Boredom Is Exciting
The latest buzzword on the Internet, apart from the phrase "destroying our nation's youth," is "privacy." The U.S. Department of Commerce-in response to complaints from the European Union, which takes privacy more seriously than we do-has just proposed privacy guidelines for online companies that give European customers more rights than the American citizens the Commerce Department is ostensibly supposed to serve. In a separate event, a huge controversy began brewing over Intel's new Pentium III chip after it was reported the chips each contain a unique serial number that could be used to track a person's activities online. Microsoft got in similar trouble when it turned out Windows 98 carries a unique identifier and even embeds it in documents like Microsoft Word files. One might conclude electronic privacy is a thing of the past.
Of course, some people surrender privacy by choice. One Orange County resident, who prefers to be known only as Nerdman lest freaks track him down, has made the private details of his life available to anyone who cares to log onto his Web site (www.nerdman.com). He was inspired in part by the overrated movie The Truman Show, which chronicled the life of a man who holds millions of fans in thrall with the smallest details of his life. Unconvinced, Nerdman set out to prove just how boring one man's life could be.
"I've been live on the Web for about three years now," Nerdman says, "but that was just one camera in my office. Right after The Truman Show came out, I renamed it The Nerdman Show and added cameras to my home."
The Nerdman Show now has eight cameras at Nerdman's office and six at home. The office cams are on 24/7; the home cams run from late morning until late night. There's a Kitchen Cam, a Litterbox Cam, a Cat Food Cam, a couple of Desk Cams and what looks like a Sofa Cam. The work cams include yet another Desk Cam, a Parking Lot Cam, and an Aquarium Cam. At best, visitors might see such riveting vignettes as Woman Washing Dishes and Man Typing. Or, if you're really lucky, you could spot one of Nerdman's cats (he refuses to say how many he has).
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If Nerdman set out to prove how dull it could be to watch one man's life, he succeeded brilliantly. But if he intended to prove that contrary to The Truman Show's thesis, no one would tune in to watch, he has failed. Something like 30,000 people per month log on to the site to watch absolutely nothing happen-numbers that surprise even Nerdman.
"It's kind of taken on a life of its own," he admits. "I honestly didn't think it would go on this long."
Cams have been a staple of the Internet ever since people realized the possibilities inherent in an extra camera and way too much spare time. OC boasts its share of beach cams, so surfers can check the waves without leaving home. Some of the more imaginative cams on the Net include toilet cams, baby cams, the Pumpkin Cam (b. Oct. 15, 1995; d. Oct. 25, 1995), and the notorious Spam Cam (sadly, now defunct).
And almost as soon as people realized they could broadcast pictures in real time over the Internet, they realized the erotic potential of the concept. In a move seen by some as further evidence of the hastening moral decay in this country, they began pointing cameras at themselves. The most famous is probably the JenniCam (www.jennicam.org), which chronicles the life of a young redhead on the East Coast; several thousand people have willingly forked over $15 per year to watch Jenni paint her toenails, type on her computer, and occasionally take off her clothes. Dorm cams, living room cams and apartment cams abound-actual people run many, but some are clearly managed by professionals masquerading as "real" people.
Most people would shudder at the idea of total strangers watching us scratching ourselves or picking our noses. But the Internet allows some exhibitionists to practice their art on a hitherto undreamed-of scale. Others surrender privacy because they make money charging strangers to peek at their lives.
Nerdman does it because he sells Web cams. "I run Stardot Technologies [in Buena Park]," he says. "Initially, I put the page together because our company designs Web-camera software and hardware. I figured it was a great way to show how easy it was to add cameras to your house. The Nerdman Showshowcases our cameras, and hopefully, people will go back to our site and order from us." And hey! There's a link to Stardot's page on the site!
And, Nerdman says, the privacy issue isn't really as big a deal as you might think. "The cameras are set so that they blink a light before they take a picture, and the refresh rates [how often the pictures are updated] are kind of low," he says. "We know where they are, and a camera can only see so much. It's not nearly as bad as it sounds. Although my wife is home more; I'm not so much bothered by it as she is."
The worst thing about living one's life in the open, he says, is the e-mail. "You expect everyone watching to be like yourself: take a peek, laugh a bit, move on," Nerdman says. "But some people don't do this-they watch every day and make commentary, like 'I noticed you guys stayed home last night and had friends over. . . . How did that chicken taste?' Those kind of e-mails serve as a reality check. . . . We're broadcasting to the world and anyone, including obsessed personalities, can watch." That's why he's chosen a pseudonym, although the LA Times did blow his cover in an article that ran last July. (But his secret is safe with me.)
Nevertheless, living in a glass house may finally be getting to Nerdman. "We're both getting a little tired of the cams," he says. "It's been a great experiment-one that I didn't think would affect me, but it has. I'm seriously considering changing the site to all outdoor, non-privacy-invading cams after the site's one-year anniversary in July. We did something new, kind of quirky and fun, but now it's time to move on. I don't know what I'll do with the page next, but it will be equally interesting and will not generate so much attention toward me personally."
And that's the beauty of Web cams. The average Joe may look on them as an intolerable invasion of privacy, but it's an intrusion controlled by the subject. Nerdman chooses where to place the cameras, when they turn on and off, and when to shut the project down. And yet it's voluntary experiments like his that creep people out, when there are involuntary invasions of privacy going on every day. Web sites entice children with pretty colors and then collect reams of marketing data from them without their knowledge. Grocery stores track how much and what kind of food customers buy. Companies sell all sorts of information on private citizens without their permission and then charge them a fee to look at the details of their lives.
If only, like Nerdman, we could choose to switch all that off, turn down the lights and go home.
Creep out Wyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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