In an age where everyone wants to be noticed, is being spied on such a bad thing?

If you don’t want agency geeks nosing into what you put online, then don’t put it there


Here’s a thought: what if we Ordinary Joes don’t get over-perturbed when we discover we are being spied on – not as perturbed as civil-rights activists and other professional protectors of our privacy get, anyway – not because we are indolent, unimaginative, too engrossed in the cricket, too busy reading about the Tudors, too busy writing about the Tudors, or just too feeble to stand up for ourselves, but because we actually want to be spied on?

I don’t mean politically want to be spied on, as in accepting that we inhabit a dangerous world and welcome the protection that sophisticated surveillance promises – a perfectly reasonable trade-off, in my view, between freedom and extinction. We needn’t get into an argument about who is and who isn’t a terrorist, or whether every bomb that goes off in our quiet streets is no more than we deserve; it’s enough that bombs do go off, against which may God, CCTV cameras, MI5 and the National Security Agency preserve us. But that’s not the wanting to be spied on I’m referring to. My subject is anonymity in an age of fame, and my question is whether any of us can any longer bear to go unnoticed and unrecorded.

Coincident with the revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance has been the news that a group of optical engineers at Stamford has designed “a broadband metamaterial that exhibits a negative refractive index over just about the entire rainbow” – a piece of information I put in inverted commas because I haven’t the first idea what it means, except that it’s an important step in making an invisibility cloak. Whether you and I, reader, will now be able to travel the world unguessed at, seeing everything while being seen by no one, I doubt. I suspect the “cloak” will be too unwieldy a contraption for that. And, for my part, I am less excited by the prospect than I would have been 60 years ago when being invisible rated in importance alongside getting a girl to kiss you. Invisible, you could of course get a girl to kiss you without her knowing you were getting her to do it. Though how good the kiss would have been in that event is another matter.

It was H G Wells’ novel The Invisible Man that first got me interested in the advantages of no one knowing I was there. Whether I actually read it I can’t remember. But I certainly carried it around with me to show I was avant-garde, mysterious and had big plans. The bandages, which we all knew about from the film if not the book – Claude Rains looking like a mummy and indeed speaking like a mummy from the tomb – were a bit of a turn-off (you wouldn’t have been able to feel even the tongueiest kiss through those) and probably accounted for my eventually jettisoning the idea. The next time I read a book with a similar title – Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – invisibility meant something else, not a power but a cultural and ethnic insult, and by then I was old enough to feel the frisson of such an insult myself.

Two kinds of invisibility, then, but it’s possible that the second was always latent in the first. I was a shy boy, and the shy would rather no one saw their shyness. Claude Rains’ bandages, in that case, were just dandy: who can see you blushing behind a face full of gauze? But shyness can also be brought on by feeling out of place and unaccepted. So is the invisibility the shy seek simply another expression of the invisibility they feel? What if I already were the Invisible Man?

If there’s a paradox in the desire to be invisible when invisible is what you are, there is something equally contradictory in the desire to protect your privacy when publicity is all you crave. This was paraded wonderfully in those first years of The Jerry Springer Show when guests without a shred of shame, people eager to plumb the depths of personal degradation before millions of viewers around the world, would shout at the jeering audience: “You don’t know me!”

Was this a desperate attempt to wrap themselves in a last rag of modesty, or did they feel they had yet more intimacies to reveal, that they hadn’t by a long chalk finished stripping? Either way, it would seem that we cannot decide which it is we want most – exposure or concealment.

It is fair, I think, to try to balance both. I don’t hold with that argument, used frequently against the famous during the Leveson Inquiry, that if you want publicity for your film you can’t expect privacy for your family. Fame is not a Mephistophelean pact with revelation. But most common-or-garden, publicist-driven fame strikes me as restrained compared with the lengths the unfamous will go to get noticed, whether on television as an Embarrassing Body, a stooge Apprentice or a Beyoncé, or on social networking sites, where they’re to be seen lifting their shirts, showing their tattoos, expounding their personal philosophies, or just telling strangers what they’ve been reading lately. See me, feel me, hear me. We don’t scorn the starving in this column. Attention is a dish none of us get fat on. But if you don’t want agency geeks nosing into what you put online, don’t put it there.

The deal, however, has been done. Take all you like, we say. We’re yours. In return, we will be sold things the unseen powers know we think we need and told things they know we think we want to hear. Call it electronic love. The Benign Dictatorship of the Multinational. Maybe it won’t much matter. At least they won’t be beating us with batons. Or won’t they? Just cast an eye on Turkey. The will to autocracy is never broken. We may yet regret not having made ourselves invisible.

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