The Digital Panopticon

In our camera-saturated world, everyone is watching everybody.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Fred Ho Yeow Hui.

It was many years ago, when I worked in a large city and I often had to walk several blocks from one large office complex to another during the course of the average work day. One afternoon I was trudging between buildings, head bent, lost in thought; I passed the entrance to a small, dark alleyway just as a new Porsche roared up from the gloom. The car fishtailed to a stop a few inches from my kneecaps, and I froze, immobile with fear. The driver was a budding Master of the Universe — thirtyish, well dressed, obviously used to money, privilege, and a certain quantum of power. He looked through the windshield at me with distaste, raised his hand slightly from the wheel, and gestured: a shooing motion, as though I were a small, bothersome animal.

I’m not completely clear about what happened after that, except that red lava seemed to swell through my brain, and my reaction was extreme. I do know that the incident ended with the scared driver gunning his vehicle into traffic, almost sideswiping another car; and I recall several passersby stopping to gawk before hurrying on.

I’m not proud of my reaction, but when I think back on it, it’s not so much abject shame that I feel. It’s more relief — relief that no one had smartphones back then. We had flip phones, barely good enough for calling and texting, and totally unable to record video or stream data to the internet.

My response, though not laudable, was human. I can forgive myself. But would anyone else? Especially anyone who saw it on social media? Because that’s what would happen today. The pedestrians who scurried by then would now stop, haul out their iPhones, shoot footage, and post it immediately to Facebook, where it would propagate endlessly, metastasizing like a virtual tumor. By the time I got back to my office, I’d be — I almost said famous. I’d be infamous.

Granted, my behavior wasn’t racist or xenophobic like that of so many Americans who have lately suffered ignominy after their bigotry was caught on camera and shared with the world. I wasn’t like the lawyer who ranted against Spanish-speaking customers in the New York deli or the drunk in Chicago harassing a woman for wearing a T-shirt imprinted with the Puerto Rican flag or the white San Franciscan who called the cops on a little African-American girl who was selling bottled water without a permit.

4/19/2019 9:30:05 PM

Loved this article, especially it’s inclusiveness of enlightened relevant links I actually clicked on, but also it’s informative unbiased delivery.

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