September 30, 2010 - 4:00 am
“Once upon a time, we were taught to avert our eyes, not to electronically enhance them,” notes Hal Niedzviecki, author of “The Peep Diaries.” He reminds us of the dismal fate that met poor Tom the tailor, the world’s original Peeping Tom. When Tom bore a whole in his shutters so that he might catch a glimpse of the naked Lady Godiva riding her horse through town, he was immediately struck blind, or dead, so the story goes.
For centuries, folks have been sharing Tom’s cautionary tale, taking heed of the perils of peeking. But now, at the height of pop culture, in the wake of technological advancements, and in the clutches of capitalism, we’ve become a society of Peeping Toms: voyeurs, sharers and even oversharers — encouraged to snoop, spy and expose ourselves, by the powers at large.
“When a thousand-year prohibition is readily cast aside, it’s probably a good idea to wonder how that happened and what it means for our society,” says Niedzviecki, and that’s exactly what he does within his nonfiction book. “The Peep Diaries” is an intelligent, pragmatic and well-rounded study of today’s Peep culture.
What is Peep? It’s a term Niedzviecki’s coined to encompass reality TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google, blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn sites, citizen surveillance and numerous other technological tools and trends designed to keep us connected.
Unlike other books on the subject, “The Peep Diaries” takes, not so much an alarmist’s stance, as one of genuine curiosity. Niedzviecki considers our wired world from a sociologist’s perspective, tracking human behavior, and gossip trends, from the days of tailor Tom to this evening’s broadcast, where the latest celebrity scandal qualifies as legitimate news. (Today, it was more on Mel Gibson.) He interviews reality TV personalities and amateur porn stars to understand the psychology of “oversharing.” He chronicles his experiments with Facebook, blogging, nanny cams, and GPS trackers. When he throws a real life party for his virtual friends, to have only one guest show, he’s forced to consider the essence of virtual relationships. An impartial author, Niedzviecki investigates and reports on both the benefits and the hazards of living life on record, citing convenience and the sense of security as pros, but the sacrifice of privacy as a rather weighty con.
To fully appreciate his eye-opening, jaw-dropping, mind-boggling chapter on privacy you’ll need to read the book. But, basically: “The homeless woman living in a bag in the park across from the White House has more privacy than your average homeowner.”
Niedzviecki’s investigation details the process whereby data collection companies monitor us, via insurance and loan records, credit card activity, reward programs, feedback forms, Google searches, Facebook, and even TiVo, to create detailed profiles which they then sell (for as little as $39.95) to anyone with the cash and inclination to buy. The mind-boggling part: We don’t care! We’re happy to forfeit our privacy in exchange for convenience, a sense of security, a feeling of connectedness, cash and a shot at 15 minutes of fame.
The problem, as Niedzviecki sees it, is that, for all the seeing we’re doing, we refuse to see the big picture. “Peep is so interwoven with other social and cultural forces that it’s possible to argue that even the smartest of us don’t really know what we’re doing and why.”
He may be right. All I know is that it’s time to post my review on Goodreads, order three more books from Amazon and update my Facebook status: “You all need to read ‘The Peep Diaries.’ ”