There has been a lot of shock about the NSA’s access to and use of our communications data. Apparently some people aren’t doing their homework and watching TV shows of the past decade such as “24,” “Homeland,” and “Person of Interest.” The government agents and rogue do-gooders on those dramas always have the digital world at their fingertips — your texts and e-mails, your ATM use, your Starbucks card records, your E-ZPass info — and they can cross-reference this with that to pinpoint anyone anytime anywhere.
They never metadata they didn’t like, those TV crime solvers.
OK, so you didn’t note the data-mining debates by our congressmen during reconsiderations of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the past few years; Congress is definitely bummer theater of late. But surely you saw counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer on “24” get detailed intel from desk geek Chloe, who had big data at the touch of a key. Compare the likes of Bauer, who’s returning to TV on Fox’s “24” reboot next spring, to the characters on FX’s “The Americans,” which is set in the Neanderthal 1980s. While Chloe points and clicks and instantly nails, the FBI agents tracking Russian cells on “The Americans” have to rely on clunky old deductive reasoning, which is so Sherlock.
On scripted TV, privacy has been dead for years. The point of most of these series is not that sophisticated surveillance and data collection are scary; they are tense fantasies about just how dynamically our guardians will use the information to protect us. The subtext of data mining on TV is that only bad guys get spied on, and only good guys spy.
If you’ve been watching these fictional shows, you can’t be too surprised that a Pew Research and Washington Post poll last week found that 62 percent of Americans say it’s important for the government to investigate terror threats even if they intrude on personal privacy. John Oliver’s recent “Daily Show” segment called “Good News! You’re Not Paranoid” was addressing a minority. TV storytelling so often reflects a mainstream pulse, and in this case it’s the willingness to be monitored.
And TV — specifically reality TV — has also shown us that many, many Americans are disposed to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to privacy. Since the reality TV revolution, which began in earnest in 2000 with CBS’s “Survivor” after an early start in 1992 with MTV’s “The Real World,” mainstream culture has shown a striking amount of ease with camera surveillance in everyday life. We’ve invaded our own privacy, in a way, appearing on and celebrating shows that revolve around how much fun it is to be filmed and watched. We’ve turned the cameras and phone taps of nightmares into a form of entertainment, one that continues to draw ratings.
“Big Brother,” named after George Orwell’s symbol of government abuse of civil liberties, is a 24/7 cameras-on show on CBS that’s about to begin its 15th season on June 26. Try reminding millions of loyal viewers — including some who watch “Big Brother” feeds online — that the roots of the series are in a dictator, Orwell’s cautionary figure, and watch them roll their eyes.
And yes, it does seem silly to take reality TV too seriously, as some kind of harbinger of dystopia, chipping away at the Fourth Amendment. But, along with the advent of pocket filming devices, YouTube, and social media, the genre has surely played a role in our country’s comfort with diminishing privacy. It is part of the general erosion of a sense that some things aren’t for public consumption. Reality TV began before 9/11, before battling terrorism became a justification, and I suspect we’d be approaching our current surveillance state even if those attacks hadn’t occurred. The data bank from our communications and from the cameras on our city streets exists, and it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t be tapping into it somehow.
It’s the lightness of reality TV that makes the nonstop filming seem so innocuous. It isn’t the unstaged documentary work of, say, Frederick Wiseman, or the gavel-to-gavel footage of C-SPAN. It’s funny, silly, competitive. Many who watch reality TV are laughing at the “characters,” the ordinary fame seekers and D-list celebrities who do crazy things without a written script. No one’s going to get too morally bent out of shape about these hammy buffoons in action. There’s such a huge distance between “Big Brother” and Big Brother.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGil