In his remarkably prescient book The Naked Crowd, published in 2004, law professor Jeffrey Rosen reports on an informal experiment conducted with groups of students and adults in the years following the events of 9/11. He asked them to imagine two machines designed to enhance public security at airports; a Naked Machine, which used microwaves to perform a virtual strip search, producing vividly naked three dimensional images of everyone who passed through the scanner, and a Blob Machine, which used simple software manipulation to extract images of any concealed objects from scanned bodies and project them onto a generic and sexless mannequin, creating “an unrecognizable and nondescript blob.”
Subjects were then given a hypothetical choice between the two machines, with all other factors – such as the length of the security queues – being equal. Rosen found a fairly consistent stream of people who preferred to go through the more invasive Naked Machine, with some describing “a willingness to be electronically stripped by the Naked Machine as a ritualistic demonstration of their own purity and trustworthiness in much the same way that the religiously devout describe rituals of faith.”
(As a brief digression, this psychological dynamic might also help to explain the behavior of sexual assault victim Louis Ogborn beneath the golden arches, who in the early stages of her ordeal seemed so eager to demonstrate she literally had nothing to hide, and thus complied with the perverse directives of the disembodied ventriloquist Officer Scott and his depraved puppets, within months of the publication of Rosen’s book.)
Crowds suspect individuals who stand apart, and if the crowd wants to be naked, then the individual who expresses a preference for privacy is immediately suspect. A number of years ago, we (the entire editorial staff of Desperado Philosophy) were asked in a public forum why we did not have any social media accounts. We responded that we did not want to subject ourselves to data mining; that social media were an extractive industry, not dissimilar to whaling in the nineteenth century; that we were unwilling for our patterns of curiosity, as reflected in daily community interactions or web navigations, to become part of a deeply camouflaged behavioral algorithm which would then be packaged and sold to marketers without any compensation to us, serving as the mine; and that future potential uses of such data for social manipulation and control were still unknown.
Our explanation for why we had “opted out” was greeted with considerable dismay and a touch of suspicion, with one person blurting out that “you only have to worry about privacy if you have something to hide.” Oh really?
Rosen has the rare sort of fluid intelligence that combines the analytical precision of a legal scholar with subtle insight into the vagaries of mass psychology; his most provocative arguments concern the collapse of boundaries between the individual and the crowd in a media environment dominated by the internet.Law professor Noah Feldman made a similar point in the wake of the recent supreme court decision on whether police have the right to conduct strip searches, even for the most trivial misdemeanor such as violating a leash law or a minor traffic ticket:Reviel Netz’s idea of history as a wrestling match speaks to this posture: mammals and other living beings wrestling with each other in a confined and finite space open to constant negotiation and contestation. Yet there is a second wrestling match transpiring simultaneously, the match between the body of the Naked Crowd (that may transform into a bloodthirsty mob at any moment) and the body of the fully clothed and self-reliant individual, who stands apart, or wriggles free from the choke hold. We know, or should know from long history, that when the body of the Naked Crowd takes complete control of the ring, with the individual down and out for the count, the result does not tend to be touchy-feely Communitas.
Who benefits when privacy mutates from an inalienable human right into a suspect form of “hiding”? In his shameless promotion of the Naked Machine, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff is one obvious beneficiary, though as Chris Hedges recently documents, the ascendence of the Naked Crowd has unleashed a vast new architecture for the military-industrial complex. Once the infrastructure for total information awareness is in place, it will not be long before loose talk about privacy as an intrinsic quality of human liberty will be considered not just eccentric, but criminal.