Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Privacy in an Age of Preening

When I was editing a mass magazine ages ago, an odd little man on the part-time payroll would stop by or call up to grill me about famous people I had met or bon mots I may have dropped. Known as a column planter, he made a good living converting such stuff into items for Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons, Ed Sullivan and the dozens of syndicated newspaper columnists who flourished back then.

Now, with Twitter and Facebook, we are all item planters, offering up pieces of our privacy in exchange for what? A sense of community? Bonding with others? Reassuring ourselves that our lives have value and that we are not alone?

The outrage over government surveillance and invasion of our privacy is rather piquant in view of all this voluntary self-revelation.

Parsing such history in the New Yorker Jill Lepore notes “the paradox of an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and with being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection—-ciphers of numbers and letters-—so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.”

Yes, yes, self-exposure is not the same as others snooping, but can’t we find some balance between moral indignation (pace Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald) and Barack Obama’s reassurance that he is not Dick Cheney, bending over backwards to protect our privacy while keeping us safe from terrorist attacks?

Can’t we find some appreciation of the irony that, no matter how much we want to be let alone, we can't be and don’t want to be entirely isolated from our fellow human beings?

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