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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

A World Of Secrets


The world has never been a very private place. For most of human history we have lived huddled together for protection in caves and villages, towns and cities. Only the very rich could afford the luxury of being alone. So we are by habit a gregarious, curious species, and we like to know our neighbors' business. The more we know about the people around us the more comfortable we feel – so long as what we know is fairly harmless. Feeling at home in a village or a city is largely a matter of learning something about our neighbors, but not too much.

This changed with the invention of suburbs. In the spread-out subdivisions ordinary families can have all the privacy they can stand. Each separate suburban home is a cave of secrets. There are people all around us, but they might as well be Martians for all we know about them. So, in places like Long Island and Connecticut, we have become accustomed to a high degree of privacy, and most of us are happy with that. If suburban life had a motto it would be: "None of your business."

Whenever there is no problem technology will step in to create one. We are now in the midst of a full-blown hysteria about privacy on the Internet. Not only are there prying gadgets everywhere – tiny voice recorders, video cameras, and GPS transmitters that can follow our every step and misstep – but the whole Internet has become a world of personal secrets waiting to be discovered.

I'm not talking about security for things like financial information. We all need that, although it too seems to be a lost cause. But what amazes me is how many people post all kinds of intimate, personal stuff on the web, or send it via e-mail, and then complain bitterly when strangers take an interest in it.

What is remarkable about these complaints is the sense of fatalism, as if we absolutely MUST post every detail of our personal lives on the social media. We can't choose not to, any more than we can choose not to eat or breathe. Once on the Internet everything becomes public property. It seems perverse to complain when unauthorized people to take a peek, whether with the aim of selling you something or checking your political opinions, or simply using your private life as entertainment. But nobody HAS to post all their intimate secrets on the Internet, it's purely voluntary. If for example you choose to post embarrassing pictures of yourself – which I as a humanitarian would never do - it must be assumed that people will look, and probably laugh.

For some of us privacy is not a problem, because we have no secrets worth knowing about. But if your life is more like a daytime soap opera, or late night Playboy movie, and you must share it, I recommend taking a giant step backwards in time to old-fashioned and even historic communication methods such as the letter, the private conversation, or even the call on a wired phone, if you can find one.

You might also check the dictionary for an old-fashioned word: "reticence," meaning the habit of keeping private things to yourself. Chances are that you don't know many intimate or scandalous things about your grandparents, not because they were paragons of virtue or even because they had no Internet to broadcast their secrets, but because your grandparents probably did know the meaning of reticence.

Copyright: David Bouchier