Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Listeners

"The more data banks record about us, the less we exist." ~Marshall McLuhan

Listening is nothing new. By that I mean, listening in by others such as eavesdroppers or Big Brother. Back when the telegraph was invented people who wanted to send messages would have to give their messages to telegraph operators who relayed the message to a receiving operator who could then deliver the message. As people began getting paranoid about sensitive information or ideas of significant value being overheard, they often devised methods of coding their messages. Buy and sell orders from stock brokers might receive such treatment, for example.

If you watch old movies you'll occasionally see scenes in which telephone operators are all connecting callers and overhearing conversations. It must have been an interesting occupation. I remember the days of "party lines" in which multiple households shared a single phone channel. When you picked up the phone to make a call, you were supposed to listen first to make sure the line was available. As a kid I remember picking up the phone once and hearing two women talking. Instead of hanging up I kept listening, until one of them scolded me, ordering me to hang up.

There are other kinds of listeners. I don't know how much phone tapping the FBI did, but we know it happened. Americans who travelled to the Soviet Union would be warned that their phones were probably tapped as well.

The Lives of Others is a powerful film about the monitoring of East Berlin residents during the Cold War. The film focuses on a Stasi officer (GDR secret police) who is listening to the apartment of a playwright and a prominent actress. Would you live differently if you knew you were being monitored?

The Nixon White House was brought down in part by it's own "listening." The president had wired up the Oval Office (and maybe more) so as to capture all his conversations... including some that he would live to regret. When the tapes were subpoenaed by a special prosecutor for the Watergate break-in, segments were erased... without explanation.

When we're active in forums and in discussions on Facebook or other social media, we may not be aware of how many people are out there lurking. The word lurker brings to mind the image of a person standing behind the curtain in your living room while your family is having an important discussion, or not so important. To lurk is to be listening but not participating.

Maybe there is a sense in which our whole news media apparatus turns us into a nation of lurkers somehow. We listen to what the talking heads tell us about events in Washington or city hall, but most people don't participate in the discussion. Sporting events differ in this regard. The fans may not be on the field, but their cheering can energize a team to give it the extra oomph they need to bring home the winning touchdown.

This week's new WikiLeaks story is about last week's leaks regarding Clinton campaign and the tactics it used to undermine Bernie Sanders. Brings back memories of the antics Nixon's campaign chiefs pulled, which earned him the not so kind epithet "Tricky Dick." It's apparent that once you're a public figure, you really don't have much privacy anymore.

The listeners aren't just listening to important people. We're all being listened to... by Target, Amazon and anyone else with something to sell. In the early 1990's, when Amazon was just a twinkle in the eye of Jeff Bezos, Erik Larson wrote a book called Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. The book is about how companies "spy" on the private lives of consumers. One reviewer wrote:

Larson, in his clear and precise reporting, tells us how tax dollars have enabled marketers to find us, zero in on our secret wishes, and persuade us to buy things we don’t need. We are all on lists that help companies locate us, determine what we are patsies for, and how to make us empty our pocketbooks.

This was happening long before the Internet. Today it's 10X. I know that it creeps some folks out when they do a search for something unusual in the morning and an ad for the same item shows up on their Facebook page in the afternoon. Then again, proponents will argue that the consumer is always right, and what better way to give consumers what they want than to know them intimately. In other words, the marketers are listening.

Times have changed. The quantity of new info being broadcast per day is startling. When we speak out ourselves and strive to be heard, we're all too conscious of our voices being lost in the noise. And yet... it's quite apparent that someone, somewhere, really is listening.

Meantime, life goes on....

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