Weekend Reader: ‘The Naked Society’

Weekend Reader: ‘The Naked Society’

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. 

You can purchase the book here

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.

Then: Welfare inspectors in Kern and Alameda Counties, California, stage late-night raids on 500 houses to investigate whether there is a man living in the household so they can cut off relief. Now: Bills in states including Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, West Virginia, Florida, and Wyoming propose drug tests for welfare recipients (Republicans in Congress have introduced bills to submit recipients of both welfare and unemployment insurance to drug tests), and state legislators in Tennessee consider a law to kick families off welfare if their kids get bad grades.

Then: “In cities where wiretapping was known to exist there was generally a sense of insecurity among professional people and people engaged in political life. Prominent persons were constantly afraid to use their telephones despite the fact that they were not engaged in any wrongdoing.” Now: The Justice Department secretly obtains two months of telephone records of at least twenty Associated Press reporters and editors, including for home phones and cell phones; as of this writing, the government will not say why it sought the records, or how, nor whether a grand jury was involved. They only would say that U.S. attorneys follow “all applicable laws, federal laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations,” and that “we do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations.” Journalists have been both victims and perpetrators of such spying: just days before the AP story broke had come news that employees of Bloomberg News were availing themselves of a “Snoop” function that let them tap into the accounts of subscribers to the company’s financial information network.

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Then: Packard writes of his horror that “cabled TV” will allow the “possibility of getting ‘an instantaneous readout’ home by home of what millions of people are [watching] in the entire country in about fifty seconds.” Now: Regarding the cables that connect our computers to networks of servers around the world, there have been too many horror stories to count, and more on that below. Then, “In some instances undercover men have been sent into plants to report on workers’ attitudes toward the union that is recognized or is seeking union recognition, and to report on union strategy”; in one case a detective insinuated himself so effectively into a textile plant the rank and file voted him onto the employee bargaining community. Now—well, too many horror stories to count on the labor front, too, but a great place to start is Human Rights Watch’s 215-page report “Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of U.S. Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association” on how the world’s largest corporation and its owners “violate their employees’ basic rights with virtual impunity.”

By now you get the point. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a book that should be read, and carefully. This runaway bestseller in its own time indicts us—not just because the privacy crisis that began taking shape in Packard’s own time has grown so much worse, but because nobody any longer writes bestsellers about it. Re-reading The Naked Society can help us understand why.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here

Introduction by Rick Perlstein to The Naked Society by Vance Packard. Used by permission of the author and Ig Publishing.

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