If you’re like me, you assume that back in the “good old days”, people had much more privacy than we have now. Life was simpler before the technology boom of the 1980s, so there must have been more privacy. Then came the internet, RFID technology, computers, cell phones, smart meters, self-driving cars, and computerized appliances. Now most people are concerned- at least to some degree – about the diminishing amount of privacy in our society and in the world.
But back in the early to mid 1900s, there was actually a surprising amount of surveillance and gathering of personal information. Where was this coming from? According to author Vance Packard, the surveillance came from three directions: government agencies, businesses, and schools.
In the 1930s, polygraph machines (lie detectors) had become very popular. They were used by just about everyone, from prospective employers to life insurance agents to police departments. This greatly accelerated the loss of privacy for the typical American in the 1930s, 40s, and beyond.
Psychological surveys were also very popular. Several years before this book was published, Vance Packard tested the extent of surveys (the Form) by pretending to apply for a managerial position. Here is an excerpt from chapter 3 “How To Strip A Job-Seeker Naked”:
I was requested to supply the following quite personal facts about myself (along with many more):
– What I think of my mother and father.
– Whether I find my children upsetting.
– How often I am bothered by either constipation or loose bowel movements.
– The degree to which I am disturbed by marital troubles at home.
– How much I am disturbed by loneliness, feelings of guilt, frightening dreams.
– How close I am to a nervous breakdown.
– Whether I consider myself ugly.
– How much I am troubled by itching.
– How far my wife, father, and mother got in school.
– Whether I am at all worried about my health.
And here are some of the sentences I was instructed to complete:
“One of the things wrong with me…”
“My greatest fear is…”
“My greatest worry…”
Business critic Alan Harrington sees these test forms so widely used as a new type of confessional. “Instead of confessing to God through a priest or confessing to one’s self through a psychologist, the Corporate Man confesses to the Form,” he stated. “He acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses as they have been defined by others.”
A great deal of confessing is taking place. Most of the nations’s major corporations as well as hundreds of smaller ones will employ only applicants who have been psychoscreened. Virtually every aspiring manager under the age of thirty already has gone through at least one testing of his personality at some stage during the past decade.
(excerpt from chapter 3: How To Strip A Job-Seeker Naked)
As I read this, I was astonished by two things:
1 – The nerve of businesses, government officials, and school administration in asking what most of us would consider to be deeply personal questions. Most of us, if asked the kind of questions in the excerpt above, would likely say, “It’s none of your business!”
2 – The way people just went ahead and cooperated. They willingly gave out personal information about themselves, much of it obviously irrelevant to what the tester actually needed to know. Why, oh why would they do that?
(To be continued)