Feeling A Little Paranoid? You Should

  Saw an interesting tv commercial the other day, an ad about getting a big break on auto insurance by installing a little electronic device in our cars.  A little plastic dealie that monitors the way we drive and reports back to the insurance company.   No big thing, just a small device that snaps onto your car’s data port.  Apparently all cars made since 1996 have them.  Data ports, that is.

First I saw an ad from an insurance company, and then a similar ad from the Auto Club, offering free tracking devices for club members who want to keep an eye on their teenage drivers.   They call it “AAA OnBoard.”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Not because I’m unaware that such devices exist.  I’ve already had an experience with being “tracked” while on the job.

Some years ago a couple of managers at a tv station I worked for decided it would be a nifty idea to put tracking devices in all the station’s tv trucks.  Ostensibly, it was a great anti-theft device, although they could have just installed LoJack, if that’s what they wanted.   This went further, giving managers the ability to know exactly where everybody was.   At all times.  Minute by minute.  A couple of the station’s top managers got some free electronic gear installed in their personal cars as part of the deal, but that’s another story.  I think it’s what’s commonly called a “sweetener.”

So there we were, alleged professionals being constantly surveilled.   It wasn’t enough that the trucks were already equipped with two-way radios and that we all carried cell phones and pagers (our “electronic leash”), no, they had to “take it to the next level” as they loved to say.

I recall one incident with an assignment editor screaming at us over the two-way radio because we had pulled off the freeway en route to a story.  Apparently she thought it might have been an unnecessary use of the company’s time, or that we might be trying to get away with something.  “What’s going on?  Why did you stop?”  she asked.  Like  children being watched by their nanny, we were forced to report back that a member of the crew needed to go tinkle.   It happened repeatedly.   Trust me on this, being surveilled sucks.  It imposes an assumption of guilt and gives you the feeling of having a boot on your neck.  Nevertheless, with the explosive growth of wireless communication, it’s increasingly being accepted it as the norm.

That’s what struck me when the commercial for the insurance company appeared on my interactive flat-screen tv.  A television set with the ability to report back on my likes and dislikes, if I decide to push the button that activates its interactive features.  But my thinking is getting scattered.  There are so many instances of our privacy being pilfered that it’s difficult to stay on track.  I was writing about auto insurance.  Here’s the point.  The fact that an insurance company or the auto club would offer such a service as these tracking devices is an indicator of our growing acceptance of being monitored.  Watched.  Somebody keeping track of our behavior.  It’s becoming the norm because we’re all getting used to it.  We’re being programmed.  Don’t think so?

Got a cell phone with GPS enabled?   Chances are somebody knows where you are.   And they can get your address on the Internet and zoom in on a satellite image of your house or apartment with “Google Earth.”

But I was writing about insurance.

Do you really imagine the insurance companies won’t profile every driver that uses this new device to lower their risk and improve their profitability?   But how bad can that be?   Don’t good drivers deserve a break?  Well, sure, but isn’t that like saying it’s okay to surgically implant a tiny chip in our bodies so that someone can send help if we’re lost in the woods or kidnapped?  It’s all about keeping us safe or giving us a better deal, right?  What’s so bad about that?

There are now cameras almost everywhere we go.  At the store.  On the highway.   In the workplace.  Someone is watching.   The places we can go without being monitored are growing fewer by the minute.   This may be good for the sale of anti-anxiety drugs but it’s gotta be bad for human beings.

Steve Lopez writes in the Los Angeles Times, that management at a hotel in Anaheim has taken things to the next level by monitoring their workers efficiency in real time.   Lopez writes that the hotel has placed monitors in the laundry room, tracking who is getting the most done, apparently encouraging their employees to compete with one another.  One employee, Lopez reports, calls it an “electronic whip.”

And now an insurance company wants to install a little device in your car that will put you into direct competition with other drivers?   Oh well, it’s all in our own best interest, right?   Or will our growing acceptance lead to submission?   Submitting to being constantly monitored by government and private business, who will then have all the metrics necessary to dictate the common good?

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