We’re Watching Big Brother

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman was stopped on November 25 en route to Vancouver, where she was scheduled to speak at a benefit for public radio stations.  Armed border guards ransacked her car (and papers and laptop hard drive), and interrogated her for ninety minutes.   Their line of question leaned heavily on the subject matter of her planned remarks at public appearances in Vancouver and Victoria.  They seemed especially concerned (not to say obsessed) that she might make negative comments about the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Goodman actually had a hard time figuring out what the goons were talking about.  At first, she thought they were worried for some reason about Obama’s recent effort to promote Chicago as an Olympic host.  When they explained their concern over the Vancouver Winter Olympics, her response was “Oh I hadn’t thought of that.”  In her subsequent remarks on the event, she gives every indication that their chickenshit Winter Olympics were the last thing on her mind.

Well, if she hadn’t thought of it before, she certainly has now—and so have millions of other people who otherwise wouldn’t have given it a second thought.  The border goons’ attempt to suppress negative comment on the Winter Olympics was about as ineffectual—and comical—as Basil Fawlty’s attempt to avoid talking about the war.

In an interview with the Globe, she said she planned on discussing the border incident in her public appearances.  “Clearly,” that is, “if it’s okay with the border police.”

This is a classic example of the Streisand Effect at work.  Attempts to suppress negative publicity lead to far worse negative publicity—worse by several orders of magnitude.

Rather than a relatively small number of people hearing what Goodman thinks about the Winter Olympics, a very large number of people will hear about border guards trying to shut her up about the Winter Olympics.  As Keith Olbermann said, if they’re worried about Goodman embarrassing them, it’s pretty counterproductive to provide her with a script for the next day’s show.  Not only have the border goons done more to cause the Winter Olympics more negative publicity than Goodman could ever have dreamed of (assuming she’d been bored enough to bother), they’ve make themselves look like a bunch of incompetent buffoons in the process.

This is just another example of what a hard time the old state and corporate hierarchies are having adjusting to a networked world.  We see them constantly being blindsided by negative publicity.  They’re still encultured to a world of unidirectional broadcast communications with centralized, high-cost hubs, where a quiet phone call or lunch with the right person could hush things up just fine.  They’re just beginning to learn that that world is gone forever.

Every attempt to nip bad publicity in the bud, by schmoozing with some gatekeeper, winds up exploding in their faces.  And no matter how many times it happens, it never stops being funny.  Imagining the looks on the faces of Trafigura management and those Canadian border clowns, I laughed the way I used to at the sight of Elmer Fudd after a shotgun blew up in his face.

We can talk to each other now, and replicate suppressed information infinitely (or as near as dammit), with near-zero transaction costs.  Not only can’t they shut us up, but their attempts to do so just cause more embarrassment.  Every attempt to suppress a leaked document winds up being circulated over the Internet.  Every police beating winds up on YouTube.  They can’t hide any more.

As Sheldon Richman put it, in commenting on an earlier column about the Streisand Effect, “We’re watching Big Brother.”

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