Having listened to all the talk about the new surveillance intrusions into our lives—Mr. Snowden and the hunt for terrorists, Google Glass to record your every moment, and marketers and government officials riffling through your email for one thing or another—I have come to the conclusion that we are embarking on a path that is very similar to religion. We just don’t know it.
The whole idea of religion is to keep you on the straight and narrow. You are told the right way to behave. There are the Ten Commandments, the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and there are punishments or chastisements involved if you don’t stay on that straight and narrow.
Some are serious punishments. Adulteress women get stoned to death. Pickpockets get their hands cut off. Also bad is having your head shaved or your being shunned. Hester, the adulteress in The Scarlet Letter, was forced to wear a red “A” on her blouse. With other bad behavior, there is damnation to hell and consorting with the devil through eternity.
But there are more gentle ways that religion resets upon the straight and narrow. The Jews atone for their sins and ask forgiveness once a year. The Catholics confess their sins to a priest and have to say Hail Marys.
The point is, simply, that religion, through its priests and rabbis and others explaining the human condition, espouses that people stay alert to good behavior. You will, if you believe, treat others as you expect others to treat you.
Occasionally there are rebellions against this. Those running Sodom and Gomorrah led one. More recently there was “The ’60s,” where adherents decried the straight and narrow. Drugs, sex and rock and roll were celebrated. What had formerly been called pornography was now art. The police were pigs.
Now we have Silicon Valley, the internet, Google, YouTube. It’s all meant as a means for all of us to get to know one another together. A side effect, however, a very unexpected side effect, is its demands for the straight and narrow, its shame when the rules are not followed and the punishments that ensue when indiscretions are found.
Think about it.
In this new world of bits and bites, in surveillance and information gathering, even the slightest transgression, even the slightest move off the straight and narrow, is now noticed by practically everybody, who react as this great chorus of judgment for proper and upstanding behavior.
Here are things that 20 years ago, people would be amazed to learn would be going on in America today.
People meeting other people at parties go home and immediately go on Facebook to find out what sort of person they just met is.
In some places, people who have committed sex crimes may not live within 1,000 feet of a school, a childcare center or a playground, and must report their whereabouts to the authorities when they move for the rest of their lives.
People who might have a scandalous and weird hobby they used to enjoy by themselves alone at home are being arrested, shunned and thrown in jail. A man’s home is his castle, but you better watch out what you do there.
There’s even a new unwritten law that everybody has to be nice to everybody or else. Nobody can criticize anybody. It’s a sin. People are terrified to give honest references for former employees to prospective new employers. Bullying or even “unwanted touching” is cause for alarm. In some cases, you can’t even say bad things. For example, businessmen no longer say they had a bad year. They say, “last year was challenging.”
Various communities around the country, in a salute to Hester’s “A” in The Scarlet Letter, now board homeless sex offenders in designated motels or trailers.
Here’s something else that was not going on 20 years ago. In great numbers, people are arming themselves with weapons in America, going into public places, and shooting everybody.
What a great religious power we are building. Here are specific examples of it, just during the past year or two.
A man had a surveillance camera on a pole in his backyard. On it, he saw that over his fence, his neighbor slapped his son. It became national news.
A man, a very dynamic and likeable politician, went on his Facebook page and displayed his naked body to his adoring fans, apparently suggesting if they wanted him, they should call him. It drove him from office.
A man in the county in which we live filed a federal lawsuit. He is now 42, married and has a child and his own home. In 1992, he was convicted of the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl; he agreed to a plea deal, but says he believed the girl was 18 and the sex was consensual. He is now for the rest of his life a registered sex offender. He has been living in the community with his wife and child, but a because there is childcare center near his home, he could visit his family during the day but every night he had to leave to sleep at a homeless sex offender trailer. He says his rights have been violated. He has sued for $25 million.
I also live in this county and I’m a weekly newspaper editor. But neither I nor other editors feel comfortable writing about this. Is it that we APPROVE of what he did? Maybe it’s time we took a look at what’s on your hard drive?
Soon they won’t have to look in your hard drive. They’ll look for what you did up in the cloud.
If Jack Kerouac went on the road today, somebody would be alarmed after looking him up on the internet, have the police arrest him and put him in a mental hospital. Nobody would ever know he was there, however. “I’m sorry,” a nurse will say, “we can’t even tell you whether he’s here. There is HIPPA, the new privacy laws.”
Maybe we should look up from all the wonderful Twitter and Facebook entries and Google searches and surveillance cameras and just get a bead on the alarming direction in which we are going.