Terabytes-worth of commentary have been written on the NSA surveillance scandal, all of which now eternally reside on a hard disk silently spinning in a nuke-proof supercooled datacenter Utah. But few writers have captured the unsettling sense of alienation that characterizes the modern surveillance state better than American Pie star Jason Biggs.
Biggs has been flying so low under the radar lately the only people who know what he's been up to are probably the NSA analysts sorting through his metadata. Now he surfaces with a surprisingly maudlin personal essay for fashion magazine Bullett about his post-American Pie quasi-fame. It's no "The Crack-Up." But Biggs' description of the dread he feels when walking around in public is a spot-on encapsulation of the problem with the kind of pervasive surveillance exposed by Ed Snowden.
Naturally, places with larger crowds will provide the most opportunities for recognition, and therefore are the most anxiety-inducing. But even in places where there are fewer people, recognition is always a possibility. It is this potential for being recognized that is often more stressful than actually being recognized. It’s like smuggling a joint on an airplane, or sneaking your toy poodle into a grocery store, or driving without proper vehicle registration: you are very much aware of it, even if others aren’t, and there’s that voice in your head telling you you’re gonna get caught. I know when people do double-takes walking by me on a city street, or when people are whispering about me at a nearby table at a restaurant. I can even tell, based on a quick locking of eyes, if they have clocked who I am or not. At any moment your movements may be watched and analyzed. This is a constant. And despite having had a few years to adjust, it is a very weird and trippy feeling. I imagine it’s something I will never truly get used to. Simply put, it’s an unnatural thing. It’s not normal, by any definition of the word.
Biggs pretty well captures the unique horror of the modern surveillance state, which is characterized less by crude Orwellian social control than a quiet, Kafkaesque alienation. What we do or don't do is beside the point: It's that everything we do is so heavily monitored and catalogued that there's enough data there so that even the most innocuous of details can be used against us when we least expect it. Biggs feels like he's "smuggling a joint on a plane" even if he's just walking around the mall.
Law professor Jack Balkin stresses a similar point about the surveillance state in his paper The Constitution in the National Surveillance State:
Government's most important technique of control is no longer watching or threatening to watch. It is analyzing and drawing connections between data. Much public and private surveillance occurs without any knowledge that one is watched. More to the point, data mining technologies allow the state and business enterprises to record perfectly innocent behavior that no one is particularly ashamed of and draw surprisingly powerful inferences about people's behavior, beliefs, and attitudes.
We are all Jason Biggs now: d-list celebrities in the NSA's paparazzi glare.