Ashley Judd, the 47 percent and the death of context

Ashley? I prefer Rhett! (Please I swear the piece is better than this caption.) (Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Ashley? I prefer Rhett! (Please, I swear the piece is better than this caption.) (Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Five years from now, the Sneaky Taping of a Closed-Doors Meeting scandal will go something like this.

Person A: How dare all six of you share your Google Glass footage of the oppo research meeting with different media outlets? 

Person B: Why didn’t you?

Behind-the-scenes is a fading concept. First it was the Romney fundraiser. Whoops, 47%. Then there’s the Mitch McConnell oppo research meeting. Whoops, fuzzy pink socks and talk of using Ashley Judd’s history of mental illness against her if she ran. And the number of things that you can easily record, leak, and share is not going down any time soon.

The effect of all this recording is to strip away — not context, necessarily. Now it’s not just the ill-conceived line taken alone. You can see the whole tape. But it does have the effect of making pretty much every crowd identical to pretty much every other crowd. After all, the same people are listening every time.

Before, what you said to the Teamsters and what you said to the People Gathered To Nurse Grudges Against Teamsters could be different. It made sense. Different rooms make different demands. A foolish consistency, as Emerson said, was the hobgoblin of small minds. But the price we pay for the technology that allows anyone to be in any room with us is that now every room is the same room. Don’t want your grandma to hear that? Then don’t say it, ever. That kind of context is the casualty.

And we don’t even have Google Glass yet. 

Our ability to unobtrusively record our everyday lives and store the footage without cumbersome Spy Pens or dubious flowerpot-planted devices will only increase as time passes. By the time Google Glass (full disclosure: due to some freakish stroke of luck I seem to be on the list of testers) and similar wearable technology become widespread, it will be intensely difficult to avoid being recorded. The only way to protect your privacy is to amass a stockpile of blackmail. Want to keep that tape from being leaked? Schedule a photoshoot with you, everyone else in the meeting, and a very unfortunate goat.

I am only slightly kidding.

Privacy, as I keep saying, is just an uncomfortable reminder that you’re not a celebrity. And  at the rate we’re trading it away to gain access to Cool New Tech Things That Give You Discounts For Sharing Where You Are And Fun Filters You Can Use If You Give Us All Your Pictures To Hold, plus The Illusion of Connection To Everyone You’ve Ever Met, we shouldn’t expect to have any left. And it’s a non-renewable resource, like Olsen Twins and Non-Ringo Beatles. Once gone, it’s gone indeed. And you don’t even have to make that decision yourself. It’s enough that the person standing next to you did.

Recording people without their consent is as easy as falling off a log; in fact, easier, since most of us do not carry logs in our pockets at all times. It used to be that you had to wear a wire or bizarre shoes or some sort of Q-devised recorder. Now, you just whip out your phone. Zero derring-do required.

Mother Jones has stated that they didn’t plant the recording device in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky office, making the involvement of the FBI and allegations of “Nixonian” wiretapping sound a little inflated. But it’s only natural to want to stop this, somehow. Yes, it can get ugly and House of Cards-y in the back rooms. But is that no longer to be permitted? Can’t you just be alone in a room with anyone, any longer? And will this actually make us more civil, and kinder — or less?

These days we are answerable not to the people in the room with us but to the people in the other invisible living room — our followers on Twitter, our friends across the continent who still get to see our vacation pictures, and our constituents or fans and the media echo box, if we’re someone operating in the public eye. No wonder nothing gets done.

In politics there’s a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of civility. Depending on whom you ask, the past was an era of dubious, sexist backroom dealings in smoky rooms. Or possibly people used to be able to sit down and talk pleasantly with one another, listen, and Get Things Done. Which was true? And which is which? These days we have an aversion to smoky rooms. Then again, if you put cameras in a room where people are talking pleasantly with one another and getting things done, they’ll stop pretty quickly.

Possibly the knowledge that Someone Is Watching Or Could Be At Any Given Moment will lead to a new era of civility, where behind the scenes everyone speaks politely, even of potential opponents, in complete, quotable sentences, and everyone is much nicer all the time. Possibly we will just wander around in abject terror, murmuring polite nothings, glancing suspiciously at our children and their headglasses. Or possibly it will make everything worse. How dare you talk civilly to him! Everyone who follows you on Twitter thinks he’s eight steps to the left of the mealworm on the evolutionary scale. And they never aren’t listening.

Conscience, Jiminy Cricket said, is what you do when nobody’s watching.

Soon enough, everybody’s going to be watching. What will we do then?

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