What Kind of World Are We Creating?

image from http://phoenix.gov/publicsafety/infosec/all/privacy/We are living in a Rear Window world. Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller tells the story of a professional photographer homebound by a broken leg who takes a voyeuristic interest in his neighbor. From the interior of his quadrangle apartment complex, Jimmy Stewart's character can examine his neighbors' lives, and he even gives nicknames to the ones he hasn't personally met. Over the course of his recovery, Stewart begins to suspect one neighbor may have murdered his wife, and as he attempts to unravel the clues from his view, the situation becomes more and more suspenseful. At one point, the photographer's friend, a police detective, asks him if he is paying a little too much attention to his neighbors, and while the mystery unfolds before us, there is sinister side to Jimmy Stewart's voyeurism.

We are, in many ways, living in Stewart's world. Much of what was once confidential information has slowly become publicly accessible. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr introduce us to the private lives of our neighbors; what we see on Facebook is in the hands of advertisers and, as evidenced by the recent NSA scandals, our government.

Facebook gives us a glimpse into our neighbors' lives — or for that matter, the lives of total strangers that we "friend." Facebook unites total strangers across the country, often friends who share mutual interests, but whom often take a front row seat into each other's personal lives, depending how much they are willing to expose about themselves. In many cases, like Jimmy Stewart and his camera, we see all before us. Of course, much of what we see is what we are allowed to see, and in Rear Window, many neighbors kept their windows open. The privacy of one's life is dependent how much one is willing to expose to others.

There is another world that we are drifting toward, one even more frightening. The movie Minority Report could easily be our future. The 2002 adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story tells of a society in which police apprehend criminals based on the premonitions of three psychics, called "precogs." In this world, the thoughts of innocent men and women are no longer safe within their minds, and crimes are "prevented" based on visions of events that may not actually happen. What an individual thinks or feels about someone else may easily lead to their arrest. This represents the ultimate loss of privacy.

The recent NSA exposures, along with the IRS misconduct against select groups and the government's spying on reporters, reveal a government perfectly willing to take our country from a Rear Window world of individual voyeurism to a surveillance state viewing its people with suspicion. A recent poll exposed some of the governing party who view members of our society as a greater threat than our enemy. As leftist legal scholar Jonathan Turley noted, you are ten times more likely to be tried by government agencies, where you are considered guilty first, than by our justice system and its traditional presumption of innocence. Those arrested in Minority Report had no recourse but to accept their fate as predetermined.

We may be one generation from losing our freedom, and certainly the past year has reminded us of the fragility of our Republic. Rear Window is an example of purposeful voyeurism, but Minority Report represents a far more terrible scenario: one in which our private thoughts can be our demise.


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