If one wanted to identify the turning point when privacy stopped being a prized commodity in America, a good place to start would be with television and just before the turn of the century. The cultural revolution in programming that was cemented by the year 2000 presaged the devaluation of privacy that would explode with the arrival of Facebook and its peers a few years later.
What we now call reality television had been around since the dawn of the medium. Allen Funt’s Candid Camera had its television debut in 1948 (and had been on radio before that as “Candid Microphone”). But the everyday Americans spied on in Funt’s wholesome Peeping Tom pranks were caught by surprise; they didn’t volunteer for public exposure. The twelve-hour 1973 PBS mini-series An American Family (supported by funding from the Ford Foundation, no less) was a breakthrough because the troubled Louds of Santa Barbara willingly submitted to parading their travails in close-up on-camera. By the time MTV unveiled its series The Real World in 1992, the advent of video, digitalization, and compact cameras had made projects emulating An American Family much easier to produce in quantity and at greater length.
The Real World began as a somewhat earnest docu-soap of multicultural American youth wrestling with Real Issues. But by the end of the decade, sex and alcohol were being stirred profusely into the mix. In 2000, CBS took the genre a step further by airing an American adaptation of a Dutch television hit, Big Brother, in which occupants of a quarantined house are captured on camera 24/7, bathroom visits included, for three months as the participants are voted out one by one. Sure enough, the coinage Big Brother would soon become unmoored from George Orwell’s vision of totalitarian terror and become known as the brand of a cheesy entertainment franchise hosted by Julie Chen. As it happened, Big Brother’s second-season contestants were isolated in their San Fernando Valley barracks on 9/11, and one of those contestants was the cousin of a missing Aon worker on the 90th floor of World Trade Center 2. After some debate over whether the house’s inmates should even be told the news in real time, which would be a violation of the show’s lab-rat rules, the young woman with a familial stake in the attacks was filled in. She chose to remain on-camera with her surrogate reality-television family (and audience) rather than return to her real family in New York, which was still waiting to learn that her cousin was dead.
Big Brother began its fifteenth season last week. We now know that it was merely a harbinger of what was to come. In 2000, it and Survivor (also on CBS) were novelties. In 2013, more than 300 reality shows are airing on a profusion of networks, including some that have revised their identities to accommodate them. (History, formerly known as the History Channel, is home to Ax Men and Swamp People.) That count does not include YouTube, where home productions can rival the biggest TV reality hits in audience. The 2011 video of 6-year-old Lily Clem’s reaction to her birthday present, a trip to Disneyland, attracted 5 million viewers in just its first three weeks.
Reality television is not a showbiz fad but a national pastime whose participants are as diverse as America in terms of class, race, creed, and ethnicity. If redneck subjects are now the rage—Here Comes Honey Boo Boo outdrew Fox News coverage of the GOP convention in the prime 18-49 demographic—the desperate urban middle class is at the heart of shows like the Vegas-based smash Pawn Stars (another History hit). Though some participants cash in—the Robertson brood of Duck Dynasty has transformed an already prosperous rural Louisiana business selling duck calls into a multi-platform entertainment empire—money isn’t the only motive. Many reality-show performers receive nominal pay, and the workplace protections afforded to union members usually don’t apply. The Kardashians notwithstanding, the payoff in fame also can be slight, not even fifteen minutes’ worth on the lower-rated shows. More often, exhibitionism is its own reward. Many Americans simply want to be seen, even in financial or psychological extremis, by as many of their fellow citizens as possible. That the government may also be watching—whether in pursuit of terrorism, ordinary criminality, immigration violations, employee malfeasance, tax evasion, or whatever—seems no deterrent.
The same risk of surveillance is taken by the many more Americans who bare their lives online, trading off privacy for speedier transactions, self-expression, and self-indulgence. With the notable exception of Anthony Weiner, few are naïve about that bargain. It’s no surprise that 85 percent of the country thinks it is being snooped on: Uncannily precise recommendations of products, friends, and followers stalk our every keystroke on the web. Given that Facebook’s members are more than three times as numerous as the American population, all of them linked to multiple networks that often have little or nothing to do with friendship, it’s a no-brainer that the infinity of data will be trolled by outsiders, whether flesh-and-blood or algorithmic, and whether the motive be investigative, prurient, mercantile, masturbatory, altruistic, or criminal. And that trolling is so easy! As Evgeny Morozov has written in The Net Delusion, the 2006 German film The Lives of Others is a potent reminder of “how costly surveillance used to be” for a totalitarian state in the Cold War era: “Recording tape had to be bought, stored, and processed; bugs had to be installed one by one; Stasi officers had to spend days and nights on end glued to their headphones, waiting for their subjects to launch into an antigovernment tirade or inadvertently disclose other members of their network.” Ah, the good old days of government surveillance, when the spies had to jump through exhausting hoops to do their dirty work.