Esther’s Space- journey through my life

January 23, 2008

Is technology-induced paranoia dead?

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 1:28 am

Well, I feel like Kathleen Fitzpatrick is wearing a big ol’ “I’m with stupid” tee-shirt, and the arrow is pointing right at me.  Her article, at least the parts about Pynchon, was what I was trying to say in that blog.  It seemed original at the time.

Since I haven’t formally engaged with the Fitzpatrick article, “Network,” here’s my chance.  The idea of paranoia is particularly striking for me.  Fitzpatrick does not see paranoia as a potentially dangerous, destructive illness, as it is in, say, Fight Club, but instead, it is simply a fact of the anxieties we have of networks.  She writes:

Given the dominance and the pervasiveness of the network, paranoia becomes less a pathology than a reading strategy, a sense-making worldview, as the individual participant becomes a mere node on a system infinitely larger than himself that may allow for centralized, nefarious control of the individual, or may just as easily be radically decentralized and beyond control. (Fitzpatrick “Network” 153)

Paranoia is powerful.  My father will hang up on me if he thinks I’ve said anything over the telephone that would be of interest to any Authorities. (yes, with a capital A, if you’ve ever met him, you’d understand, and probably roll your eyes, too)  And, apparently, the paranoia of lacking privacy is an issue that have concerned citizens, even before the Homeland Security bill, judging by the 1995 article in Wired magazine concerning the power of employers to monitor their employees in the workplace through use of surveillance devices, or the website chronicling one individual’s quest to discover the possibility of someone tapping into the average person’s home telephone line.

The power of paranoia, teamed with the ability of mass-media to appeal to vast numbers of people on very individual levels (see Fitzpatrick 188-191), makes a compelling argument for the power of a network such as the television.

Does Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 exemplifies this paranoid terror of the power of such networks?  On page one, as Fitzpatrick points out, the television is sporting a dead green eye with which it is watching her.  But the other instance of a television interaction is with Metzger, and they’re watching a movie that he starred in, which one would assume destroys the possibility of the film becoming a spiraling vortex of decentralized information or, on the other hand, a tool through which Oedipa can be controlled.

For Oedipa, the network that has made her most paranoid is the Tristero mail system.  It has her searching for the complex, yet inherent order that she hopes it is compromised of,  and it also has her fearing that it is simply a mess of fragmented pieces that Pierce Inverarity has thrown together as yet another way of controlling her.  Very network.  All we’re missing is the wires, the thing that really makes things network-y in ENG 576.  Again, the mail fails.

Admittedly, Oedipa’s experiences with 3 a.m. telephone calls presents some support for the idea of such a network to be a vortex of disorder, and thereby lacking in a center or a controlling force.  However, while her once silent telephone did ring, the person on the other end was not a random individual who had, out of all of the numbers in the world, dialed Oedipa.  Yes, the power of paranoia is not in the probability of  something happening, but in the possibility.

The paranoia of the possibility of invasion of privacy seems to be, to me, not too far-fetched for 1965, when it was written.  The United States had already begun a dramatic shift of cultural and social importance.  The nation began sending troops into Vietnam, the civil rights movement is in full swing, antagonized by Malcolm X’s death and Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest, the first commercial communications satellite is launched, we walked on the moon, for goodness sake- if we can do that we can do anything, right? (source: infoplease.com)

But, this is not 1965.  We have even better, more invasive technology.  But we are less afraid, in my opinion.  According to a Federal Trade Commission study, there were 542,656 identity theft and fraud complaints in the United States in 2003 (p 5).  In 2004, the number jumped to roughly 653,000 complaints, and in 2005, the number was 686,683 complaints, with the vast majority of these complaints coming from individuals under the age of 60 (p 10).  The possibility of identity theft is well-known, very real, and no simple thing to contend with.  Yet, the numbers keep going up, why is that?

I’d like to put forth the idea that we’re not so paranoid today.   Perhaps we have accepted our positions as “a mere node on a system infinitely larger than himself” (Fitzpatrick “Network” 153).  Perhaps the transferring of private information over invisible lines of communication has become so commonplace to us that we don’t even worry about the negative possibilities of what could happen, especially when things like online banking and bill-paying are so darn convenient.  But really, shouldn’t we have a little more hysteria over the dangers of passing private information over the internet?  Is it being suppressed, or is there a mass-media outlet sending out the advertisements that will soothe each of our unrests?  Great, now I’m starting to sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

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