By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Illustration by Mike LeeABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, MY HIGH SCHOOL CIVICS TEACHER (who would later be arrested in front of the class for refusing to pay income tax) invited a professor from a nearby college to talk to us about how the world was headed to hell in an Orwellian handbasket. He was mighty disappointed when the prof insisted instead that we were moving toward Huxley's Brave New World, amusing ourselves into attention-deficient immobility.*
Thanks to the Net, they can both be right.
Attached please find five recent widely reported technology developments that, taken together, should discomfit even the most law-abiding, SUV-driving, politically oblivious latte-esthete. Roll the following five statements around in your head and see if you, too, don't start feeling uneasy.
YOU NO LONGER HAVE THE RIGHT NOT TO INCRIMINATE YOURSELF.
Taking the Fifth is a nice tactic on Law and Order, but the point is virtually moot in real life; your body and history have already betrayed you. Your fingerprints are on file at such places as the bank, the DMV and the welfare office; you can even be asked for a thumbprint to cash traveler's checks (or write personal checks). Many well-meaning parents have contributed their children's fingerprints to government databases voluntarily, thanks to the allegedly ever-present specter of child abduction. (Show of hands, please, of everyone who's had a child abducted. Now let's see a show of hands for all those whose children have been stopped by police for vandalism, traffic violations or worse. Now, how do you think those fingerprint files will be used?)
Your hair is of interest to thousands of potential employers and some schools, who find it provides a much longer-term drug-use profile than does the old-fashioned piss test. Your child's treasured school yearbook doubles as a collection of mug shots for the local cops in many urban areas. And your banking and credit history -- sensitive and personal data in the lives of even the most innocuous among us -- is anybody's baby if your bank decides to pimp it out. And your driver's-license info is for sale to telemarketers and insurance companies.
Even the open road isn't so open these days. With devices such as Lo-Jack and GM's Sensing and Diagnostic Module (which monitors your car to discover causes of mechanical failures and accidents), your vehicle can send information about your whereabouts and driving peccadilloes back to the manufacturer, or to the cops. The Sensing and Diagnostic Module has raised the ire of even sleepy old conservative William Safire, who doesn't want his car spying on his bad driving habits. (He has apparently chosen to ignore the 2,400 police surveillance cameras monitoring the streets of his beloved New York, but every little bit helps.)
And thanks to the 1994 Crime Control Act, your DNA is scheduled to go on file nationally within the next few years. This data is available to federal, state and local investigators, and there are precious few legal guidelines as to how it can be used. (Pondering the irony of a DNA database signed into law by Bill "Blue Dress" Clinton is left as an exercise for the reader.)
All these indignities are brought to you by databases -- vast collections of tiny shards of knowledge. Once upon a time, it wasn't possible to collect that much data on one person, and even if it had been possible to collect it, it wasn't possible to enter it in a computer in a timely fashion, and even if it had been possible to collect it and enter it in a computer, it wasn't possible to correlate it with all the other information in all the other databases. Those days are over, and the only legacy we have of them is a dire lack of laws regarding who owns the information the database has about you and what they can do with it. But we do know who doesn't own it: you, buster. And by the way . . .
YOU HAVE BEEN PRICED OUT OF THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS.
As for your personal data, forget those clickpaths and cookies and other bits of online data, which most folks will happily exchange for a free PC or a chance at winning a VW Beetle or some shiny beads. What about your genetic history? Ask the good people of Iceland, whose government in December sold the rights to the entire country's health, genetic and genealogical info to deCODE Genetics, which in turn has licensed it to Swiss pharmaceutical mega-company Hoffman-LaRoche. No one was asked to sign consent forms -- and once an individual's info is in that database, she can't ask to have it removed. Someone else quite literally owns the rights to her.
DOT-COM BUSINESSES HAVE LITTLE IMPERATIVE TO STAND UP FOR YOU, THE CUSTOMER.
Dot-coms may be swashbuckling when it comes to financing and IPOs, but they're timid as kittens when it comes to standing up for their clientele. For instance, Amazon.com has shown several times in the past few months that speaking to them in a sharp tone of voice will scare them enough to pull books off their un-shelves -- a decision that earned the un-bookstore widespread derision from real booksellers, long accustomed to standing up for books threatened to be censored or banned.