Sunday, February 3, 2008

auf Wiedersehen, Privacy

The world seems to be getting smaller. Boundaries are eroded both online and in real life. Should babies and children be allowed in bars? Should you stay "friends" with your ex on Facebook? What's public? What's private? As we barrel towards baring all, is anyone giving any thought to what the consequences of our naked lives on display might have in various aspects of our life?

The past never goes away online. People you haven't seen in years can now easily find you thanks to social networking. Sometimes this is a joy. Other times, you might be "friended" by someone you were hoping to never see again, yet you feel politically obligated to keep up the connection. Or what happens if you make a friend, but then have a falling out? Then what?

How can we forget and move on from the past if the past is constantly smacking us in the face? Human memory was built to fade as a defense mechanism--letting go requires forgetting so that you can be open to what's happening in the moment. If the past can always be rejoined with the present, does that enrich our lives or take away from the patina of nostalgia? And does looking backwards come with the opportunity cost of missing what's up ahead?

This is a silly example, but I remember how happy I was about seven years ago when I went to this Sidetrack in Chicago and they played a music video that wasn't aired in the U.S. that was something I'd always wanted to see. I'm loathe to admit what it was, but for the sake being authentic, I'll tell you: Sarah Brightman's "How Can Heaven Love Me." (Appropriately enough, it's about surveillance, propaganda and a loss of civil rights.) As of about a year ago, you can now find it on YouTube. And that has detracted from my joy. That which can be recalled so easily is no longer all that special.

This blog is accessible by anyone looking at my online profile, which means that anyone I've ever known, from high school to my boss, can read it if they find me and if they care to. Will that change their opinion of me? With each post, I ask myself how much am I willing to reveal, and does that revelation bolster the topic at hand? If not, I demur. But, it's tough to say whether I'm writing something today that I might regret later. I fully expect that to happen. And unfortunately there's no real way to erase what I'm publishing right now thanks to the Wayback Machine.

This degradation and dismissal of boundaries is happening in real life as well. Gawker posted a story on Union Bar, which announced a ban on strollers. After immediate and vociferous outcry from neighborhood parents, the ban on strollers was lifted. (Note that the ban was not on children, but obviously since most tots are carted around in strollers, they're implicated by association.) This raises a cultural question: what are babies doing in bars? Should adults and children be together, in all contexts?

Does there need to be a space for *everyone* in *every* establishment? What does that then mean for community? What then defines community? Should there be places, online and off, where we can wear a particular mask or allow a particular persona to emerge? If all the world's a stage, can we play five different characters at once, in a single venue, with equal emphasis on each? And if everyone is playing multiple characters at once, how do we relate to each other? Is our face constantly changing?

Ideally, we might be seen multi-dimensionally as the fullest manifestation of ourselves, but is all of us at any given moment all that relevant in all contexts? Can I swill a beer and shout, "Fuck the Communists!" in a bar teeming with children? (Ok, so that shouting scenario isn't likely for me, but you get my point.) Sometimes some things just aren't appropriate in certain contexts, and maybe we need to respect that. Of course, this line is fuzzy and what's appropriate is open to interpretation, and ambiguity is never easy.

Boundaries can be good to have, particularly when social structures impose a level of politics that must be navigated. Will I respect my boss if I discover, thanks to his online profile, that he is a Furry and likes to be spanked? Will we reach the point where a person will proudly display their collection of butt plugs on their desk at work? Should a person have to hide their vibrators when they have company? (My answers to these questions are maybe, let's pray for no and yes, respectively.)

Politeness and manners may very well be going out the window in this world where we demand that our needs be met, whatever those may be. A kind of selfishness is driving the desire to be seen as we want to be seen in whatever context we choose. If I'm a mother or father with a large stroller, I might assume I have the right to take it anywhere. If I'm a blog writer, I might assume I should tell the world each and every time I get laid. Is instant gratification diluting our substance at the same time it's possibly infringing on someone else's rights?

Even if we don't encounter push-back from others whose rights we may be impinging upon, a problem arises when we're being "viewed" in a context in which we suddenly desire privacy. What if I were to publish medical information about myself on this blog, but then an insurance company found it and used my posts as a reason to deny me insurance coverage? Suddenly, I'd be screaming bloody murder over my "privacy" rights. So, where do we draw the line?

There are possible benefits to this erosion of boundaries. We can be more open and free with our emotions. We might feel less stifled. We have fewer "rules" to follow so we can more easily do whatever we feel like doing. Yet, might the alternative of boundaries, propriety and a little secrecy be a superior thing?

I'm no advocate for secrecy when it stems from shame. If you're a married closeted man and you're paying for sex with men all the while raising your 2.2 children with your lovely wife, your "secret" deserves to be exposed. I'd say to such a person, "Get a grip, get some courage and stop your cowardly destruction of other people's lives." But the more routine things in life aren't pitched with such melodrama. Sometimes the little things can be all the more delicious because you're not trumpeting them to the world at large.

As our society becomes increasinly more relevatory, at least we still have our innermost thoughts. Sometimes being able to secretly smile to yourself knowing something you'll never tell is one of the best parts of being alive.

No comments: