Tuesday, July 15, 2003

We All Live on Temptation Island: A Story of John the Baptist

Reality shows, as controversial, inane, and, frankly, terrible as they are, may turn out to be the most important social innovation of the last ten years.

Like blogging, reality shows are one of those things that could have shown up years ago but didn't. The first network executives at CBS could have had the idea to find six attractive idiots and film them trying to, I don't know, live in a bomb shelter. (Maybe one of them would really be a Communist spy. Hey! That's pretty good. Let's do lunch.) But they didn't, just like Tim Berners-Lee didn't stick a blogging interface into the first browser.

So why reality shows? For one, they're dirt cheap. You think a million dollar prize is expensive? Each member of the cast of Friends earns that every week. To be financially competitive, a show like Survivor or Idiots in a Box hardly needs to beat "regular" shows to turn a profit. And, it turns out, people watch this stuff in droves. (There are a couple interesting potential explanations for that, but I'll limit myself to the observation that sticking a bunch of people off the street with no special training or, apparently, personality still produces a more interesting show with better dialogue than 90% of what the networks turn out. "Perhaps," mull the networks, "the problem is that the audience wants higher definition signals." Yeah, perhaps.) These shows thrive on feeding a never-ending appetite for more and more intimate/embarassing/private/dreadful behavior, and this drives an arms race to the bottom (as if there were a bottom). So why I am heralding them as being so important?

Because, magically, weirdly, just in time, they are teaching us what it means to be watched, all the time, and have all of your actions and interactions not only observed by millions of anonymous strangers, but analyzed, judged, and preserved forever. And this is a lesson that we, especially in the United States, desperately need to learn, because it is about to happen to all of us.

Digital cameras, even video cameras, are becoming so cheap that they're in the check-out lane at Wal*Mart. An 802.11b chip costs $10 in quantity from Texas Instruments, and falling. There's a growing and soon ubiquitous wireless network. Software to analyze human movement, facial expression, voice intonation, and emotion is becoming mature. A drive with a few terabytes of storage, almost enough to record your entire life in video, is cheap and getting cheaper. And, thanks to 9/11, U.S. government agencies are empowered to collect this data on every citizen (to trample the meaning of the word "citizen").

This is a wonderful -- terrible -- confluence. How is it that a innovative and vapid form of entertainment, technically possible for more than fifty years, shows up just in time to teach us the true meaning of the Panopticon? If reality shows are John the Baptist, I don't know that we're ready for the messiah. But this is our own Temptation Island. This technology is being developed, TIA or no, and the siren song of security calls on us to build it: if enough of our privacy is taken away, the song goes, people will stop hating us enough to fly airplanes into buildings. Will we succumb to temptation? Stay tuned.