so-called covert surveillance that doesn’t include the recording of all our dealings with the government and private institutions – IRS and a myriad of tax collection bodies, courts and courthouse related offices, police, highway departments, employment and all those related interactions, welfare, gun permits, lending agencies, and so forth. And, don’t forget the personal medical information now required to be collected and preserved.
Lay on top of this all the data collected about you by private companies (which fortunately don’t have the power to tax, arrest, punish, or require you to do anything) and there isn’t anything secret about any of us. Keep in mind that for your security government is watching and collecting from all of these agencies.
That makes one wonder who is watching the watchers. Supposedly that is your elected government officials such as Congress which, by the way, is complaining that it is being spied upon. If Congress can be watched, the watchers can, too – and probably are. Watchers are watching watchers who are watching everyone and everything. It’s a big wonderful circle spinning round and round and spitting out information as needed by whatever entity needs it and for a myriad of reasons: security, background checks, political vetting.
All of this brings us back to my unwritten novel idea: How do we disconnect? Not only how, but can we, will we be allowed? Could we survive? Who would we have to talk with and how and about what? Would disconnection, a suspicious behavior, itself trigger more surveillance? I think of Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s many novels. He is pretty much disconnected unless he wants to be. He has no car, travels by bus or hitchhikes, discards his old clothes, doesn’t use credit cards, secretly taps into his electronic stash of cash, doesn’t seem to have identification, but he does have a recorded past. Reacher is fictional, however. Our reality is not.
That reality is that we are being watched. More than we know and should want. The argument that it doesn’t matter if we haven’t been doing anything wrong begs the argument that if that is the justification then there would be nothing wrong with the government requiring all of us to wear tracking and recording devices all the time. We may be there and just not know it.