Last night, The Guardian broke the story that Verizon is turning over its records of business calls to the National Security Administration on a daily basis. It is, as The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf put it, an “unsurprising but scandalous,” development. It’s totally legal, and we always sorta figured the government was doing it, but you’d think we’d be outraged if faced with incontrovertible proof that the government was spying on everyone. Americans hate the government! But when similar behavior has been revealed in the past, we mostly seemed not to care. Sure, no one was really happy about it (it pushes the buttons of liberals and conservatives alike), but mass government surveillance never became a major political issue.
In part, this may be because pop culture almost never gets worked up about persistent state monitoring. As video equipment got cheap enough to become ubiquitous, screenwriters seemed mostly concerned that this was turning us all into assholes. In the ’90s, characters who were constantly being filmed often wanted to be filmed, because they were trying to become celebrities (Natural Born Killers) or liked being watched (Basic Instinct, Timecode). This morphed into the weird spate of “your life is secretly a reality show!” movies (The Truman Show, EdTV) which seemed less concerned about higher powers controlling your life than about how we’re all like totally inauthentic. (How do you know your life isn’t a reality show, etc. etc.) In the aughts, the rise of young people with their cell phones spawned a strain of movie — especially horror movies — where one character was constantly filming everything and thus failing to really live in the moment (The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, Scream 2). In all cases, the complaint was that video changed the way we acted, not the conditions we acted under; what irked wasn’t that our lives were impoverished, but that other people were being self-centered, fame-seeking exhibitionist fakes.
When pop culture does address mass surveillance, it’s almost always as a positive thing. Being able to locate and gather information about anyone has become a kind of superpower granted to government agents and “hackers” — think Homeland, 24, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — with the power to solve problems we want solved. When surveillance is abused, it’s almost always by creepy individuals (Lost Highway). When the government abuses surveillance, it’s usually the fault of an evil individual with a vendetta against another individual, and the issue is corrected by the end of the film (Enemy of the State, Minority Report); surveillance itself is never the problem. The 1993 Sylvester Stallone/Wesley Snipes classic Demolition Man aside, being watched at all times usually isn’t seen as a problem for everyone — unless, of course, it comes along with total control over everything you do (The Matrix etc.), in which case the occasional CCTV camera is the least of your problems.
Surveillance was a major part of Orwell’s dystopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, published way back in 1949. Maybe we’ve had so long to adjust to the idea of a government that watches you at all times that we’ve accepted surveillance as natural. But it still seems like a big deal, not because we should be angry at our government grr, but because it’s a major shift in what it means to be a human walking around in the world. It would be nice if pop culture figured out a way to talk about this, to show what it’s like not just to be watched individually, but for everyone to be watched, everywhere, always, and not really care about or notice it all that much. Maybe it’s not as sexy as a fake reality show, but it seems like a business done with cameras and lights, one that transmits its wares over the same channels used to keep an eye on us, might have something useful to say.