I can’t even remember why, but I recently saw a trailer for the movie Memento. It stars Guy Pierce (his breakout role, if memory serves), and is about a man who is unable to form short-term memories, so he has a system of body tattoos, Polaroid pictures (real ones, not Instragram effects), and notes. At the time, it was a brilliant, suspenseful movie as the story continuously changes as Pierce’s character learns more.
But today, you couldn’t make that movie. With an iPhone, which can record video and audio, take pictures, and act as a note pad, it just wouldn’t be that hard to figure out what has happened. Which brings me to this post by Matt Stoller about the security state (worth a read) in which he makes this excellent observation (boldface mine):
When I think about surveillance in American culture, I usually start with a literary metaphor, the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. This is a story about Jay Gatsby, a man who grew up poor, made a fortune as a bootlegger, and then built up a myth about how he came from a wealthy family so as to attract the love of his life. It’s a story about identity, and reinvention, the mystery of who we really are.
If F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby today, it would be a very different book. Well, it wouldn’t be a book at all. It would be a one-page story about a guy who made up a bunch of lies about himself, and then someone ran a credit check.
To me, that’s what it means to live in a surveillance society. Basic parts of the American story, such as the right to be forgotten, to reinvent yourself — these disappeared over the last sixty years, without a genuinely open debate, as institutions justified by the Cold War became institutions justified by the War on Terror.
Stoller is correct: the ability to start over financially and personally is quintessentially American (one could argue the entire state of California was built by those who lived this premise), and we are losing that. Unlike Memento, sometimes ‘forgetting the Alamo’, to use John Salyes’s phrase, is a very good thing.