Mad as Hell

As Ian McEwan’s last few novels and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking attest, writers engage readers by using descriptive details in place of vague generalities and by revealing their true, unvarnished selves.

Recently, I’ve been wondering, how do writers, including bloggers, reveal their true, unvarnished selves while maintaining some semblance of privacy?  And this question is complicated when, in being transparent, a writer also reveals details about close family and friends.  For example, right as I was launching this blog, I published a commentary in the Tacoma News Tribune originally titled “The Social Cost of Wealth.”  I forget what the editor changed the title to.  In the essay, I argued there is a psychic disconnect between affluent people and those struggling to make ends meet, a disconnect that impairs social relations.  The only way I could help readers grasp that idea was to provide concrete examples. 

The problem was my wife was uncomfortable with a few of the details provided in some of the examples.  In essence she was saying, “It’s one thing for you to sacrifice some of your privacy for the sake of your craft, but I’d prefer to manage my privacy myself.”  Makes perfect sense. 

So now I’m trying to reveal as little as possible about close family and friends while revealing just enough about me to engage readers and maintain some semblance of privacy.  Tough balancing act. 

Currently I’m reading a special section from a recent Wall Street Journal about anticipated technological changes over the next 10 years.  One conclusion I’m drawing is that whether we’re writers or not, our privacy will continue to ebb unless more of us begin tapping our inner Howard Beale and begin yelling at those who couldn’t care less about our privacy, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” 

Nothing short of “Seattle World Trade Organization in the streets” type of resistance will probably make any difference.

Recently I was walking into the Tampa Bay Aquarium when a guy reached out for my elbow and tried to pull my family and me over to his makeshift camera studio.  He had a digital camera on a tri-pod, stools, and some dorky, ocean-themed backdrop.  He was pouncing, staging, and snapping before acquiescing families even knew what hit them.  Jerking my elbow away I said, “No, I don’t want our picture taken.”  Incredulous, he looked at me as if I was the first person to ever say no to him. 

I didn’t want him to have digital images of my wife, children, and me on his computer.  And I don’t want to have to give Big 5 my address and phone number every time I want to buy a pair of frickin’ swim goggles.  And I don’t want video cameras on every street pole like in London.  And I don’t want GPS devices alerting others exactly where I am.  And I don’t want marketers tracking my purchases in order to individualize their advertising. 

Even if I stick my head out of my window and yell, “I’m mad as hell” I don’t think I can stop the further denigration of my privacy without tens of millions of other people getting equally as pissed off.  I don’t see that happening so I’m resigned to a certain erosion of my privacy. 

Few adults are helping young people think privacy issues through as they dive headfirst into Facebook, MySpace, and related social networks.  Admittedly, there are security concerns in London and elsewhere, GPS devices are wonderfully helpful at times, and many people look forward to customized advertising, but too few people are thinking through the negative consequences of these technological advances.  Instead, they’re mindlessly acquiescing to predatory photographers and high tech marketers.  Once they get concerned about the loss of privacy, it will be too late.  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Twenty-three years ago I was chasing my now wife around southernmost Mexico.  One day we hiked from one small village to another just outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas.  It was a beautiful walk that culminated with a sharp descent onto a small zocalo where the most unexpected event imaginable was taking place.  Indigenous Indians were hoopin’ it up in a ragged basketball tournament.  The tallest player might have been 5’5”.  They were very physical, but not very good. 

I was hoping some team would be a man short and I could channel Kareem Abdul Jabbar but that wasn’t to be.  I didn’t think people would believe my descriptions of the scene so I took out my camera, focused the zoom lens, and began snapping away.  An Indian sitting behind me made a “tsskk” sound, which I took to mean “Hi” in his language.  I kept snapping away, but couldn’t help notice the “tsskk” change to “TSSKK!”  Culturally oblivious, I continued to focus in when “SMACK” he hit my zoom lens with a stick.  That I understood.  Soon after I learned Chiapas Indians believe that when their picture is taken, a part of their soul is entrapped inside the camera. 

I wonder am I sacrificing a part of my soul every time I provide personal information to a business, make a purchase on-line, or add to my blog?  Like my Indian friend and my wife, I want to manage my soul, but Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley are formidable foes especially when they team up.  Anything short of a mass movement of tens of millions of people refusing to be grabbed by the elbow and the continuing erosion of our privacy is all but certain.


6 thoughts on “Mad as Hell

  1. WOW – once again brilliant – I was thinking about putting a FACEBOOK portfolio up sometime tomorrow morning but after having had a chance to experience your wisdom I’ve decided against it – LOVE YOU MAN

  2. Hey, I hope your adventure is treating you well. And if you need to take someone’s privacy for granted, mine’s up for grabs. Use as needed.

    And as long as we are squirting toothpaste can we make sure that it is Pepsodent? It is the best brand ever. Not only is it delicious, but it runs at about 89 cents a tube. If corporate headquarters asked me to sit in the Tampa Bay Aquarium and advertise by taking photos of cute families, I would do it without reservations. And if you refused, driven by my loyalty, I would most likely tackle you.

    The point being…maybe there are some brands of toothpaste that are meant to be squirted to make a point, and others that should just stay in the tube, know what I mean?

  3. I first knew my privacy was in jeopardy when see-through glass showers became trendy. Who wants to watch people do yoga while trying to shave their legs, especially since without my glasses on it becomes a dangerous stunt as well. Seriously, a future You Tube video in the making. But I digress…if you look up my neighborhood on Google Earth you could tell who was at home that day and who wasn’t. A little hacking…a little knowledge….and we can all be our own voyeurs. It’s tough to decide if it’s a yen to be acknowledged as special, even if for an instant, in response to feeling less than unique in an age of globalization, when we are more aware than ever that we really are one in a billion, lost in the crowd. Or is it simply a need to establish control in a world that feels increasingly distant and uncontrollable?

    I’m deleting my MySpace page and making a professional Facebook page. But when I’m old and gray and no one expects me to be “cool” and technologically up-to-date I’m chucking it all and going off the grid. That crazy old lady living in the hut in the woods is going to be me :)

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