The story of Peeping Tom coalesced into fable in the 1700s, though its origins are thought to be in Lady Godiva's Coventry around the turn of the first millennium. In other words, this is a thousand-year-old story, an enduring parable with an obvious, helpful moral: "Creeps who peep get what they deserve." But today we're apt to feel for poor Tom: He just wanted to get a little peek. What's so wrong about that? And obviously the good Lady Godiva, the medieval equivalent of the celebrity who arrives at the movie launch gala sans undergarments, wanted someone to see her. Why else tell us not to look? Anyway, she was lucky (or unlucky by the public relations standards of today) that Tom wasn't wielding a Handycam set to instant YouTube upload. Juxtapose the seemingly ancient definition of "Peeping Tom" with a new vocabulary of verbs like "overshare" and "Google," not to mention the exploding cyber hobby of amateur online nude posing (more on that later), and you get the ultimate culture clash.
Today we're all happily peeping away, seemingly free of social approbation. Governments, corporations, friends, and family all tell us (for different reasons) that it's okay to peer over the fence and see what's going on with the neighbors, particularly if what the neighbors are up to could in any way be construed as scandalous, scurrilous, seditious, or sexual—something entertaining enough to attract the millions of viewers up for grabs. Meanwhile, the neighbors are doing what they're doing precisely because they know that they are being watched. Just as we are willing voyeurs—no one forced us to look—they are willing performers. The voyeurs (us) and the people we're watching (us) are two groups acting together in cybernetic harmony, each one encouraging the other, neither stopping to think about what's happening and why.
When a thousand-year prohibition is readily cast aside, it's probably a good idea to wonder how that happened and what it means for the future of our society. What has transformed us into so many Peeping Toms? And will we, too, get our peeping comeuppance? The hidden forces pushing us toward Peep culture are also pushing us toward a new, unexplored, and in many cases unintended society. It's a culture of instant judgment, stolen innocence, and mass delusion, a culture that threatens to assign a price tag to every secret, scandal, and crime, every seemingly commonplace domestic moment. But it's also a culture of immense possibility, a culture of potentially widespread democracy and equality. Like Lady Godiva, we're innocently and optimistically baring our bodies and souls, not out of prurience but because we want to do good—we seek to connect, communicate, commiserate. But the difference between us and Lady G. is that we aren't ordering our fellow townspeople to stay inside and avert their eyes. We're begging them to look. Even better, take a picture. It's a difference replete with ramifications. Suddenly all things once sacred and private—from religious ceremonies to acts of copulation, to the last moments of life itself—are to be observed and consumed. This results in fundamental changes to our lives. Put a camera on something, introduce an audience, however small, and it's no longer what it once was. So what is it—and who are we now?
Reprinted from The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors by Hal Niedzviecki. Published by City Lights.
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