"What have you done, Germany?"
Who knows whether this cri de coeur, this outburst of agony and self-aggrandizing hysteria will join "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" in the pop cultural pantheon of embarrassments. But the heart-wrenchingly plaintive plea of Web-guru, Google worshipper and prostate operation tweeter, Jeff Jarvis, published last month, will certainly have a special place in the history of digital idiocy.
What have you done, Germany?
Well, a couple of things come to mind. You know, World War I and World War II for instance, and that industrialized mass-murder thing, and East Germany's Stasi surveillance and torture regime. But, no, Jeff Jarvis was talking about a more recent German national crime, asking what to him is a more important and profound question: What have you done to me, Jeff Jarvis, great and mighty Oz of interweb sophistry, whose rules of the road when it comes to Web behavior must be obeyed?
Jarvis's scathing J'Accuse against a shocking violation of his "publicness" philosophy has undoubtedly shaken the German nation to its very roots.
Deutschland now has another profound crime, another profound shame to add to its history. They've interfered with the absolute total completeness of Google street views! It seems that Germany, out of what Jarvis—who is writing an attack on privacy called Public Parts, which will presumably argue that everybody should (as he did) tweet the contents of their adult diapers—calls a "mania over privacy," has allowed its homeowners to opt out of Google Street views.
Oh, the humanity!
Google has in fact shown remarkable cultural sensitivity by allowing Germans to choose to have the street-view photographs of their homes blurred out by pixilation. But Jarvis is not having it. Der Kommissar is on the warpath!
Jarvis, who wrote a long, sycophantic book called What Would Google Do? (thus equating Google with Jesus), shockingly can't abide such sensitivity even from his Google overlords. Indeed, he reaches embarrassing heights of rhetorical excess in condemning this blasphemy: He approvingly cites a German commenter who suggests that by allowing for privacy opt-outs, Germany is "digitally bombing its own buildings," the pixilated blurs the equivalent of bomb craters in the virtual landscape. A digital Dresden! Jarvis accuses these shy German citizens, a quarter-million of them in a population of 82 million, of "desecrating the landscape" somehow, by creating gaps in the seamlessness of Google surveillance, limiting the clumsy TSA-like intrusiveness he demands with the totalitarian wrath of a would-be digital dictator. (He doesn't seem to realize that he's trivializing the victims of Germany's actual crimes and bombing casualties.) Nope, the "default" position of everything in King Jeff's perfectly run society should be "publicness," he thunders: "Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public."
"What have you done, Germany?" indeed.
Now, I've resisted taking shots at Jarvis since I wrote my original portrait of the globe-trotting conference-and-consultant racket he's been running, offering fearful corporations advice about the digital future (a future that often includes more cash, cushy conference gigs, and J-school sinecures for Jeff). Because, frankly, it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, or clubbing halibut in a boat, to update the simile (although I recommend Mark Dery's delightfully over-the-top reaction to Jarvis' self-congratulatory prostate-op tweets).
But the emptiness, self-subverting grandiosity and pomposity of his McLuhan-wannabe pronouncements don't seem to have diminished the number of institutional suckers who have bought his philosophy and made him the go-to digital futurist preaching the gospel of "entrepreneurial journalism." It is all of a piece with once-proud Medill School of Journalism's self-abnegating decision to rename itself the "Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications" (LOL). (I suppose I should note, in the interest of disclosure of the source of my dismay, that I was once a "distinguished visitor" at the old Medill.) But Medill's decision is consistent with the City University of New York's decision to install the clownish Jarvis as director of an "entrepreneurial" journalism program that has ambitious plans to partner up (for synergy) with Trader Joe's to establish a department of advanced zucchini studies. (I made that last part up, but it wouldn't surprise me.)
The motto of honorable journalism was once "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Now it's "discounts for the comfortable and comfort food for the afflicted." Or how about simply, "Anything that makes a buck is by definition good journalism."
But let us return to that plangent cry: "What have you done, Germany?" This attack on the privacy opt-out comes at a time when privacy has become a major issue in the future of Internet publishing (and the Internet generally), so let's try to take Jarvis' "What Have You Done, Germany?" argument seriously for a moment.
He argues that any citizen could stand in front of any house in Germany and take its photo, whether the owner liked it or not.
Very true. But in conflating Google Street View's panopticon surveillance with some dude taking a picture for whatever reason, Jarvis is basically taking a position much like that of the Roberts Supreme Court in its ignominious campaign finance decision Citizens United, which abolished a century-old distinction between private citizens and corporations and gave big-dollar corporations unlimited latitude to pour money into the political process (and thus distort campaigns to their ends). The central idea of the court decision was that corporations are "people," just like you and me. No difference between you and Google as far as the right to influence the electorate through saturation advertising.
In the case of Germany, a global corporation is—or was, before the opt-out was allowed—trying to monetize an individual's privacy, a monetization that is worth more if the company can claim absolute total, or totalitarian completeness. They are, if not stealing, appropriating something valuable from you without your consent, not making a souvenir for their private photo album.