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 began reading Edward Snowden’s autobiography, and am finding it quite fascinating. His life straddles the line between the pre-computer times (at least for most of society) and the present times when nearly every family has at least one computer, several cell phones, multiple tablets, and a host of other internet-connected devices. This is what Edward Snowden wrote as he looked back at his childhood:
“Here’s what strikes me when I think back to my childhood, particularly those first nine Internet-less years: I can’t account for everything that happened back then, because I have only my memory to rely on. The data just doesn’t exist. When I was a child, “the unforgettable experience” was not yet a threateningly literal technological description, but a passionate metaphorical prescription of significance: my first words, my first steps, my first lost tooth, my first time riding a bicycle.
“My generation was the last in American and perhaps even in world history for which this is true – the last undigitized generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably. My schoolwork was done on paper with pencils and erasers, not on networked tablets that logged my keystrokes. My growth spurts weren’t tracked by smart-home technologies, but notched with a knife into the wood of the door frame of the house in which I grew up.” (page 14)