On the public commodification of privacy

Stefany Anne Golberg, The Smart Set

We have no more privacy. That’s what we’re told; certainly it’s something we feel. Of course it’s been thrilling, for those of us with the means and the Internet, to be more connected to each other and the world than we could have ever imagined. We can correspond at lightening speed. Vast, seemingly infinite quantities of information — more than we ever knew existed, more than we know how to process — is available for our consumption at any hour of the day or night. Easy access to information promises astonishing convenience and comfort.

Radical connectivity has also given us information that was previously hidden. What was once unknowable has been revealed: the secrets of medicine, rare ancient documents, R.E.M. lyrics. And all this information is still less thrilling than what we can now know about other people. Once, we might have been allowed to know the town where a celebrity lived or what she liked to eat for breakfast. The mere fact of a philandering celebrity’s philandering was news. Now, we can hear their whispers and sighs, have seen all their folds and wrinkles. Celebrities are not simply exposed — they are exposing themselves. The film critic Roger Ebert, who has thyroid cancer, uses his celebrity to reveal the most intimate details of his physical deterioration, the withering of his face and voice. The writer Tony Judt did the same before his death; the writer Christopher Hitchens does so now.

In the past, we may have been privileged to read musings on death and illness from these celebrities in their own eloquent words. Now we can also watch their gasps on YouTube, can get instantaneous updates about surgical procedures and infections via tweets and pinggs. And even this is less interesting than what we feel we must tell about ourselves.

We the non-celebrities are making ourselves more available, in vaster quantities. But in doing so, we are losing control over the information we considered to be ours alone. We have the convenience of online bill-paying. But credit cards companies know facts about us we never remember telling them. We have the ease of online shopping. Now online shops advertise to us long after we visited their site, wherever we happen to be on the Internet. We want to stay in touch with people we would have, in another age, left behind — people we met on holiday or on the street, people we knew only as children. So we post mundane, daily facts about our workday or our meals — information that used to disappear before it was even registered as experience — hoping that it might bring this giant network of people closer to our mundane, daily lives.

But the mundane information starts to define us; we can’t get rid of it. What’s more, all these entities that we think of as being unrelated — the credit card companies, the social networking sites, the online markets — are talking about us to each other. And sometimes, when we’re not thinking about convenience, or the extraordinary wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, we think we might be in danger. We feel exposed in all this transparency. We want to hide. Is there any place left to hide?

Well, funny you should ask? That 19th century French poet and man-about-town, Charles Baudelaire, might have something very 21st century to say on the subject. Read Golberg’s full essay at The Smart Set …