In Sight. Out of Touch.
by E. John Winner
The “private individual” is a rather late development in human culture. I could make that case by discussing poetry (especially from the Romantics) or psychology (not by analysis, but by discussing the confidentiality of the therapy session), but I’d rather get into the grit of life that every human confronts at some point, sexual behavior.
The ideal of the private person today – and let’s presume a faithful, happily married individual – is the sexual act taking place behind closed doors, unobserved, and unnoticed by anyone (unless performed in a hotel room, where various sighs and yelps can be heard through the walls). This ideal is now easily realized by the majority of Americans. But it wasn’t always so and it isn’t always so and is actually culturally specific. In the Roman Empire, among the elite, women were expected to keep their pleasures private (because if they were adulterous, this would cause scandal), but men could do it pretty much anywhere, with anyone.
The private marital bed seems to have been an invention of the European upper classes. It did not “trickle down” to the classes below completely until the mid-20th century. In rural America, small land-holders frequently lived in a one- or two-room cabin. The immigrant wave of the 1890’s saw hundreds of thousands of families living in one or two room tenement dwellings, and one of the rooms would be the kitchen. Inuit families in Alaska slept in a single igloo. Extended families in rural Thailand still share a single hut. The notion that this immediacy of grandparents or children necessarily or inevitably prohibits the exchange of bodily fluids among spouses is laughable. When I was first in college, I knew a pair of brothers from Iran, who shared a single studio, and who thought nothing of it if one or the other should bring the woman he was seeing home for the night.
The privacy of sexual behavior is a luxury, and it encourages the sense of the private person that we have come to value in the economically developed world. It is actually a communion between two private persons, a sharing of a secret others must not know. Or at least it was.
With the coming of the internet and its convenient “social media,” which always promises to “connect” us to the world, we may be witnessing the end of the private person. Not through a return to the immediacy or intimacy of the living space shared with an extended family, but by coming to believe that we can share all our secrets with anyone we know, even if we don’t really know them except through some nebulous “online community.” And though we may not share all of our secrets with everyone, every secret will be revealed to someone. How else would we get our “friends” and “likes” and “retweets?”
In a society with few naturally formed communities, we look for communities of common interest to join. These can be support groups, hobby groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or even the neighborhood bar. In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life. This may take on something of the nature of a confession, sometimes with a measure of anxiety. An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment. A recovering alcoholic attending a book club may “confess” a love of books, but feel too anxious to reveal his/her alcoholism. In the process of attending AA, however, this person might discover a fellow alcoholic who likes books. Attending the book club might lead to the discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships may be formed, each community growing tighter as a result.
On the internet, however, though we still join communities, requiring professions, confessions, and sometimes silence, the nature of the relevant social interactions change in a dramatic way. Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website, where the conversations are out in the open, for everyone to see. The other participants are unknown to the poster. Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, but trolls or people trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate “clicks” for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are providing lists of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favorite text. Then comes the inevitable interrogations and commentary: “Are you an alcoholic?” “I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!” “My father was a drunk, and I hated him!” “Why don’t you exercise some willpower?” Under such pressure, our protagonist may suddenly confess his alcoholism. The confession might be made angrily or mournfully, and if done with rhetorical finesse, may earn him the approval of his interlocutors: “Good thing you joined AA! Keep it up!” Regardless, the fact remains that what was a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for. And postings in question are now part of the public record.
Such issues are magnified a thousandfold on “social media” sites like Facebook. There, the communities are shallower and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access is more open and less controlled, though this frequently goes unnoticed by those posting to their page. They think they are sharing with family and “friends” (whom they’ve never met or spoken to, face to face). But their audience may include trolls, their employers, myriad criminals and predators, government agencies, and certainly advertisers.
So, I don’t think it’s largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it. Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet. It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc., all the unpleasantness of real human contact – the internet is so much more convenient. That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here. I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters. But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.
Let’s consider this through the lens of an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website:
Confession can feel like liberation, because it seems to unburden us of our shame. It can also be a forum for the display of democratic virtues, including the honesty, bravery and humility evident in St Augustine’s Confessions. But if one believes [Michel] Foucault, it is always a ruse. We always confess to someone – in the presence of an authority, real or imagined. When people post online, it is always for a supposed audience; it is never purely gratuitous.
What manifests itself as a certain shamelessness, then, might in fact be precisely the opposite. The approbation of the digital crowd has come to fill in for the authority of the confessor – or, to put it another way, it acts as a substitute for Socrates’ inner voice of moral conscience. People unburden themselves to their followers in the hope that their needs will be validated, their opinions affirmed, their quirks delightfully accepted. The result is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them. (1)
DeBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and social media. Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist societies. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest and most cherished secrets are available for view and review in particular circumstances. This helps create a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others), is disseminated through language and shared interests. One essential aspect of such power relationships has to do with how we seek to be seen and how we seek to see others. We may be watched by the state, but first we are watched by parents, peers, neighbors, fellow congregants in a religious institution, as well as the strangers one meets in a shop or on a bus. Of course, society has a hierarchical structure, so those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.
