"No man is an island," wrote John Donne. True, you can always move to an island, even if it’s in the heart of Geneva. The most compelling character of Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red, 1994) by Krzysztof Kieslowski is the Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an old man who sits in his apartment eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone conversations. In lieu of real human contact, he makes do with voices talking about little intrigues, schemes and everyday hopes and fears. Armed with this clandestine information, he is able to feel superior – a Prospero lording over the rabble who have no idea what he knows about them.

Imagine a world filled with such men. From its humble origins as a research exchange for scientists and academics, the Internet has become a massive souk, a marketplace where all kinds of patrons can buy and sell all kinds of information. The problem is that one never shops alone. As you move from shack to showroom, you leave behind an electronic trail, easily accessible to those interested in your touring. If Meg Ryan had only used tracer software to find out about Tom Hanks, we would have been spared an hour and a half of sugary pap in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

To add insult to injury, most merchants force you into a devil’s deal in which you cough up personal information for the pleasure of joining their special clubs: free e-mail, free stock tips, discount porn downloads. This information in turn can be sold to advertisers and their ilk.

But behind all the pandering and demagoguery about privacy issues on the Internet lies the sad truth that American public life is doing a quick fade. To paraphrase Neil Postman, we are cocooning ourselves to death.

The mall has replaced the town square, a cruise in the Jeep Cherokee a pale compensation for the evening stroll through the "neighborhood." Only the rich can buy themselves public spaces, preferably behind gates.

Of course, despite declining crime statistics, people are skittish about going out. Television has given them the impression that chaos is just around the corner. So law enforcement mounts cameras in public areas to scan not only for criminal activity but potential criminals. Private industry uses surveillance equipment to offer customers a "safe" environment, and to track employees’ actions lest profits be compromised by ineffectiveness or extracurricular mischief. Surveillance has become second nature to us. And implicit in our acceptance of electronic policing is an acceptance of even more.

Nowhere is surveillance more of a keynote than in that sprawling megalopolis of the palms, Los Angeles. Rodney King, the riots in South Central, OJ, weekly police chases. Fact and fiction blur – the city of make-believe cinema is also the city of reality-based television. The list goes on. In Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997), a man (Gabriel Byrne) is hidden away in an observatory watching feeds from surveillance cameras mounted around the city. He takes little joy in this exercise but, as the meandering plot finally reveals, it is for "the good of the public." The end of violence is the end of personal liberty.

George Holliday, trying out his new video camera, inadvertently captured the King beating. Within months, local television news stations were asking viewers to send in their own "surveillance" footage, saving broadcasters the trouble of going out and getting scoops. An unfortunate consequence of this, however, is a collective fetish for sensationalistic voyeurism. The innocent peekaboo of Rear Window (1954) is long gone, although American Beauty (1999) tries to recapture it. The saintly Ricky (Wes Bentley), suffering the horrors of suburban life, stages his rebellion not in typical bad-boy behavior but in a secretive cataloguing of mundane life; nothing is more beautiful for him than the simple business of being alive.

If only more of us were so sweet. People can’t get enough of videotapes chronicling the illicit actions of fellow citizens captured not only by surveillance cameras but also private Peeping Tom cams. There are now countless Web sites offering 24-hour access into the homes of anonymous individuals willing to sacrifice their privacy for dubious fame on the Internet. Television shows like Holland’s "Big Brother" and "Survivor" in the United States pose a question that, in a true democratic society, should never be asked: "For what price will you become a zoo animal?" The protagonist of The Truman Show (1998) had no idea he was one, but we did.

The other day, I came upon a young gent walking his pets, two pit bulls. The dogs were straining against the heavy silver chains. If there had been three of them, you might well have imagined an image plucked from Greek mythology, were it not for the owner’s cool attire and macho posturing. Watching his performance for a moment, I realized that it was all for the benefit of an imaginary video camera about two feet from the ground and five feet away. Surveillance and the cult of celebrity have conspired to create a whole breed of superstars headlining in their own private videos on MTV.

Perhaps it’s a last gasp for dignity. We demand to be seen larger than life, even though life itself is becoming smaller, meaner and more vulgar. Perfect for home viewing.

Timothy Dugdale writes about arts and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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