The president as lab rat

How much surveillance can one human being take? President Clinton is helping us find out.

Published August 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The Clinton-Lewinsky investigation is a test of the technology of total communication.

What an American twist: This advanced experiment with publicizing an entire life takes place not with a prisoner or subversive who is captured, humiliated and executed nor with an artist, but rather with the leader of our country. The official record shows President Clinton's every call. The investigators have his schedule down to the minute; they know every visitor; they also have all Monica Lewinsky's calls and her pager record; they have done a blood test, a DNA analysis and identified his semen from a 2-year-old ejaculation; they know everything he purchased for her and everything he received. They have organized the information in convenient form and broadcast it to the world. In Times Square, his interrogation became an element of urban design.

Something like this will happen to you.

Not on such a grand scale, of course -- the ambition, intelligence, access to wealth, narcissism and good luck of a Bill Clinton are granted to only a few people in every generation. But Clinton's martyrdom to total surveillance foreshadows the fate of the "little guy." You may never be addressed fondly by the charming intern at the office, you may have lips uncontaminated by illicit love -- or by love of any kind. But the past will haunt you anyway.

This is common knowledge, so much so that it is very boring to trot out the evidence. Perhaps key words will suffice: credit cards, legal records, tax statements, phone bills, insurance payments, Usenet posts, office e-mail, Amazon purchases. These are the raw materials of data mining that create a sophisticated record of your habits, tastes, aberrations, misdeeds and physical condition. Your only hope is to remain obscure enough that nobody will care to torment you with what they could know if they tried.

This hope is futile. You may not be tormented by special prosecutors, but a certain amount of general persecution is inevitable. At minimum, you will be the target of endless seductive appeals for your attention based on a sickeningly explicit portrait constructed out of the trails of the purchases you make. And if you think purchases are unrevealing and harmless, you haven't been paying attention to the great national surveillance demonstration currently under way.

Rarely have public leaders been called upon to make personal sacrifices to technological progress. Their relationship to new technologies is ceremonial, encouraging and third-hand. They may be asked to break a bottle of champagne over the prow of a new factory or to hug an executive who founded a software company, but this puts them at little risk.

Clinton, by contrast, is on the front line. The process of specifying and publicizing his every movement has created a new kind of document (the paperback is on sale now in bookstores) that owes its existence to the ever-present technology of surveillance and broadcast. Smaller experiments have been undertaken before: Richard Nixon, obviously, and all the various security state functions of the old South Africa or the old East Germany. But this is the fullest human trial yet attempted of complete surveillance as, simultaneously, a tool of jurisprudence and a form of entertainment.

The complete mapping of the world with global positioning devices, the protection of our safety with 24-hour-a-day security cameras and the deep archives of e-mail messages and Usenet posts offer ever more tempting resources for the aspiring dramatists of the media and the courtroom.

Certainly Clinton would not have volunteered for this mission. But the fact that he was drafted -- or, more accurately, maliciously ordered to the front by rivals at headquarters -- does not erase a certain heroism.

Importantly, he has not yet run away. He could get out of the spotlight by resigning. He would never have to hold another press conference. The House Judiciary Committee would quickly move on to other business. The fine-grained image of a minor episode of untruth and self-infatuation -- so small, so human and so unappetizing that it could only be handled, in fiction, by the most ruthless comic writer -- would fade from view within a month. Privacy, as we are all becoming aware, can best be safeguarded by conformism and inoffensive obscurity.

And yet Clinton stays at the front. He even moves forward into the line of fire. Again, he is no volunteer. But again, he is nonetheless a hero. Because he has such fortitude, we are all going to find out something about how much of this a person can stand. Such experimental opportunities are, for obvious reasons, difficult to come by.

There is a measure of toxicity used in pharmacology labs whose abbreviation is "LD50." How much of a given substance can you give a group of mice before half of them die? The mice are anonymous, and purchased in quantities. To date, many of the extreme advances in the new field of surveillance-broadcast -- ambient media -- have been explored using the human analog to the pharmacologists' mice. TV cameras swoop down on public drunks on the streets of Los Angeles. Check-forgers wear electronic ankle bracelets. There are even penile plethysmographs that survey the blood flow in the sex organs of rapists, allowing psychologists to determine when they are having illegitimate fantasies.

Because of the impassible moral barrier that exists between us on the one hand, and drunks, check-forgers and rapists on the other, it might have taken a long time before the meaning of Andy Warhol's deceptively sunny dictum about universal celebrity was revealed. Fortunately, our leader has gone before us.

The things that everybody says they hate about the turn the investigation has taken -- the unfairness of the broadcast of the deposition, the ruthlessness of the persecutors, the ever-ramifying minutiae of the documentary evidence and the joy that the independent counsel has taken in trapping his mendacious witness -- are exactly what has become most valuable. We are getting a glimpse of the new world. Once we adapt, it might not seem so bad. "Homo Sapiens," said a primatologist, "is the animal that can get used to anything." The president, in fateful fulfillment of his political ambition, has become an indispensable pioneer.

By Gary Wolf

Gary Wolf is a contributing editor at Wired magazine.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Espionage