The NSA spying story highlights an interesting changing aspect of our society. Right now I have no interest in debating the role of information gathering except to note how this controversy illustrates the loss of privacy in our society. Over time technology and social factors have operated to erode the level of privacy we enjoy. Even if we are able to rein in the NSA, it is unrealistic to believe that our privacy will not continue to be eroded. The new reality is that we are all public figures to some degree.
Think about how much can be found about you by someone who wants to help or hurt you. Anything you wrote online, such as this blog or comments to online articles where you have to provide a user name, may be tracked down. Your posts and comments on Facebook are fair game as well as your tweets on Twitter. We know that there is technology that records the websites you visit (Have you noticed how Facebook puts up ads on the topics you searched for on Google?). Anytime you are outside your home or office, you are fairly likely to be filmed by someone’s smart phone or a public camera. Ask Mitt Romney if talks to individuals at private events stay private (remember “47 percent”). There are a variety of ways in which people can gather information about you and not all of that information will be flattering.
It was not too long ago that a person could go around saying and doing stupid things. It is what most of us humans do. But in this day and age doing that will catch up with you as we live in a society where your utterances and actions are recorded for future reference on your character and qualifications. Think of the dumbest thing you have done in your life. How would you like the entire world to know about that? Welcome to our non-private society.
Now I may be exaggerating a little bit. There are a few places where I can have an expectation of privacy. In my house no one should be recording what I say or do without my direct permission. The same goes for my office when the door is closed or any hotel room I am temporarily renting. My personal communications with physicians, counselors, lawyers and my spouse remain confidential. Otherwise everything I say or do I must say or do as if I expect others to be watching me. They may not watch me now but if I write a book they do not like or take a stand in a speech that they dislike, then I would expect that my detractors will gather information on me with some of the techniques described above.
Clearly our technology has greatly contributed to our loss of privacy. Smart phones and internet cookies allow for a degree of tracking that simply was not possible twenty years ago. However, there are also cultural changes exacerbating this trend. The proliferation of reality television indicates a desire for voyeurism that has become part of our societal values. The recipients of this voyeurism are not always troubled by it. When I grew up there were talk shows where some individuals had no problem coming on the show to discuss why they were having an affair on their spouse, lied to their friends or engaged in some other socially deviant behavior. I always wondered if they knew how bad being on those shows made them look and why they would air such dirty laundry. But looking at some of the reality shows we have today indicates that the desire for fame still persuades individuals to do and talk about stupid things in public.
In addition to our inquisitive hunger, we are in a highly polarized society where there is powerful incentive to “dig up dirt” on our political and cultural enemies. This makes our lack of privacy worse since individuals seek to find information to put others in the worst possible light. If you want to make a statement on a controversial issue today you had better be purer than Caesar’s wife. It appears that having a pristine past is a requirement for us to make public comments if those comments are to be taken seriously.
I wish there was a public policy option to pursue that would remedy this situation. But the genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to reverse it now. We have to accept it and work with it to the best of our abilities. I know that in my situation that I am careful with what I put on Facebook or Twitter. I write as if I expect those comments to go public at some point in the future. They likely will not but you never know in a non-private society. I am constantly amazed at what some individuals place on Facebook. They make incredibly intolerant comments or bemoan some ex-lover or family member as if they do not realize the sort of public image they are creating. Word to the wise. When you are mad at the world, or men/women, is not the best time to vent on Facebook. We have to live as the public figures our technology and intrusive society has made of us and be smart in our self-presentation.
Beyond being careful of how we present ourselves is there anything else to take from the lack of privacy we have in our society? I can only speak for myself, but I have become a little more sympathetic to those who are caught making a politically incorrect statement or have done some juvenile action earlier in their life. Let us be honest. We have more tolerance for mistakes for people who support our causes than those who support the causes of our political opponent. Whether President Bush’s or President Obama’s past drug use bothers us is likely correlated to whether we are politically liberal or conservative. So if we can give grace to those we agree with, then can we not also provide grace to those who disagree with us? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Sort of a “but for the grace of God goes I” approach. I hope as more people realize how vulnerable we all are to having our worst actions being used to create uncharitable images of us, that more individuals may become forgiving of the past shortcomings or verbal missteps of others.