What deBrabander wants to know is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generates echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result, is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” That is, society as a whole gradually ceases to consist of communities of reasonably responsible individuals with shared values and interests, interacting in order to find some common ground. Instead, society fragments into differing and essentially opposing camps, within which conformity of behavior is expected from participant members. And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority, since the position of watchdog of the whole defaults to those who can afford to maintain and police the system.
Everything about us is shameful in some sense and yet everything must be confessed, and we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative. Shame exists as a social function, helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However, the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus, anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. For instance, a bald head could be considered shameful among the hirsute, especially if religious values are involved. So, in Jamaica, the dreadlock-wearing Rastafarians used shame interlopers at their gatherings as “baldheads,” back in the 1970’s. When values conflict, one either converts and conforms, at least publicly, or one finds a different community to join, or one makes public any private disagreement, and disputes it e.g., “I share your values, but I interpret this value differently.” This last tactic was what ultimately disarmed the “baldhead” shaming tactic. Is the value in question really about hair or is it about living naturally, “as God wishes,” and letting the hair take care of itself? Such interaction modifies the relationship between individuals and the community, and may prove healthy to a durable and open community. What was private (“I lost my hair due to an illness I’ve been afraid to “discuss”) becomes public (“Now I don’t have to wear this dreadlock wig anymore!”), and the community readjusts its priorities in the process. (2)
However, in the globalized social media, groups form around what the participants think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. There is no real opportunity for the individual to take responsibility or to make a case for a difference in shared values. If we take presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However, since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo especially those at the top of the hierarchy, with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.
It’s pointless to get paranoid about all of this, but in learning to live with it, it helps to recognize that it is, and to understand what it is. To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player. Last year he signed a lucrative ten-year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract. Obviously, he doesn’t want to confess this fact about himself to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, in order to receive a proper diagnosis. It’s positive, so in order to better cope, he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers. Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers, but he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they will think that such interests are “gay.” While this obviously is untrue, let’s also assume that our player is gay and doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know, since it’s one of the only venues in which he can find romantic partners and happens to be within walking distance of his horticulture club. To make things more complicated still, he doesn’t want the people at the bar to know about his horticutlural interests, as it is a leather bar, frequented by “bears” and flowers are considered fey and “twink.” Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he is also an atheist.
Now you might tell this football player that his participation in various social groups put him in a tense and precarious situation, which could be ameliorated considerably if he only would confess the relevant secrets to the relevant parties. But of course, while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have, especially if, for example, his team’s management decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract.
Now imagine the same story, but told within the universe of the Internet. Under various pseudonyms, our football player engages people on sports sites,sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea, on gay sites, horticulture sites, Christian sites for relatives of alcoholics, and atheist sites. On each site, he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation that he thinks he’s keeping hidden from those in the other groups he is involved with. But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses and the fact that the people on these sites typically do not communicate with each other. But in fact, all of his pseudonyms can be traced back to him, and everything about him can be known.
The ease of access to the Internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the “friending” and “liking” on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms and “handles,” have led us to believe that we have control over our presence on the Web. But this is not true. To socialize at all, we surrender something of ourselves to the groups with which we are involved. On the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the Internet, our browsing is tracked so as to advertise to us. These are provided by software programs, but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So, there is no invisible presence on the Internet. We enter it revealed, already “confessed” by the websites we visit. And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the Internet will be registered in a database in some government agency’s mainframe.
Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But it does mean that, the more you engage with social media, the more you lose your once private self. Even today, some lovers post videos of their lovemaking on the internet, and while this is still relativley rare, it eventually may become the norm. Perhaps by then our lovers will be life-like androids; silicon-fleshed robots with about as much soul as we will have ourselves, by that point. The only secrets we will keep will regard a culture we have lost; the one we once shared with the people we touched.
2. Of course, there have always been communities too rigid to allow such inclusive modifications, far too many. But even interacting with such rigidity is simply an inevitable part of the negotiations that individuals must make with the communities in which they live. The question here is whether ‘online’ communities show greater or lesser tendencies toward openness to such modification; and I suggest that the vast majority – since they are primarily verbal communities – show less willingness to permit value-altering disagreements. It’s much easier to say (or ‘shout’) no to a faceless ‘handle’ than to confront those with whom we actually live.