When I was a young reporter I remember writing about issues that I knew would cause outrage: developers outlining their plan to chop down 100 heritage oak trees to make way for a luxury housing development. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory occasionally leaking miniscule amounts of plutonium into the groundwater. The mayor of Pleasanton, Calif. meeting privately (and illegally) with developers.
I could go on. But the outrage I was anticipating? There wasn’t much. Most people knew about the Livermore groundwater already, and oddly, weren’t that concerned. The growth and development issues? A few gadflies showed up at City Hall meetings. That was it.
I was shocked. I naïvely believed that if you let people know what was going on, they would jump up and down in outrage.
They didn’t: projects sailed through; life went on; the mayor enjoyed political success.
That is, until the day the tractors showed up on the land and started slicing into hillsides. Until the day people heard chainsaws firing up and smelled burning wood.
Then they got angry. Then they protested.
That’s how I learned that people don’t respond en masse to theoreticals. They don’t react until they can see the damage. It’s human nature.
Every time a huge privacy story breaks—such as the fact that the government has been collecting our phone records—I think about this.
I’m not saying I knew that this was happening. But I wasn’t surprised either.
I had assumed that people knew that anything they wrote or did on the computer was being collected by someone, and probably the government (e.g., Big Brother). But then, I’m a skeptic. I’ve known for years about the information that governments collect about us.
I used to work for a private investigator (and sometimes still do); I’ve known for years that there are treasure troves of information about our lives contained in public records. In the old days, I would have to head out to dusty old offices to find that information, and few other people knew it existed. These days, all you have to do is do a thorough Google search and there you are.
So whenever a story like this comes out in national news, I think it’s good. I hope it will wake people up. Maybe they will do something.
But then I remember the apathy of human nature. I’ve been talking to a lot of friends about this issue. It’s certainly not a scientific poll, but most of them really don’t care. And to be honest, most of the time I don’t really care.
Because that’s the way it works. We really don't care about Big Issues until we see them in action—until we see the damage. We know it's happening. But we're not exactly motivated to run down to City Hall or anywhere else and protest. We probably even think it's OK because heck, I'm not doing anything wrong, and the government is simply protecting us.
Until one day, someone climbs into our emails and posts something about our own lives online that we don’t really want to share with the whole world. After all, everyone knows that the Nazis were obsessive about keeping records. And no—I’m not likening any administration to the Nazis. I’m just saying that information is powerful. Very powerful.
Then we care.
Ask anyone who has been arrested or who has been in the public eye. Things that we never thought would be public suddenly become an object of interest. Facebook pages are scrutinized by hundreds, thousands, more. Twitter accounts combed. Text messages used as evidence.
But from the sidelines we think, that person probably deserved it. That other person was arrested. It wasn’t me.
So maybe there will be outrage about this whole collecting information business for awhile. And maybe there won’t be.
Right now, despite a lot of things most of us essentially trust our government. Even those who hate this administration basically believe in democracy.
But I’m also mindful that governments can change very quickly.
Will this be the tipping point? When people actually start to care?
Maybe it will tip things a little. After all, when people saw the dump trucks and backhoes digging in the city of Pleasanton, things did change... at least for a while.
Janet Kornblum is proud to be a hack. If you want to reach her, Google her. It’s all there.
Photo by Roberto Verzo/Flickr