In the New York Times’ “The Lives They Lived”, just above a brief, hard elegy for the wonderful NYT reporter David Carr who also died this year, is a really interesting obituary written by the wonderful comedian Aziz Anzari. The piece is for his friend Harris Wittels, who died in February from a heroin overdose. Anzari chooses to show the personality of his friend from scraps of digital ephemera the friend left behind: SMS, chats, emails, podcast recordings of him. It’s a funny and interesting way to show who he was.
My friend Harris Wittels died in February, but his name still occasionally pops up in my email, my Gchat, my Facebook feed and my text messages. It hurts, because for a second, I forget what has happened, and then this electronic ghost forces me to remember all over again.
What do you do? Are you supposed to delete the friend from your phone? It feels mean. The person just died, now I have to ‘‘delete’’ him?
When these digital ghosts pop up, I usually end up going down a rabbit hole, scrolling through these old exchanges and remembering my friend.
This piece made me think about something I find myself thinking more and more about. It has occurred to me – I might even have mentioned it on this blog – that historians who want to examine my generation (I’m 30-something) will be the first to have the option to write a near total biography for us.
The future of dying, or dying after Snowden: Future historians of our generation or a generation very near into the future may very well have access to unsealed NSA databases, our Gmail accounts, bank statements, search histories, Amazon purchases, or other data sets from other countries’ intelligence services or digital archives. They may also have access to AI data mining capabilities which can compile and correlate a vast number of different archives about us if they are so interested. They may have access to all of our phone metadata, geolocations; who we talked to, when, where. Maybe the content of quite a lot of calls and emails.
In short, they may in fact know everything we have ever done, in astounding, fine-grained detail, from the mid 00’s onward. Little secrets you kept from your wife. Awkward childhood experiences you only emailed your psychologist about one time. Who your favourite writer is. What kind of bodies you prefer on your fantasy sex partners. The last time you had a drink (what kind of drink). A sexist comment you left on a blog in 2005 that isn’t who you really are (yes it is – you’re the person who did that).
My point is that our lives might be way more public than we think they are. There are all sorts of ethical debates about this, but sooner or later, our most private lives might end up being subject to intense scrutiny by people we would not grant access, possibly people with entirely different ethical standards than our own.
My understanding of privacy, of the meaning of that collapsing, eroding term, is the ability to control what information about your person is public knowledge. It is the right to have non-public parts of yourself. The right to tell your story and to choose which parts not to tell. This idea, the idea of future knowledge of our most private lives, seems on the face of it to be a fundamental violation of privacy. But will it be when I’m dead? When everyone who ever knew me is dead?
But then, I liberally partake of similar violations of privacy when it comes to, say, Shakespeare. Ever read Will In the World? It’s amazing how much we know about William Shakespeare’s private life, given that the data set we have to work with is sparse, patchy. Mostly a few public records and a letter here and there. A few scraps of handwriting and some legal documents: we are deep, deep inside his head, because we wanted it bad enough. If you are a famous person, you need to assume that every little thing you do is known to posterity, because if people will be interested, they will find out.
Let me make three points here.
- Cardinal Richelieu is supposed to have said “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” It’s apocryphal, but whoever said it, they were on to something. Privacy is a matter of safety, and there is, I think, a deep personal fear that the laying bare of our innermost thoughts and most private actions would not stand up to scrutiny. Imagining our future historians going over our porn choices after our fourth drink; the angry email you sent to a coworker; the late night stop you made in 2008, at the apartment of a man you didn’t know and who wasn’t your boyfriend. It’s impostor syndrome: what if they find out who I really am? (Or, as David Cameron recently found out: what if they all think the prime minister once had sex with a dead pig?)
- A guy I met back just after 9/11 once told me that he tried to live was that he lived as if everything he did might at any moment become a matter of public record. He was – as a consequence I guess? – fantastically unashamed of his life. If privacy does begin to crumble, this span of culture we are in will probably be the end of one particular kind of shame culture and the beginning of another.When a generation of public figures comes to take the reins of power in twenty, thirty years, well, here’s a scenario: there will be sex tapes of all of them, because they all had, in the words of Dan Savage, porn production studios in their pockets as teenagers. There will be videos of them beating people up as teenagers. We will see them vomiting in ditches, giving head to much, much older men and drinking tequila shots from the graves of random strangers. But will we care? Will we (as I wrote about here) just be done with being upset about that kind of thing?
- If nothing else causes you to be upset about the NSA and everything it has done over the past fifteen years, how about this: it has already made sure that there is at least a pretty good chance that every dirty secret you have ever had will be a matter of public record in a hundred years. The story people tell about you will be, by then, completely beyond your control. That’s a significant crime. The historians will thank us, but it’s a violation of our fundamental rights.On the other hand, the future might be less judging of us than we are. Odds are, they’ll be far more upset about our lack of action on climate change than our indiscretions and human failings. Maybe, by then, they’ll have finally realised that failing to live up to our own standards is a fundamental human trait.