Privacy against sanity

Here’s a funny thing about morality.  We more frequently obey the rules of behavior established by the community when we think someone is watching us.  Why?  Obviously, we worry about retribution, and we are vain enough to care about others’ opinions of our character.

Does that sound like unworthy motives?  No question they are.  We should, as Kant taught us, seek to do good in absolute disregard of self-interest.  Yet, in one sense, morality is about the good life:  and if one reads the ancient Greeks, the good life is all about one’s place in the community.  In another, more regulative sense, morality is about behavior, not motivation.  Saints may be self-motivated to virtue, but for the rest of us sinners, whatever gets us there should be welcomed rather than sneered at.

Morality evolved in small groups, with individuals under each other’s eyes.  In the world of our ancestors, vicious behavior was difficult to hide.  One acted fully aware that consequences would follow.  Today, of course, we live among a crowd of strangers.  The people we work with are rarely our neighbors.  The people we go to church with are a different group still.  In between, we join the undifferentiated flow of shoppers, movie-goers, rush-hour traffickers, who know nothing of us as we know nothing of them.

The man in front of me at the airport security line may be a millionaire or a grunt, a philantropist or a terrorist.  We stare at each other and wonder.

Life today grants us one small favor:  obscurity.  If nobody knows who I am, then I can be different things to different people, in different places.  I can be a lion to my family and a mouse at the office, a saint on Sundays and a lecher the rest of the week.  Possibly for this reason, some have made a fetish of privacy.  The way the word is used, it means something like:  “Nobody under any circumstances should know what I do, ever.”  That includes my actions in public places, my purchases with credit cards, my speeding across red lights.  Any monitoring of these actions, however public, are a violation of my privacy – to which, it turns out, I have a constitutional right.

I have never understood this type of fetishism, which is reflexive with libertarians; and I am relieved to see Heather Mac Donald, in City Journal, injecting common sense into the question of “privacy” in public spaces.

Mac Donald focuses on the public videocams that captured the images of the four 7/7 terrorists in London.  “Few crime-fighting technologies,” she notes, “have inspired more hysterical rhetoric from privacy nuts than public cameras.”  The argument used against the public cameras is that they will somehow inhibit and repress public behavior.  And that is true to this degree:  if you wish to break the rules of social life, not to mention the law, you will think twice once you know you are being watched.

The videocam lens stands for the eyes of one’s neighbors in  the ancestral community.  They provoke us to judge ourselves. Good behavior, therefore, remains uninhibited; crime and immorality pause in worry and doubt.

The idea that a society that has long defined the pinnacle of success as getting your picture on TV, where hordes of would-be exhibitionists vie to be humiliated on reality TV shows, where thousands of others erect video cameras in their homes to broadcast truly private behavior to millions on the Internet – the idea that such a publicity-ravenous society would care one iota about cameras on boulevards or in ATM facilities defies logic. But the privacy fanatics’ counterintuitive claim can be tested empirically. Are London girls any more inhibited about exposing vast swathes of midriff than girls in unsurveilled cities? Is foot traffic on Oxford Street less than one would expect from the population density?  Did British streets empty upon the highly-publicized installation of cameras?  These are all testable hypotheses; none of the privacy fear-mongers has suggested investigating them, much less done so; they know the results will expose their claims as fraudulent.

Ordinary people, you see, understand an elemental truth that continuously eludes the civil liberties lobby: public cameras only capture public behavior, behavior already observable by many more eyes than will ever watch a video feed from a nearby camera.  In fact, the only people whom public cameras inhibit are criminals; they liberate the law-abiding public. Following the installation of seven video cameras in Los Angeles�s beleaguered MacArthur Park in 2004, the L.A.P.D. watched “in amazement” as crime plummeted, gangs, drug dealers, and pimps disappeared, and low-income families began returning to the park, reported the Los Angeles Times in October.

My guess is that we’ll see more, not less, of public cameras in the future, as we use technology to approximate a premodern moral environment in an uprooted postmodern world.


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