I live in Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, where I refer to my studio as my underground studio bunker. I take a certain pride in the private nature of my space, though perilously close to the high-surveillance residence just a few blocks down the street where the Vice-President of the United States lives at the Naval Observatory. And yet, my house is in full view of anyone and everyone. Not just my house, but my car as well, parked in front. In the 21st century era of Google Street View and its stealth-mapping capabilities, nothing is private. All you need is someone’s physical address, and that takes very little investigation on the Net.
Probe deeper into Google Maps and you discover there is a wealth of information about my residence that has been assembled for the world to see. The notion that you could live a secret life under the radar is a thing of the past. The possibility of seeking out an anonymous log cabin a la the unabomber would be fruitless in today’s mediascape where Google cameras are roaming the streets tracking, mapping, and surveilling everything in their path. Atop the Google Street view vehicle is a special multi-camera that snaps photographs from all angles and stores them into a database that staggers the imagination. Essentially, Google’s mission is to map every square inch of the world: systematically and repeatedly.
Returning to my small plot of land in the Google Universe, you can continue to probe into the private sanctity of my personal space. Focus your mouse on my front yard and click on the zoom lens. and deeper you go into Google’s surveillance imaging system. You are now close enough to see through the front window of my house. You may as well be standing on my front porch peering in through the drapes.
This is only the beginning of a surveilled world where we can peer into anyone’s life via the Internet. For when you combine Google’s ubiquitous reach with the information they extract from us through our Google accounts, Goggle email, Google Docs, YouTube, and all the various sources of data mining techniques that Google conducts, there is no longer any such thing as anonymity on the Net.
But we can’t really blame Google for knowing so much about us, for we have willingly given up our data to be included in the system. We fill out our social media profiles with a sense of responsibility and obligation to fulfill our digital lives. We feel somehow reprimanded and inadequate when told our account is only 50% complete. You see, we are caught in the difficult balance between participation in the utopian dream of a global repository of knowledge and wisdom, or falling into the darkness of the erosion of our private space. How do we maintain balance? How do we participate in the social media revolution without becoming beholden to the machinations of big data? How do we protect ourselves from spies and intruders without becoming so paranoid that we attempt to destroy our entire online identity? And of course, now that they have our data, we are past the point of no return. You can never take it back.
So for now, I say, we may as well enjoy the pleasure of being tracked through the relinquishing of all things formerly private. For this is the age we have entered into, for better or for worse. Perhaps privacy has become a 20th century phenomenon relegated to a previous era when we took pride in our unlisted phone numbers as a form of elite status. Today, we desire to be connected, we are seduced by the sheer reach of our digital lives, we want to be everywhere, and we want our personal space to be accessible for all to see. We have become exhibitionists in the global information revolution. We are afraid of becoming invisible in a world where our digital identities thrive on being tracked and analyzed. We’ll do anything to boost our stats, because it makes us feel even more alive.
The next time you see the Google Street View car, wave! This is not candid camera.