The culture of surveillance

Last week, Elan Gale’s flight was delayed, and he was annoyed, not because of the delay, but because of Diane in 7A. According to Gale,  Diane was abusive to the flight attendants, obnoxious and just plain spoiled. She deserved a lesson in manners,  and Elan Gale, a reality television producer, decided to do what many would have done in his place. He live-tweeted his annoyance. Not only that, he scripted and produced a feud that went viral by exchanging notes with Diane.  Soon enough, BuzzFeed’s Rachel Zarrell had picked up on it. She added a couple of sentences between Mr. Gale’s tweets and shaped them into a story. She chose the title, “This Epic Note-Passing War On A Delayed Flight Won Thanksgiving,” and essentially praised Elan Gale. He, and he alone, had the guts to put Diane in her place.

Except for the fact that none of it actually happened. Elan Gale made it up “to give people a few laughs over a slow Thanksgiving weekend.” Mr. Gale is a funny guy. He’s also a perfect example of the phenomenon of our highly connected era: surveillance.

Every day we’re being watched, and not just by the NSA. We’re being watched by strangers with smartphones. Some of them have no qualms about criticizing our behavior, overhearing and posting snippets of our conversations on Facebook or transforming our images into memes. As a result, the expectation of privacy is an endangered species. Any deed or word can be recorded, reported, posted, shared and re-shared. It can be framed as funny, shocking or heartwrenching. It can be transformed. It can take on a life of its own.

What troubles me is the normalization of surveillance. It’s something we should now expect, and, sometimes, we even reward it. Elan Gale, after all, picked up several thousand Twitter followers as a result of his “hilarious” tweets about a feud that never happened. However, many of us believed it did take place. It sounded plausible because we have tools that allow us to broadcast anything at almost any time.  In the best of circumstances, those tools have been used to shed light on terrible situations that affects people’s lives, such as natural disasters, uprisings, government crackdowns, police brutality and any number of abuses of authority. Yet the same tools are also utilized to pry, dissect and otherwise shame private individuals for their behavior “” even in cases in which the behavior is nothing to be ashamed about. That’s how C.D. Hermelin, a.k.a. The Roving Typist, became a meme.  Hermelin is a New York City-based writer who writes original stories for people on his Royal Safari portable typewriter.  In exchange, people can pay him whatever they want. One day, a stranger photographed him at work. That person shared the image to Reddit, and notoriety followed.  As Hermelin describes it, it was an eye- opening experience. He writes, “Yes, I know that I am pretty much always being watched (especially at a beautiful tourist attraction in New York City, doing something partly designed to attract attention) but that didn’t prepare for me for the reality of seeing myself taken out of context.” I’m not prepared to see myself taken out of context either.

Big Brother is watching. So are countless Little Brothers.

Cynara Medina is a communication professor.