Remembering Privacy

Copyright © by Len Holman, 2/27/12


  The stories are chilling, even if you were channeling George Orwell:  Social networks and phone applications are capturing personal information of the users and ….and, well they are storing it.  After they store it, advertisers will be getting that information…and who knows what others—say, Homeland Security.  The government has been data-mining all our phone calls and electronic traffic for years and the activity has picked up under Obama.  When the head of HS testified before Congress, he said that his agency only looks for “emergency situations” and the like.  Apple is shocked, shocked ,to discover that its app, Path, stores addresses, and Facebook is also horrified and will get right on this inadvertent difficulty, making it clearer to its customers that the information posted there is fair game for anyone and everyone. 

  If any of this is news to a generation which lives in the electronics age, then they either are not paying attention or just don’t care.  But the more interesting story isn’t that a future boss will see your drunken toga party on YouTube and give the job to someone else, or that the government knows you hate to fly because you’re convinced the TSA agents have infrared cameras to look under your clothes.  No, the interesting story is that humans are still—after years of IBM, Macs, digital watches, toasters that know when the operation is completed and tell you when your muffin is done, and cars that talk and park themselves—believe that the only reality is what is, as philosophers used to use the term, “sensible.  That is, what is “sensible” can be perceived by the senses and therefore is real.  This means that, despite The Cloud, and cyberspace, and all the rest, we really don’t believe any of it is real—until we lose a job or end up talking with a Homeland Security agent with no sense of humor. 

  Evolution has given us a brain which processes input.  That input was, at one time, in the form of moving grass (could be an enemy—or food), weapons, fire, artifacts, sex.  These things were perceivable by the senses and were needed to survive.  Knowing involved concrete things.  Later in our progressive march toward most of the populace believing in ghosts, our minds became adept at abstract thinking, but the very core of our reality is stuff—real, touchable, tastable, feelable, hearable stuff.  We now have cyberstuff, which—to us—is not real, though it has real consequences.  Take the girl in North Carolina who posted a Facebook rant about her awful life and her awful parents.  Her father found it and shot her laptop to pieces.  Aside from the Red State-Blue State politics of parenting and guns in the home and all that, it’s interesting to consider that this young lady thought her file was safe from prying eyes, even though she grew up in a world with disappearing privacy and a shrinking notion of shame.  Her dad was an IT guy and got around her password, but why did she think to put this whole sordid business on the internet?  Was it as matter of not caring who saw it?  No, that can’t be right because she had the file password encrypted.  Was it just a matter of venting?  She could have done that with a live friend or by herself.  No, she posted it, sent it flying into cyber space—which isn’t really a space in the sense that it’s nothing.  It’s not nothing, it’s something—and this is what is amazing:  people treat everything they do on their phones, laptops, and tablets—every app and bell and whistle—as though they were doing it in the privacy of their cave and the things they were doing were just all in their heads, or they treat their activities as if it were handfuls of spaghetti sauce which they would throw and which would only travel as far as the wall and go splat.  Clean the wall and there is no evidence that you want your boss to die horribly or that you harbor lustful thoughts about Madonna (and if you DO harbor lustful thoughts about Madonna, you’re probably too far gone even for professional help). 

  There is no doubt, from all available evidence amassed over years of people playing in the electronic sandbox, that no amount of revelations about the complete lack of oversight by the purveyors of apps and services, coupled with the money advertisers will pay for information on your surfing habits, will send anyone back to two tin cans and a string; no one is going to hide their miscreant ways from a few million onlookers of Facebook.  Every once in a while, some reporter or computer geek will uncover some new permutation, some even more clever sinister, secret way of gathering information on us.  As our technology becomes even more sophisticated, more widely disseminated and irresistible, the chances increase that someone, somewhere, will know how much toilet paper you use and whether your sex life was good last night.  We are surveilled by drones and infrared cameras and microphones that can hear you breaking wind at 100 yard, while e very electronic gadget—including that nice lady in your Chevy who calls the tow truck for you when you push the blue button—all capture you and profile you and you have less and less privacy. 

  It was not always so.  Of course there were always nosey neighbors and those party lines where the people in the next farm could listen to your phone conversations.  But we are way beyond that now, and people who grew up with all this snooping (and will continue to have their lives invaded) have no idea what it means to be by yourself and just let your thoughts wander, without being entertained 24/7, or keeping your own counsel (a rapidly disappearing concept).  The phrase “you can’t go home again” fits here.  Unless you live in a remote place without web connections and cell phones, and never have a satellite pass over your town, you MIGHT have some privacy for yourself—but jobs and business and farms are using computers more and more and there may be no escaping any of it.  There is only one sure place to go for privacy:  inside your own head—until we all get connected to the web with a brain implant.   But it may be too late.  You can’t go inside your mind and hide unless you’ve been shown how.  So, are we as parents and mentors showing our kids how to do that?  And the sadder question: will they even want to?


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