Over two years ago I wrote on my previous institution's 'inside security' blog the post I've reproduced below. It was inspired by the row that rocked celebrity big brother at the time, with the late Jade Goody at the heart of it. It reflects my then (and current) perception of the 'celebrity' culture and the damage is causing to our rights to privacy - arguing that besides the big brother state, is us too that are responsible for it.
However, Goody's decision to take this publicity to the end had a massive effect in raising awareness of cervical cancer, and regardless of any exploitation by media etc., that in itself is of great value for our society and will helpfully contribute to many early diagnoses and positive treatment. My Greek ancestors were nearly obsessed with their posthumous reputation (υστεροφημία), aspiring to lead a life and manage achievements for which they'll be remembered and celebrated by those who survived them and the many generations after them. I don't know about Jade's past, but in my opinion her last act has secured her just that... Rest in peace.
The 'feel Goody' effect: The real death of privacy is inside us
January 30th, 2007
Now that the BB furore has calmed down, there's a thing or two that came to my mind in retrospect. You'd say though, hardly are the societal effects of reality TV and d-list ‘celebrity' media exposure an issue of information security and privacy. Or maybe not?
Let me explain myself. I bet, if you live on this island, you know who Jade is. I know too. On the top of my head I can remember that she was in big brother, a series of other, otherwise successful, low-end TV productions, exercise DVDs, magazine covers, you name it. I also know that she is not married, has one or two kids, a boyfriend that is younger than her and that her mother has had recently a glamorous makeover. Oh, and of course, she was in the centre of the racial controversy in celebrity big brother.
Blimey! How did I end up knowing that much about her? You see, the thing is, as Clark Gable puts it, ‘Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!', for reality TV - and especially for Jade. But unless you live in an area that is poorly serviced by satellite or cable TV signal (and even then...), you must have seen her somewhere on that telly. She's right there, in your face, whether you want to know about her or not.
I understand the public's thirst (including myself in there) for insider knowledge of public figures' lives. The Queen, Tony, the Archbishop, my wife's all favourite Colin Firth, Jonathan Ross, Stephen Hawking etc. etc. Yes, we do like to know about the private moments of the people that rule us, bless us, drag us to war, make us laugh, make us wiser. Many are the reasons; if not for any other reason, it is for that selfish instinct, that feeling that, they too are mortal and as a consequence, we too have a chance to have an impact in life as human beings. Sociologists would argue many other reasons but I'm not one. I'm satisfied with just this one.
But this, and any other reason related to the necessity of public scrutiny of important figures' lives, cannot really explain why the media, and in consequence the public, are obsessed with the literally (extra-)ordinary lives of people like Jade. The ‘common' people from Nasty Nick, to the Badger, to Teddy Seringham's girlfriend. Hardly can those people affect us, as a mass, as the public in a collective manner. But more than they themselves do, I think that it is us who need their fifteen minutes of that glorious, temporary fame of the ordinary.
For good or for bad, judging the Queen or Tony, even for aspects of their personal lives, you inevitably become political. There's a political dimension throughout their lives as they are figures we relate to in this respect. Everything they do, including their vacation abroad, may become a political issue - such as the volume of the emissions from the PM's holiday plane in an age of global warming. But what is there in concern for someone like Jade? Following their private lives is different, from their anonymity, to the brief celebration of their commonality, to their inevitable downfall, we experience emotions by proxy - participating in their success, but primarily savouring their bitter failure from the comfort of our IKEA sofa. This kind of ‘celebrities' exists merely to the satisfaction of a judgemental, cannibalistic instinct - like the one satisfied by the morituti of the roman coliseum, in, the otherwise civilised, Rome.
I bet I have managed to get you confused by now. In the beginning of this post, I tried to make it as if information security and privacy were involved in all of this. Well, they do. There's a disastrous effect of this repeated, habitual violation of the privacy of the ordinary man. The ‘feel Goody' effect, stemming from the need of satisfaction of that savage instinct of experiencing one's self-destruction by proxy, is that we accept de facto the violation of the privacy of ordinary life, such as Jade's. And in doing this, we accept the violation of our own's. So much for the concerns of civil libertarians for the fearful technology and Orwell's big brother society - it's all going out of the window the moment we switch our telly on to watch BB.
At the end of the day it's neither the cameras nor the ID cards alone that signify the end of privacy; the true causes may as well be found and deep inside the human soul.