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Friday, April 20, 2018

Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Naked Society, by journalist and author Vance Packard. This 1964 classic was certainly far ahead of its time, discussing the dangers of new technology infringing upon our right to privacy. While worrisome then — with new developments in surveillance methods during the 1960s — it is far more salient today. The excerpt below is from the new introduction to The Naked Society by historian and journalist Rick Perlstein. As Perlstein points out, Packard was justified in his concern about the privacy rights of Americans and government overreach. Unfortunately, we now accept these invasions of privacy as normal, instead of defending our civil liberties against intrusive businesses, educational institutions, and government. 

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There is nothing worse than dated social criticism. So when the good folks at Ig Publishing invited me to write this introduction, my initial reaction was skepticism. What could a jeremiad about the epidemic of Americans spying on one another, published in 1964—thirty years before the invention of the Internet, thirty-seven years before 9/11, written in an age when the gravest insults to civil liberties consisted of congressional committees asking “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party”—have to say to us now?

I picked up an ancient paperback copy of The Naked Society (“The explosive facts behind the hidden campaign to deprive Americans of their rights to privacy. Here’s how snoop devices are being employed by Big Government, Big Business, and Big Education in their sneak attack on YOU”). I began reading. I was in New York City—Penn Station, to be exact. I read Packard’s framing questions: “Are there loose in our modern world forces that threaten to annihilate everybody’s privacy? And if such forces are indeed loose, are they establishing the preconditions of totalitarianism that could endanger the personal freedom of modern man?” As I read this, I happened to notice a TV screen. Horrifying, apocalyptic images of buildings collapsing and shadowy terrorists alternated with messages like, “If you see anything suspicious, report it to an Amtrak employee.” And, “It’s nothing, you think. Can you be sure?” After all: “It doesn’t hurt to be alert.”

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I began reading with renewed, then steadily mounting, interest, my mind buzzing as the parallels between then and now presented themselves. Packard wrote, “The New York Police [have] about 200 plain-clothes men working virtually full time at wiretapping.” That was then. This is now: The New York Police spend $1 billion on an intelligence unit, led by an active-duty Central Intelligence Agency Official, to infiltrate the Muslim community and spy on mosques. (The NYPD admits the program has never produced a single terrorism lead.) Then: Packard quotes Sam Dash—who before becoming a household name as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate committee, was a leading civil liberties expert—that a “district attorney, in office, catches an occupational disease. He resents impediments in his way that prevent him from collecting evidence to convict criminals.” Now: Computer wizard Aaron Swartz earns an FBI investigation for the legal act of downloading federal court files; then, after harmlessly downloading too many scholarly articles from MIT’s computer system, he is indicted by the office of United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz for charges that could have brought him thirty-five years in prison. Experts say he should have earned a slap on the wrist, if that, but prosecutors hound him so mercilessly he commits suicide.

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