VOYEURISM ISN'T NEARLY as perverted as it used to be. In the 1950s, it meant a sweaty, obsessive Jimmy Stewart peering at his neighbor with a pair of high-powered binoculars. Today, in the digital age, voyeurism has become a comfortably familiar staple of American mass culture. The media engorges us with the intimate details of even the most tenuously famous personalities. Scantily-clad college coeds set up Web cams in their apartments and voyeurs across the country pay through the nose to watch them clean the bathroom and water the plants. Fox TV smothers its programming schedule with a glut of reality/snuff programming which utilizes security surveillance equipment to entertain us with footage of harried employees being "busted" on the job. Wireless phones invade the formerly quiet arena of public spaces such as movie theaters and restaurants, forcing those around to eavesdrop on even the most intimate conversations. But all of this access comes at a price, because as our communication technologies become increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous, our personal privacy is attendantly undermined and exploited in ways unimaginable in the pre-wired era of 50 years ago.
For those who would rather not believe that their private, intimate interactions are not only extremely vulnerable to eavesdropping outsiders, but are also being actively exploited for the pleasure of others, the new book I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism, should be avoided at all costs. This literary curiosity primarily consists of a transcripted series of pirated cellular and cordless phone conversations, gathered by a renegade radio junkie and techno DJ with the mysterious moniker "Spacewurm." As a document of high-tech aural peeping, the book stands as a depressing, disturbing, and often bitterly funny ode to privacy and intimacy in the digital age, where ravenous consumer desire for faster and more convenient personal communication gadgets has helped blur the line between the public and the private. It also restores the queasy sense of perverted violation that has been missing from voyeurism since we became a nation of nonchalant, armchair Peeping Toms.
Using a more sophisticated version of the kind of radio scanner available to anyone who can locate a Radio Shack outlet, The Spacewurm has, for the past 5 years, intercepted and recorded the private conversations of unsuspecting cell phone users, then incorporated snippets of these dialogues into live musical performances and techno recordings (and now a book), transforming intimate lives into ambient white noise for all-night rave parties. What makes his work so disturbing is not only how effortlessly he manages to insinuate himself into people's private lives, ("If you're smart enough to operate an AM radio, you're halfway there," he boasts. "The other part is the harder part, being able to justify what you're doing"), but that it seems to supply him with so much unabashed pleasure ("You have no idea how addictive it is until you start doing it. How can you resist? It's so sick!").
Obscuring his true identity in order to avoid legal action, the "author" proudly flaunts what he refers to as his "punk rock spirit" by spitting in the face of propriety and indulging in a highly illegal activity which exploits average citizens, then repackages and sells it back to jaded consumers looking for new kicks. The voyeuristic catharsis provided by peering into the hidden lives of others, of finding concrete evidence that others are worse off than you are, is provided in abundance by the wealth of real-life twisted lives splayed open for readers' enjoyment in I Listen.
This Peeping Tom's view of America, cued from a bandwidth overflowing with broken relationships, spiteful spouses, lonesome losers, brain-dead drug dealers, and joyless sex addicts, feels like a greasy Charles Bukwoski novel sprung to life. While the more extreme captured conversations, such as the increasingly creepy exchange between a lonely married woman and the "swinging" couple she has located in the back pages of an adult magazine, are sure to satisfy the prurient interests of any garden-variety voyeur, it is the often frighteningly mundane discussions that most effectively forge the impression of a society that is, in the words of David Lynch, "wild at heart and weird on top." A young woman who coldly berates her lover with calculated callousness, then calls back moments later to make nice, only to repeat the cycle several times in one night. The couple who bicker endlessly about a car payment, eventually agreeing that their so-called perfect relationship is just an economic agreement. The pair of off-duty police officers who cruelly mock the citizens who request their help. The mentally disabled boy and his harried mother, who must provide a minute-by-minute account of her progress home from work in order to calm her increasingly agitated son. These seemingly normal conversations, when compressed into a single mass, begin to choke on the dank air of suffocating ordinariness, and reveal the intangible tint of darkness which hovers over everyday life. They also cut to the heart of voyeurism's simple, guilt-inducing allure: it's fun to watch but not to be watched, and empowering to recognize oneself in the poor slobs being spied upon while maintaining the illusion of a superior distance.
At its best, I Listen functions as a pop sociology experiment dressed up in hipster techno duds -- a litmus test for the average reader's tolerance for being positioned as a weirdo voyeur, their ability to maneuver around the moral implications of exploiting the intimate secrets of unwitting participants, and their definition of the ever-changing concept of privacy in the 21st century. While The Spacewurm states no overtly political goals, the very existence of such a book poses serious legal ramifications for the culture at large, not the least of which is the idea that perhaps consumer privacy in the digital age may be an outdated concept.
As more and more public and private transactions are conducted via the Internet and wireless sources, the debates on how to protect our right to privacy have become increasingly sticky. While the Fourth Amendment is often evoked to argue the right to communicate privately, privacy itself is not explicitly protected by the Constitution. Yet it is still a core value to most Americans, and has taken on multifarious meanings throughout history. The framers of the Constitution could certainly not address the myriad of privacy concerns that would evolve as new communication technologies sprouted and became part of our everyday lives, leaving modern day courts to decide if digital voyeurism falls within the scope of existing laws (recording a phone conversation requires all party consent in most states, but the jury is still out on whether or not Internet conversations are to be afforded the same protection). Amidst all this legal ambiguity, the fact that The Spacewurm can ride roughshod over social boundaries and secure a book deal to publish his illegally voyeuristic musings stands as a fascinating comment on the ever-dissolving boundaries of acceptable entertainment.
I Listen is a fairly unique piece of sociology that reaches deeper into the recesses of modern-day America than it probably intends, as it literally crawls with legal and political implications concerning the current state of consumer privacy. It also effectively underscores how people still cling to the intimacy promised by interpersonal conversation, regardless of how high-tech the medium becomes, and how the morally questionable act of listening in on ordinary people during their most unguarded moments can reveal a frighteningly realistic snapshot of life in the U.S. The Spacewurm himself offers a darkly succinct summation of his experiment: "I used to think I was wild or weird...but after listening to America, I realized people are pretty genuinely deviant, and I think we as a people are pretty much fucked."