News Brendan O’Connor

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sometimes it's better not to share, especially not with the whole world

At the risk of being regarded as a weird object of suspicion, Brendan O'Connor wants a private life

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

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OUT IN THE OPEN: For the younger generation, life online and in public is the norm — it’s where their friends are, where they socialise, and where they seek validation
OUT IN THE OPEN: For the younger generation, life online and in public is the norm — it’s where their friends are, where they socialise, and where they seek validation

This is my secret internet shame. Sometimes, maybe through an email or something, I get directed on to a friend's Twitter account.

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And I have a little look. I'm not on Twitter myself so I haven't been drip-fed anyone's Twitter persona, allowing me to get used to it over time. Instead, I take it all in one chunk. Sometimes I can be there for an hour or more, going back through people's Twitter lives, fascinated and sometimes slightly appalled. Obviously it feels a bit grubby. Like spying on them or something.

But then I remind myself that these people put this out there, for public consumption, so it's not as if I'm reading their diary. And I remind myself I actually know this person better than most of the people who are reading this stuff, so if anyone is entitled to read it, I am. And anyone is entitled to read it. It's an open book.

Invariably, the same issues crop up for me: "I didn't know they knew that person"; "Why didn't they just send a text?"; "They're much funnier in real life"; and then, eventually, "Do I know this person at all?" followed by, "Why are they doing this?"

And then I wonder about me. I wonder about the compartments I have in my life. I wonder at how I would say something to one person that I wouldn't say to another person; at how I am possibly a slightly different me with different people; how I trust some people more than I trust other people. I wonder at how I would die if I sent the wrong text to the wrong person. I wonder at how I would not be comfortable conducting conversations with people over the loud hailer that is Twitter. And I wonder if there's something wrong with me that I have secrets and lies, that I don't share everything with everyone. Is this a bad thing now? Does it mean I am a bad person? Does it mean I am a deviant?

Maybe. Except the thing is: I thought we were all deviants. I thought we all did and said things in private that were unacceptable, that you wouldn't want everyone to hear. I do firmly believe we all have deviant minds to some extent. As valuable and wise as the unconscious mind is, I think it is a cesspool too, a cesspool whose impulses need to be subjected to the civilising influence of the conscious mind before they are fit for human consumption. But maybe that's just me. While I like to think I am a fairly open person, I believe we all, for our sanity, need a private self, a private self that we censor.

Or maybe I am just naïve. Maybe the notion that we should have a private self is a quaint one. Maybe technology is slowly rewiring human neurology, actually causing people to evolve to a higher state, where a private self – and with it, secrets, lies, and thus maybe its shame – is no longer necessary.

I am always nervous of being an old geezer writing about the internet. I am conscious that the bright new generation regards people my age as irrelevant old dinosaurs, the same way I regarded old fogeys when I was young and I owned the future. But as you go on in life you learn that there are certain fundamentals that underpin everything, certain aspects of humanity that transcend the current technology.

One of the fundamental issues that the age of the internet speaks to is the notion of the private self and the public self. I remember talking to Baratunde Thurston on the Saturday Night Show some time back. Baratunde is a US comedian, formerly of The Onion, who does a lot of work with technology companies. He was a sharp and reflective guy. At the end of the conversation, when we were wrapping up, he just casually shoved in there that he believed that technology was going to align our public selves with our private selves, that the person we were publicly would become the person we were privately, and that this could only be a good thing.

And I have to admit that, being the dinosaur I am, it alarmed me slightly. The notion of complete transparency of the individual is a common one among the digital-native generation, who grew up with social networking and the internet and maybe never knew any other world. Ask a lot of those kids and they will tell you they don't guard their privacy because they have no desire for privacy.

As Mark Zuckerberg, who has made billions from sharing, says, a lack of privacy is now the social norm. We now have a generation that views privacy as something from the old world. Privacy breeds hypocrisy as far as these kids are concerned. Privacy is what allows people to be duplicitous, to say one thing while practising another. Privacy was what allowed corruption to thrive. Privacy was what allowed Charlie Haughey to get away with it. Privacy was at the root of the Magdalene laundries and the Church's abuse of children.

So these kids think it is better to have it all out there, to shine the light everywhere, and to not have dark corners where bad things can happen. And anyone who is reluctant to live a transparent life clearly has something to hide.

You can see where these kids are coming from. The public online life for them is where their friends, their community, are and where they interact. It is also, to them, a place where intimacy is fostered and friendships made. It is also a place where they get validation.

These kids might also argue that we are the deluded ones, clinging on to our old-fashioned notions of privacy. They might tell us that there is no privacy anymore anyway so we might as well get with the programme and at least control our public selves. They might tell us we need to acknowledge and accept that there is loads of information out there about our private selves. They might also tell us that it is us, with our notions of privacy, who are the narcissistic ones, the unhealthy ones.

They might point out to us that privacy is not an innate human drive but a culturally specific notion that only developed as we got more bedrooms and more walls and more homes. They might tell us that in the times of ancient Greece and Rome moods were a public thing, life was very much a public thing and the notion of the private self would have been considered bizarre.

The one thing I would say to these kids is that I knew everything when I was their age as well. And then life happens to you, things you never expected to happen, things that are not part of the plan – tragedy and crises and all kinds of other messy stuff. And sometimes, though it seems inconceivable now, you might want some privacy. And as perfect as you are right now, you might sometimes do something you don't want to tell everyone about. Because people do.

I might also say to them that what they think is this organically developing new way of being is as much a commodity as anything else. It represents huge corporations who essentially steal your identity and then sell it back to you.

And then I would encourage them to read Dave Eggers's recent novel The Circle, a very plausible satire on where social networking and sharing are going. In the book, everyone's online identity – financial, personal, political, everything – is ultimately subsumed into their profile on The Circle and not sharing at all times makes someone an object of suspicion, a weird loner, not a team player, not a Circle person. And eventually The Circle decides that they should run democracy as well, to make voting easier and to get the numbers up. The scary thing about The Circle was not how easy it could become for us to lose our right to a private self, but the fact that the book could plausibly have been set six months to a year from now and it didn't seem that far-fetched.

Ultimately I think I have to resign myself to the fact that I will not be part of this brave new world. I will be one of those suspicious weirdoes who wants to have a private life.

In the words of Edward Snowden, "I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded."

Sunday Independent

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