Tang and the Panopticon

Lately, when I think about Rob Ford and the NSA, my thoughts turn to Tang. Tang, for those of you too young to remember, was an orange-flavoured drink spawned by the space program and made famous by John Glenn and Gemini astronauts. I drank it as a kid. And it was easy, back then, on steady diet of Tang for breakfast, to forget what real orange juice actually tasted like. It would have been forgivable to think, in fact, that Tang was orange juice.

And today, when the NSA is collecting and selectively examining email, telephone calls, communication metadata and browsing histories and when every patois-laced screed from Rob Ford’s mouth is captured on a cellphone cam, it’s easy to forget we once had privacy. Or, to come back to the Tang metaphor. It’s easy for us to think this is what privacy actually tastes like.

We now live in a panopticon. Our reality is that we may not know we are being watched, but know we could be. And, like felons in a panopticon prison, the fear of observation changes our behaviour. And, it changes our perception of public and private. It lowers our expectations for privacy, collectively.

And here’s what I’m really afraid of. Not the NSA and its ability to retroactively dig up dirt on citizens it needs to control; not the sifting and analysing of big data by companies keen on honing their marketing; not a covert web of citizen cameras ready to pounce on profane rants. It’s this: that all of it will change how we behave as citizens and humans. Without us realizing it, and slowly, the panopticon will make us all behave like frightened, wary convicts. And one day we will not only forget what orange juice tastes like, we will prefer Tang.

It’s already happening. We no longer marvel that Rob Ford’s drunken nonsense is caught on camera, we expect it. We no longer are surprised that Justin Beiber’s mug shot is seen around the world. Of course.

We watch shows like MI-5 or The Last Enemy, Person of Interest or Intelligence and don’t see them as a dystopic future. We almost believe they are documentaries, capturing a real world where hidden eyes are on us all. And we have come to believe that is a good thing, that it prevents crime, stops terrorists and only interferes with the lives of those who have something to hide. They wear us down, just as earlier mass media taught us guns were an important part of law and order, and pretty cool.

Come on, who wouldn’t want to be able to hack a Bluetooth headset, control traffic lights or pull up a person’s CV and criminal history from a chip in your brain or the keyboard under the blur of your fingers? Cyberspying is the new sexy.

And at the other end of the spectrum, cheerlebrities (blond college cheerleaders with an online fan club) share their hairstyles and abs, meals eaten in private become filter-soaked public phone art and an entire generation has turned their private lives public, as if privacy isn’t really all that and a ham sandwich after all.

It wears us down, you and me. And the danger is, as astronaut Buzz Aldrin said last year, “Tang sucks”.