Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

Avast, Ye Porch Pirates!

(Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

I was sitting in a cafe in Mountain View, Calif., home of Google, using the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi because the hotel’s Internet connection was spotty. My computer had not been able to connect to Google, which was literally down the street. You’d think Google emanated such power, you could pick it up on your fillings and make a search request by tapping out Morse code with your tongue on a molar.

My phone sprang to life and issued an eerie sound of moaning ghosts, wind, and clanking chains. Sigh. That would be my doorbell. I had set the Ring video doorbell to make “spooky” sounds for Halloween and it would not accept any attempt to change the sound. Twenty-first-century problems: I would have to reboot my doorbell to change to a neutral non-holiday-customized sound. 

Called up the video feed, which piped a picture from Minnesota: Daughter had tripped the motion sensor and was shoveling the steps. A foot of snow had fallen. I was in a warm and sunny place, but now I was connected to life back home. I cracked the mic and spoke encouragement: Great job! Thanks for shoveling!

Cool, eh? Technology, keeping us connected! 

No. A dystopian hellscape proto-fascist paranoia-enabling nightmare, that’s what it is.  

People replacing doorbells with cameras to deter package theft is a bad thing, and if you’ve any doubt, here’s a recent New York Times think-piece headline on the subject: “The Policing of the American Porch.”

Ah, for the carefree, innocent days of a better nation, with its unpoliced porches. A nobler time before the rank winds of resurgent Nazism had drifted west across the Potomac and militarized the stoop.

The headline continues: “Ring offers a front-door view of a country where millions of Amazon customers use Amazon cameras to watch Amazon contractors deliver Amazon packages.”

Whoa! Even worse, people use computers bought on Amazon to buy things on Amazon and then track those packages on the computer they bought from Amazon. It’s like “Brave New 1984,” man! All it needs is Winston Smith writing in a diary he bought on Amazon.

The Atlantic ran a similar story last year, finding racist motives in people who snoop on their own stoops and calling people who steal Amazon deliveries “the artful dodgers of the Amazon age.” Video doorbells feed our paranoia and fear of the Other, it seems. You see someone walking down the alleyway at 3 a.m., testing car doors and garage doors, and now you assume it’s a burglar instead of someone performing a valuable public service. You see someone skulking around your door at 4 a.m., peering in the window, only to run off when he sees the video doorbell, and it never occurs to you that this person might be delivering a multi-million-dollar prize from the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.

You see someone taking an Amazon package and you always think it’s a thief. It’s as if capitalism (boo; hiss) had stripped you of the ability to form any other possible reason. How do you know the thief — sorry, that’s judgmental, the “non-authorized package relocator” — isn’t performing a proactive recall of dangerous goods?

Breaking news! While writing this I got an alert from my Ring-doorbell group: Someone stole a snow shovel. Or so the poster says. It could have been someone walking backwards around the neighborhood at 11:30 p.m. handing out free shovels and the poster ran the tape in reverse to make us fearful.

Except . . . I’m not fearful. I like knowing what lurks in the dead of night. For a conflict-averse Lutheran-type person, being able to say “Sorry, no thank you” to canvassers and peddlers without opening the door is a blessing. 

Many on the liberal side can’t see a criminal steal something without feeling a twinge of sympathy: What brought them to this dire moment? The answer, to judge from the videos I’ve seen, is a late-model white Dodge. As for their motivations, well, perhaps it’s laziness, sloppy morals, and an ability to justify small crime because Amazon (boo! hiss!) is evil. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading brave struggles to keep Amazon from enslaving Queens residents in the bondage called “lucrative employment,” the porch parasites could possibly have convinced themselves they’re engaged in redistributive justice.

It’s still a crime, and that’s why it’s great to have video. You can give the cops a clear freeze-frame of the crook’s mug, proof of theft, and a vehicle description. Nothing will happen, but at least they’ve got plenty of evidence in case they decide to pursue, which they won’t. California has decriminalized theft under $1,000; New York adopted a no-bail system that meant people could commit a crime in the morning, spend lunch hour getting processed, get out to commit another crime in the afternoon, and get a nice nap in before dinner. In big cities you can steal a car and never see the inside of a jail cell unless it’s your 29th offense or you ran the car through the plate-glass window of a doughnut store. 

The bottom line in all the hand-wringing Ring stories: We’ve become mistrustful of strangers. We demonize the outsiders, read dark motives into innocent people who just happen to come to our house for no apparent reason and run away when a large dog barks or the video doorbell lights up. The American porch is being policed. How dare you!

Or, proud dads are watching their daughters shovel snow and offering verbal encouragement. 

“Stop spying on me,” she’d said to the doorbell, but she was kidding, I’m sure. If she really wanted privacy, she would have unplugged the router. 

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