January 25, 2010

The Ministries of Oceania

I am beginning to wonder if I am feeling a strange sense of dislocation at the moment because I am a proponent of privacy and limits in a time that recognizes and respects neither. My generation evolved through the slow peeling away of privacy; my nieces and nephews are growing up in a world that promotes full exposure as not just a norm, but a new social good.

Living as I do at the ground zero of technological-advancements-in-privacy-stripping (Google is just down the street, Facebook is just up the road) and married as I am to a technology guru, I get a large dose of this daily. And in response, I often find myself floating on my own tiny cloud, made up of equal parts resistance and denial, trying hard to hover just above the furious expose-all activities on the ground. Truly, I do not want to live in a time where anyone and their mother can post pictures of me anywhere, or 'tag' me, or document me, without my consent -- but more so, I don't want to live in a time where people think that doing so is living, is community, is communication. But I do. As do we all.

I have moved beyond the "why" on this one; all the generations that follow me (I am 44 this year) will have no cognitive dissonance. They will not experience the death of privacy, the letting go of limits, any feeling of distant regard for others, because apparently now those things just do not exist as part of the human community. Instead we have endless reportage and visuals on all the moments of everyone's life available all the time. And I find the pressure to engage in this way of being totally exhausting. Not because I don't care about all those representations of real persons, myself included, commenting on themselves on the Internet, but because feeling that I am or we all are now required to care, as part of being human, is exhausting. And it makes me worry about others' understanding of free will.

A few weeks back, I got into a brief discussion about legalizing marijuana in California with a man who is all for it, and I pointed out that I would prefer that people who smoke pot don't do so near me, since I don't want to be exposed to THC or have it impact my brain activity against my will. I said I thought, as an aspect of a civil community, it really was worth considering the violation of others' free will when you are smoking a mind-altering substance in their presence -- unlike, say, the impact of someone drinking alcohol near me, which would not impact my brain at all. And this had not occurred to him, or anyone else around the table. To me this was the most relevant point in the whole discussion about legalizing marijuana, and here I was talking to some who were actually activists on the subject, and they had not considered what it was to violate someone's free will.

I do view human experience as totally subjective; like every other person out there, I see and think things in my own manner. I respect everyone has their own will, limits, desires. And though I do fail at times, I generally try not to impede. But I am, I find, often impeded upon, when I encounter people who do not see privacy as an actual aspect of a real life.

The wonderful thing about having a sense of privacy is that your life is shared with those you care for and trust, and strong bonds are built on the sharing. A dearth of privacy, of limits, makes everything shared seem commonplace and not unique; the singular experience of one's self, one's view, one's truly particular perspective is not reveled in or valued, but runs second to the communal self, the shared-on-Facebook self. And ultimately, and perhaps to me most disturbing, is the idea that shared information in a shared format means a shared emotional state -- or at least a shared sense of 'correct' emotional responses. But in truth, 90% of what I feel when I read others' status updates is never shared, and what is shared is often pablum. And I doubt I am alone in this.

The poet Yeats said "It is no little thing to accept one's own thought when the thought of others has the authority of the world behind it" -- and he encouraged readers to strive to accept their own thoughts over others' anyway, because he knew the "authority of the world" is a seriously constraining idea. Because no, we don't all wear the same shoes. Conformity of response is a constraining idea. Not recognizing others' free will is a constraining idea. And perhaps setting aside respect for privacy in favor of swimming in the communal pool is the most constraining idea of all.