I’ve been fixating, this summer, on the idea of “robot nudity,” a phrase that the Times’ A. O. Scott introduced in the endnote to a movie review (“Terminator 3 is rated R. It has a lot of robot violence, some brief robot nudity, and a modicum of human swearing”). Robot nudity in T3 means just that: The Terminator robot, played by the future governor of California, briefly appears butt-naked in a scene that has been given particular scrutiny since the real-life Ahnuld decided to rivet the paparazzi (and the world) by appearing in all his unretouched, tubby glory on a Caribbean beach. (Sheesh, that bikini!) Robot nudity has relevance far beyond candidate Schwarzenegger’s cinematic ass-flashing or his real-world display of flabby flanks. Robot nudity is the all-encompassing, Zeitgeist-distilling metaphor I’ve been searching for.
Machines have no shame. Your machines have no shame. They’ll show all, tell all. Right now they’re telling on you.
The Recording Industry Association of America, for one, is listening.
Thanks to the RIAA’s unprecedented use of federal subpoena power to unmask the previously anonymous identities of people who use file-sharing services like KaZaA, the entire world knows that 23-year-old Leah Pate of Dana Point, California, has Billy Idol, Duran Duran, and Def Leppard songs on her computer (the details of her taste in music then traveled, KaZaA-like, across the world on the AP wire). Leah and others who’ve been targeted face copyright-violation fines of up to $150,000 for each pirated song. That’s like $500 per word of Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.”
The RIAA, of course, is dancing with itself, too—there’s a certain masturbatory self-absorption to the idea that the record industry, riddled with self-inflicted wounds, can heal itself by going legal on the asses of individual file sharers. In fact, the national press over the past few weeks has turned the assorted music thieves into victims of the RIAA’s thuggery, and sympathizers have lined up to cheer these folk heroes on. One Rensselaer Polytechnic student, for instance, who paid a fine of $12,000 (the RIAA, theoretically seeking millions—but actually just seeking publicity—settled for that pittance), has since recouped the entire amount from strangers who have sent donations via his blog.
But let’s back up. Think about it: An estimated 60 million Americans have used file-sharing software to download perhaps billions of songs—and yet the RIAA is able to hunt down poor Leah Pate and determine exactly what songs she’s downloaded onto her computer. It’s astonishing, really, to contemplate not only the vast matrix of information that’s tucked deeply into the datasphere but the rather chilling fact that it can be so readily parsed and used against us. The truth is out there—it’s in a database.
If information wants to be free, as Netheads insist, well, then, information about you wants to be free.
But never mind the RIAA and subpoenas. File sharing itself exposes your machine—and you. Just ask any semi-experienced music downloader. Install a program like KaZaA onto your PC, and it not only allows you to steal songs from other people’s hard drives but allows them to steal songs from your hard drive—part of your hard drive, many users fail to sufficiently grasp, becomes public and quite literally exposed to millions of Internet users. Your machine becomes a supercharged peephole, and the peeping can work both ways.
I dipped into an AOL teen chat room last week to quiz the MP3 generation directly about file sharing, and I found that there’s more fear and loathing of file-sharing applications than there is of the big, bad RIAA. Most kids I chatted with had scant awareness of the RIAA’s subpoenas. Several kids, meanwhile, complained about how much file-sharing programs can screw with a PC. “You end up with all sorts of spyware,” one said, using a term for programs that KaZaA—and hackers—can install on your PC to snoop around and track your moves on the Net.
Another kid tipped me off to a “cloaking” application called PeerGuardian, which attempts to block certain parties—such as the RIAA—from determining exactly what’s on your hard drive. It does so, basically, by keeping a constantly updated list of the unique Internet identities (so-called IP addresses) of known narcs—and anytime a computer with one of those unique Internet identities contacts your PC, your PC knows to tell it to scram. It’s a bit like drug dealers knowing that the Feds tend to drive certain late-model Fords. The problem, of course, is that the Feds can always leave the Ford parked back at headquarters and requisition a Bimmer or a Hummer or any other unlikely vehicle, and your machine—being a stupid machine—will welcome it. Cloaking applications are stopgaps, at best.
And, of course, last week came the news that a British chap talked his way out of child-pornography charges by insisting that hackers had installed the child porn found on his computer—which, it turns out, could actually have happened.
But getting child porn planted on your PC isn’t even the worst thing that can happen to you. Just a couple weeks ago, the parents of a tubby Canadian kid revealed that he’s possibly been scarred for life by his run-in with file sharing. Last winter, 15-year-old Ghyslain Raza videotaped himself doing Star Wars light-saber moves (without the saber) while spitting out his own quite enthusiastic whooshing and zwonging light-saber noises; in April of this year, other kids at his school found the horrifyingly dorktastic video, digitized it, and uploaded it to the Internet via, yes, KaZaA, where it was soon posted and linked endlessly across the world, and viewed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times. Assorted wiseacres with digital-editing special-effects skills made countless “Star Wars Kid” parody videos—for instance, compositing a glowing light saber into jaunty Ghyslain’s fat-fingered hands. Young Ghyslain was so ridiculed by his classmates—and, well, the world—that he dropped out of school and checked into a children’s psych ward.
His parents are now suing the kids who uploaded the video in the first place. They’re asking for $160,000 in damages from the families of the uploaders. Ghyslain, his parents’ suit maintains, “will be under psychiatric care for an indefinite amount of time.”
But on the bright side—not mentioned in the suit—over 55,000 people have signed an online petition to try to persuade George Lucas to give Ghyslain a part in the next Star Wars movie. The petition reads, in part, “Yes, we’ve all had our dorky, private moments, but this poor kid is living the nightmare of having his private dorkiness projected across the world to giggling Web users.”
The “Star Wars Kid” situation involved middlemen—fellow students who digitized and uploaded the video—but the ubiquity of “content” that originated in digital form, and the rising efficiency of networks, means that machines no longer need much human intervention to share our data. Like information about what music we’ve downloaded, and what movies—including the home movies we make with our DV camcorders—and TV shows we’re watching.
In June, for instance, TiVo started selling aggregated information about its 700,000-plus subscribers’ viewing habits—which means that TV executives can now find out not only which shows are truly getting watched (not just recorded) but which parts get fast-forwarded through, which parts get watched again and again and again (a butt-baring shot on a nighttime soap, perhaps), and which commercials repel and attract viewing. TiVo insists that individual information will never be sold, but what is a TiVo but a networked machine, with a unique subscriber-identity code, that’s collecting information about you?
Once digital information of any kind exists, it’s incredibly hard not only to contain it but to destroy it. (As numerous congressional investigations have shown us, e-mail doesn’t go away when you hit DELETE.)
If you live digitally, you live indelibly—your data persists indefinitely. It’s easy (and obvious) enough to get paranoid about the government misusing our data—especially a government that has toyed with ominous fare like the Total Information Awareness project to fight terrorism—but the truth is, it doesn’t take much subterfuge or Orwellian initiative to get to your data. It floats behind you, like a vapor trail—or around you, wraithlike—and you can never shake it.
If we tell our machines to “Talk amongst yourselves” (think Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth), and they do, what are they really doing but talking about us? (What else do they have to talk about?) When we wirelessly beam data between our digital cameras or camcorders and our PCs, and between our cell phones and our PDAs, they’re gossiping about us.
In that sense, the RIAA, which seems so hopelessly retrograde in its hostility to file sharing, is actually sort of ahead of the curve. And try as we might—with legal challenges to subpoenas, or IP-address masking, or whatever—to deny it, our machines are built to expose themselves, and therefore us, with machinelike ease and expedience.