Silicon Insider: A Surveillance Society Offers No Escape

Have you read the story this week about "The Canoe Man"?

If you haven't, here's a quick summary: in March, 2002, Brit John Darwin, now 57, a former prison officer, decided to take his kayak out on the North Sea near his home near Hartlepool. Darwin was an experienced kayaker, had paddled out to this area numerous times, and the sea that day was flat.

Nevertheless, Darwin disappeared. After an extensive search, he was presumed dead. That September, his wife Anne was quoted in a police statement expressing her sadness over the fact that her husband would never have a proper grave over which she might mourn.

A sad story. The kind you read every day, feel sorry for those left behind, silently thank God it wasn't you, and go on to the sports section.

Ah, but this week that long-forgotten story added a surprising new chapter.

Five days ago, a tan and healthy John Darwin suddenly turned up at a London police station, said he didn't remember anything of the last six years, and wondered if anyone was looking for him. As you can imagine, this created a bit of a stir and yesterday the case of "The Canoe Man" -- as Darwin has come to be called -- took yet another turn. Police arrested Darwin at his son's home on suspicion of fraud. The police also released what appeared to be a damning photograph of a smiling John and Anne Darwin taken in Panama just a year ago, not long after Anne sold her home in England and moved there.

Being an old journalist, I'm obliged here to describe Mr. Darwin's crime as "alleged," but it's pretty damn hard to look at that photograph and not think: Busted. Actually, it's pretty hard to look at that photo and not burst into laughter.

But leaving aside the truth or falsity of John Darwin's supposed Amnesia in Paradise, I'm struck that there is a deeper issue here: it is that in the 21st Century there increasingly is no place to escape to.

We increasingly live in a world of security cameras and CCTVs, Google and MSN maps, and on-line credit and address searches. Leave a fingerprint on a beer bottle in Tonga and Interpol in Prague will know about it; dial your al-Qaida contact on your cell phone and you're going to have a missile up your butt in a matter of minutes.

All of this -- well, most of it -- was done for all of the right reasons: homeland security, crime prevention, search and rescue, etc. Whenever some mad bomber is picked up by surveillance camera or a child molester nabbed with amber alert, it's just one more argument for installing these devices everywhere, and expanding the 'rings of steel' around our major cities.

It goes without saying that this raises some serious concerns about privacy and the personal liberty. But as The Canoe Man case should remind us, the increasing Big Brother nature of modern life is also rendering obsolete another long-cherished tradition of humankind: The Right to Run Away.

Nowhere will that effect be more deeply felt than here in the United States. We, after all, are a country built on running away. We like to present this as the story of generation after generation of immigrants coming to America in search of opportunity. And no doubt that's true; but we also know in our hearts that most of those opportunistic folks were also running away from government programs, endless poverty, annoying neighbors, government taxes and drafts, angry parents, and pregnant girlfriends.

Certainly that's true in my own family. On my Irish father's side, the first Malone in America was running from the Potato Famine. On my mother's Welsh-English side, it was a teenager who signed on a ship to get away from his old man, became an indentured servant in the Colonies, and changed his last name to that of his Dutch 'owner.'

Most of us Americans have similar stories in our family tree, if not in coming to this country, then in heading West during the pioneer days, or the Great Depression, or after WWII. In fact, you can make a very good case that running away -- from the law, from a stultifying life, from the predictable -- in search of adventure, excitement and the unpredictable, is the most important American tradition. Even that quintessential American, Huckleberry Finn, at the end of the greatest American epic, decides that life is getting too nice and safe in Hannibal, Missouri, and 'lights out for the territories.'

Of course, running away inevitably has is cowardice factor: - the fabled husband who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and turns up twenty years later in a new town with a new name and a new family. But even then, and despite the pain they cause, it's hard not to empathize with such figures -- nor, indeed, The Canoe Man. Who among us, on an especially unbearable day, hasn't dreamed of chucking it all and starting over, fresh and new?

That opportunity used to be part of the American Dream. Sure, there were bad guys who took advantage of the chance to move to a new town, change their name and resume their nefarious ways. But the majority of Americans who started over did so with the goal of Getting It Right This Time. And most of them did, or at least did better. And which is better, throwing a young felon or drunk in prison, where he loses all hope and learns all sorts of new criminal skills? Or his counterpart, who heads out West, starts over, and becomes a pillar of the community? I'm not sure there's a simple answer to that or maybe there is.

I live in the oldest American house in Silicon Valley. It was built by a young man who worked as a clerk in a department store in Baltimore, read some penny dreadfuls about the exciting life in the California gold fields -- and took off to make his fortune. He didn't find it in gold, but eventually did in ranching. His son played an important role in the rise of farming and orchardry in Santa Clara Valley, which in turn created the right conditions for the creation of the most powerful and influential business community on the planet.

You think he would have had that kind of impact had continued selling notions and ladies' gloves for the rest of his life?

The unconsidered side of the Surveillance Society that we are creating is not that our every move will be tracked in the present, but that we will never again be able to escape our past. That each of us will be forever forced to drag around an immense database containing every mistake in our past -- and never, ever be able to jettison it.

It probably never crossed John Darwin's mind that when some tourist held up a cellphone to take a photo of him and his wife, that his little six year hiatus from the cares of the world, were about to end. And when it did, it was with no little irony that Darwin chose the one excuse that might possibly cover his behavior: amnesia. He had forgotten everything.

But here in the 21st century, nothing is ever forgotten. There is no longer a place to escape to. Life has lost its 'do overs.'

This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News. Facebook and ABC are partners in a political content application.