O Privacy, Where Art Thou?

This is your life.  Credit Vassilis Michalopoulos / Flickr Creative Commons
This is your life. Credit Vassilis Michalopoulos / Flickr Creative Commons

On Twitter today, Joyce Carol Oates shares a quote from yesterday’s New Yorker about privacy, in which artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg opines, “we are probably the last generation that will realize what we’re losing.”  You can’t help thinking that she’s right.  An entire generation is growing up with their lives chronicled meticulously for the world’s perusal through Facebook, Instagram, blogs, what have you, either by proud parents or by themselves, seeking connection in the digital space.  For the vast majority of the population, these connections will be benign, the consequences minor or nonexistent.  Traditional media is certainly keen to hype up the instances of social media gone wrong, and certainly the latest revelations about the National Security Agency are cause for justifiable alarm at what is being collected and by whom for what purposes.  To me, it seems that privacy has become a malleable concept.  People are okay with sharing to a certain degree, but there is usually a line they won’t cross, and that line differs from person to person.  Yet everyone is happy to abdicate at least some of what is uniquely theirs to the great unknown masses; the absolute recluse is soooo last century.  (Even Thomas Pynchon lent his voice to The Simpsons a couple of times.)  Is Joni Mitchell right, though?  Will we not know what we had until it is gone?  Or is the march to a completely open community inevitable and privacy a willing sacrifice?

The flexible line intrigues me.  A while back, I read a post (I don’t remember where, sorry, or I would provide the link) in which the writer suggested that the level of detail provided in certain “mommy blog” posts about children encroached on the territory of potential libel litigation once the child reached maturity – tired moms calling their kids “little shits” online, and so forth.  As a blogger and a new adoptive parent, I too had a choice to make about how much or how little detail I would include about my son in this space.  Mindful of my own rule that you should never put anything online that you wouldn’t carve in concrete on your front porch, and not wanting to burden my son with a digital legacy not of his own making, I chose to be quite spare in the amount of information I reveal about him.  Where I do post about parenting it’s about my thoughts and feelings – which I can control – and my son is more of a relatively anonymous factor influencing me.  You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned his name, and if someone who knows me personally accidentally drops it in the comments, I delete it post-haste.  (I have not mentioned my wife’s name here either, for the same reasons, though if you really want to find it, it’s not that difficult.)  The siren song of the Internet is calling to him with increasing volume, and he’ll have plenty of time to forge his own footprint his own way, when he’s ready (you know, in about 30 years or so).  He doesn’t need me blazing an embarrassing trail with catty remarks about cranky moods or off-color remarks spoken in innocence that will come back to haunt him in his first job interview.

Even if you are cautious about sensible things – not posting your address or phone number, or photos of your house or of you blistering drunk in a pair of your mother’s underpants and so on – you are still giving up an aspect of your privacy when you share your thoughts, whether they be in short bursts of anger at the latest dumb thing done by right wing politicians or long, carefully-reasoned pieces like this one.  If someone was a diligent reader of the preceding 200-odd posts here they’d have me at a considerable disadvantage were I to meet them in real life.  (Honestly, at any given time I don’t remember half of what I’ve written here.)  You don’t know where I live or where I am this very second, but one could argue you know a much more intimate detail about me.  You know how I think.  That is, assuming you trust that I’ve been truthful and I haven’t been pulling your leg for almost two years with the old unreliable narrator gimmick.  And that raises another interesting question.  Given the absolute tabula rasa of the digital space for the creation of an online identity, why the presumption that the majority of folks who use it are being absolutely honest about who they are and what they think?  I could have created a completely opposite alter ego just for fun and gone to town.  But I wanted to be me.  And I wanted the digital me to be consistent with the real me, otherwise Lucy would have a lot of ‘splaining to do at dinner parties.  So I have in fact given up an integral component of my privacy.  I’ve opened my mind to you.  There’s an implicit contract then that you are not evil incarnate and you’re not going to find some way to use it against me in a future I have not yet conceived.  And even if you do there’s not hellish much I can do about it.  I’ve handed over the mallet willingly and it’s your choice whether or not you want to bludgeon me with it.

When you think about it in that context, sharing online is an enormous gesture of trust, and an encouraging one, for it speaks to a deep-rooted optimism that our fellow human beings are good people who can be relied upon to be responsible caretakers of the information we’re providing them.  Is it possible that the desire for community, connection and having our voices heard outweighs the wish to protect privacy?  For it seems that today, you cannot have both.  Certainly, those who shun the digital space wind up missing out on a heck of a lot.  There are terrific people I’ve met through blogging and through Twitter that I never would have known about had I chosen to retract my head into my little turtle shell and keep my own counsel.  My life, then, has been enhanced by forfeiting aspects of my privacy.  In her TED talk, Brene Brown talks about how the people who are the most willing to be vulnerable are those who experience the richest love in return.  Yet there’s that catch – being vulnerable.  Putting it out there.  Extending your hand knowing there is a possibility (however remote) that it might be bitten off.  What is worrisome to many, as Heather Dewey-Hagborg suggests with her quote, is that in the future, there simply may be no choice anymore.  We need to know if we’re okay with that.  The reward of a closer-knit human race is a tempting carrot indeed, but the trouble is, no one knows what it will feel like to be hit with the stick.

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