“Paranoia strikes deep” – Stephen Stills wrote those words in the classic Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth” many moons ago, yet they’ve never been more apt. Since Christmas week, I’ve become positive that someone, somewhere, is watching me. Could it be Big Brother, a la the NSA, collating metadata on my online activities and phone habits?
My tongue is partially in cheek, of course. And no, the paranoia wasn’t born from Edward Snowden’s “revelations” of NSA snooping, which weren’t all that revelatory to anyone who’s read journalist James Bamford through the years – or watched The Bourne Ultimatum, where a phone conversation between a British reporter and his editor comes to the instantaneous attention of the CIA due to the use of the words “Black Briar.” And it didn’t originate from the tracking habits of online entities, where a perusal of a CNet.com review almost always guarantees that ads for the product in question appears on other sites I frequent.
No, I attribute the paranoia to my latest favorite TV show: ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars.
Let me confess to something that the NSA and those online entities likely already know: I can binge with the best of them. No, not on alcohol, but music and TV. Last year, for example, I jumped headfirst into the canons of Sandy Denny and Townes Van Zandt, listening almost exclusively to their music for months on end. In the past, I’ve done the same with Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, Rumer, 10,000 Maniacs, Neil Young and… well, the list is endless.
And though the media has only recently taken to trumpeting it as the new norm for watching TV, “binging” on a TV series (or movie series, for that matter) isn’t really new. Remember the James Bond marathons of yore on TBS? What were they but a 007 binge-fest? MTV’s Monkees marathon in 1986 helped kickstart a Monkees renaissance – well, as much of one as the prefab four could muster. In the ‘90s, Nick-at-Nite routinely served up week-long feasts for new additions to its primetime library, including ones of The Partridge Family, Mary Tyler Moore Show and Brady Bunch. And, for a while, TNT was essentially Law & Order central – three, four, and more episodes in a night.
Once the slim DVD replaced the bulky VHS as the home-video norm in the early 2000s, though, entire seasons – commercial-free! – of shows could easily be added to one’s library without taking up much space. The thing about that is this: though DVD sets take up little space, the dent to the wallet can be substantial. The first season of Alias, the Jennifer Garner spy series, set me back $50. The reviews for it were good, it looked like something we would enjoy – but it wasn’t. I’m still not sure why; something just didn’t click.
The advent of such streaming sites as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime has diminished that risk. Pretty Little Liars, for example, is something I ordinarily wouldn’t have even thought to check out, but there it was, in my Netflix “recommended for you” queue. I get up fairly early, even on weekends, had time to kill – so why not? I clicked play.
The basic premise: after a year apart, four friends of a missing girl who harbor a dark secret are brought back together by a series of threatening text messages from a soon-omnipresent entity who goes by the moniker of “A.” The friends are, it’s safe to say, somewhat cliched: one’s studious, one’s not; one’s an athlete and gay; and the last is too precocious for her own good. There’s suspense, thrills and even chills, plus the requisite clueless parents. It’s a tad kitsch and silly, but – for me, at least – that’s part of its charm.
A month and a few days later and I’ve made it through the first three seasons and am now caught up on the fourth. One thing that happens during such immersions is this: worlds collide. As in, the show’s make-believe paranoia creeps into the real world.
Except, in this case, it’s not so make believe. In many ways, the show can be seen as a metaphor for 21st-century life. Almost everything we do, online and off, is known by someone, somewhere – theoretically speaking, at least. Gmail, for instance, uses word-recognition software that scans every e-mail sent and received to feed you relevant ads. On Amazon, my purchase history from 1998 onward can be had; that’s likely used to create recommendations. The same with iTunes. If you use a cell phone, be it smart or dumb – guess what? Your provider knows everything you do with it, and from where.
And anyone on Facebook, well, whatever you post is there to be seen by anyone, regardless of privacy settings – any hacker, government or not, can easily find out what my friends know: I check in from B&N most weekends, have posted photos from concert venues and even from my three-hour-and-change ride home during the Jan. 21st snowstorm, once purchased a lock of Juliana Hatfield’s hair (for a Pledge Music project), and occasionally litter their news feeds with YouTube videos. (The most recent: Carly Simon’s “ The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.”) They also know that the favorite subject for my camera is my cat, Tyler – hence his picture for this column.
They also know that I was disheartened to learn that, in a cost-cutting move, the Patch powers-that-be laid off the editor of the Hatboro-Horsham Patch, Theresa Katalinas, along with several hundred others. (For more on that, click here.) I never met Theresa in person, but in all my dealings with her she was nothing but wonderful. She built this site into an excellent resource for all past, present and future Hatters; her stories will be missed.
Is there a moral to this story? Possibly this: unlike the Pretty Little Liars theme song, which claims that only “two can keep a secret when one of them is dead,” no one can keep a secret when prying eyes are watching you… and those eyes aren’t going anywhere soon.