Sunday, February 11, 2007

On Privacy

Nearly a decade ago in Wired Magazine, the futurist Esther Dyson, proclaimed that privacy was dead. The concept died years ago she said, we just haven’t yet realized it. In privacy’s place would or should come mutual responsibility and accountability. Now that secrets were over we had no choice but to hold each other in check since we all knew what the other was up to. The striking thing about such a worldview is that like Marshall Macluhan or even Phillip K Dick, Dyson ended up being both right and wrong.

I’m thinking of Dyson because of a rather revealing issue of TIME OUT NY that focused on New Yorkers living with their neighbors; an issue I found both inspiring and depressing. If privacy is over, nobody told New York City where eight million nations of one all live together apart. What was striking about the neighbors being ‘introduced’ to each other was not that they needed to be introduced or that they live apart by design but rather how adamant there were about keeping it that way. At the end of two of the matchmaking interviews it was clear that even though the neighbors were happy to be more familiar they were also clearly not going to reach out to each other again. There is this effort to deny the natural human tendency to socialize, to relegate it to work and neutral areas in order to protect the sanctuary of home. Home as a refuge from people as opposed to a place to welcome and entertain.

Sitting in my apartment in New York I tried to calculate how long it would take for me to be found if I had a stroke. I would die of course but how near would I have to be to the door before my corpse stinks up the hallway and how stink would it have be before the neighbors raise an alarm? I think of Vincenzo Ricardo, the man who sat dead in his Hamptons Bay house for a full year because not one neighbours thought to check on this old, blind man who had not been seen in months and whose letters were falling out of his mailbox. It’s incredible to me how far we will go to protect our right to not have anyone be a part of our lives. I think that at this very moment somewhere in this oh so developed state another Kitty Genovese (pic 1) is learning the hard way that she is on her own. There is a price to be paid for this of course. Privacy comes with a curse. While it may shield the hard working yuppies from nosy neighbors it also shields a Jeffery Dahmer from being found out, even when the stench of his pile of bodies becomes unbearable.

Privacy allows secretive people to hide on plain sight. One reason why Michael Devlin could get away with kidnapping Shawn Hornbeck (pic 2) and holding him hostage for four years is that whether consciously or not he counted on his neighbors to not give a damn what he did. He counted on his neighbors to be as self centered and selfish as he was. My roommate in NYC is from California and I’m from Jamaica and both of us found the willful anonymity of New Yorkers bracing and disturbing. The idea that I could take the train every day and not tell a single person good morning is foreign to me. I remember last year when I was stranded at JFK and called every person I considered a friend to help out. The response I got from all was “well, let me know how it turns out.” Now it could have been that maybe I was overestimating my closeness to these people, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think people in big cities think privacy; the right to exclude any and everybody from their lives is the only measure of true power that they have left. Selfishness then becomes survival mechanism and personal expression at once.

The only time that New Yorkers broke this rule was 9/11. Not surprisingly the only place now that bears little trace of 9/11 is New York. A question like “how much do you know about your neighbors?” immediately takes on an ominous tone. We are so obsessed with shielding ourselves from potential bogeymen that our very mode of self-protection breeds them by the truckload. Going as I do from one country to the next it has been interesting to see the concept of privacy versus community bend, shape and shift. In America, a new form of human contact has exploded with no need for actual human contact or at least person-to-person or flesh-to-flesh. My Space and You Tube are communities as large as any neighborhood. My best buddy Bill is somebody I see at the most twice a year and our friendship developed totally on MSN. In Jamaica we are coming apart and settling into mini-communities of one. The irony is that the American achievement of new community and the Jamaican devolution into isolation is fueled by the same source: the Internet.

Through the internet Americans have found a new way to interact while Jamaicans have found a new way to cut off from community, perhaps to build what they have always wanted instead of the what they have always been subjected to. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It means for example that gay Jamaicans won’t feel so alone again and teenage Jamaicans can mature without the crushing sense that they have already outgrown the country at 15. But is this a real community? We can interact with each other on the web but I’m not sure we can hold each other accountable. Unlike real life (for the most part) we control what of us people see and hear on the web. I’m sure the web me is more articulate that than the real me. He certainly is better looking, since I used a photoshopped pic from five years and 20 pounds ago (not the one on this blog, I promise, ladies). In a curious way we have managed to be online yet still out of sight and out of mind.

But while I not ready to call an online community a real one yet, that may be just me. I realize that maybe anonymity and community can co-exist. That’s the whole point behind blogs such as this one, for instance. The Internet as a forum for gut truth also blows me away. On, people confess things they would never reveal in church, or to loved ones. There’s rarely any interaction but the onslaught of honest expression results in a community of sorts. It’s the best of ironies, a website for secrets that proves that we are all dying to lose them. My friend knows of a preacher who has an online church and strangely enough because his congregation can be more honest online than in real life he scores more breakthroughs than real churches. But here is why it can never be as good or better than real contact, at least not for me. Even with so many online friends, colleagues and contacts I still spend a Saturday night alone and feeling loneliness so heavy that it’s almost a sickness. And there has to be more to a community than lonely souls being lonely together. Sometimes privacy is just another way of choosing loneliness and sometimes loneliness is as sad as the Beatles told us in Eleanor Rigby.

Still not convinced that privacy is loneliness by choice? Try this experiment. Think or make a list of all your friends. First subtract all that you have met through work. And yes if you’re an artist or musician your fellow artists and musicians count. Now subtract all who are actual family members. Subtract all you met in college. Subtract all who are not really friends, just drinking buddies. Subtract your significant other’s friends. Now subtract all friends you have known more than six years. Still have friends left? Good for you. At least that’s not one of the things you’re keeping private.