A Cultural Shift on Surveillance?

Are we as a culture becoming more and more resigned to a surveillance state? Who hasn’t seen the crime dramas or shows revolving around anti-terrorism in which someone pulls up satellite imagery, traffic camera footage, or triangulates the position of a cell phone in order to determine someone’s location? Law enforcement or national security agencies in today’s shows seem to have unlimited access to data and technology that gives them near-omnipresence.

What’s more — in the context of the story — generally the audience is led to be glad that those protecting law and order have the ability to stop these dangerous people. Hardly a thought is given to the frightening ubiquity of government eyes and ears. A newer development is commercials for companies that indicate that they know where you are and all about you, just like the government does, as though this is supposed to be a comfort to you.

Is there a cultural shift in America towards accepting this kind of surveillance as normal? Certainly most Americans seem impressed and find it quite convenient that companies like Google have massive amounts of data on them. The more they know, the more they can serve you.

This may be precisely where government will try to take public opinion about their own invasive programs in the future.

Still, popular depictions of surveillance that depart from the use of surveillance as brief and useful tool, and focus more on those who conduct it, do not always show it in a good light. It is not only Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation in which the protagonist, a government surveillance expert, begins to grow a conscience about what he is doing. It was also depicted negatively more recently in The Lives of Others, a German film set in the Cold War that was popular, well-received, and won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (though this could have something to do with the fact that liberals seemed to think that they were living in Cold War East Germany while the Bush Administration was in office.)

There is a conflict between the convenience of constant surveillance and the danger of prying government and corporation eyes. Certainly no one likes their privacy invaded. The reaction to NSA data collection program still shows this, but for how long? The question is whether we are becoming more and more trusting that our private lives must be accessible for our own good in this day and age.

This may be precisely the shift that popular culture is beginning to reflect — and catalyzing….