“…at the same time I felt so strongly the pull of another thing, a thing having to do with music, freedom, the future, individuality. This is an important reason why I became a writer, I think, for in everything I write, I am seeking freedom, which to me is a state that is inaccessible to the gaze of others. And this state, which is not only shameless but also selfless, is not unlike a child’s way of being in the world.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard, qtd in Harper’s Dec. 2014
The strange case of Alex Lee hit the New York Times this week. A snapshot of Alex, a sixteen-year-old Texas Target clerk, posted on Twitter (without his knowledge or consent), has already led to an Internet sensation, an appearance on “Ellen,” and the usual general fifteen minutes of puffery. And — this being the Internet — it’s also led to death threats and the release of his family’s personal information online. What on earth? Why would anyone threaten a boy and his family just because another teenager posted his picture? Well, probably just because they can. Which leaves us — again — confronting the dark side of the Internet, and what (not only who) it endangers.
Alex and his family have had their privacy shredded (although, to be fair, they did go on “Ellen,”) all because of a stranger’s Twitter-enabled whim. But then, the Internet excels at subjecting us, without our consent, to strangers’ whims and bad decisions. When the link between thought and action, person and person-with-a-grudge, desire and “fame,” can be so dramatically shortened by the medium, and when law and ethics (as is the case with any technology) lag so far behind in addressing and analyzing these connections, we should be concerned. Especially considering, the swamp of online threats against feminist video-game critics and other outspoken women, it’s worth being wary of how instant access to information turns into access to us. Rebecca Solnit has just written a great piece on this in Harper’s, issuing a warning to the tech-prophets seeking tech-profits via a 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial :
“If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating, in the company of friends and family — all of them eternally elsewhere. Apple’s iPhones will make their users trackable at all times unless they take unadvertised measures to disable that feature. They will be part of the rise of the Internet, which will savage privacy, break down journalism as we know it, and create elaborate justifications for never paying artists or writers — an Internet that will be an endless soup of grim porn and mean-spirited chat and rumor and trolling and new ways to buy things we don’t need while failing to make the contact we do need.”
The Internet has shortened the distance between impulse and fulfillment but widened the distance between us, reversing the mature moral order of being in the world, in which (ideally) action should follow reflection and we should take others as seriously as we take ourselves. (Yeah, that’s why I said “ideal.”) Even as we succumb to the impulse to tweet the picture of the cute boy or snap a picture of a stranger, we’re not really thinking about him as a person, as a human subjectivity who’s as real to himself as we are. He’s just a shadow, a simulacrum, an image, a ghost. On political comment boards or news websites, he’s The Other, The Enemy, The Opponent, He Who Must Be Flamed/Smacked Down/Shamed. And if that doesn’t work, pull out a threat of violence, or if “He” is a woman, rape. “He” is so far away. And, after all, “He” is less real than you are, with your needs and your insecurities and your own desire to make an impression on the world that seems so close and yet so far away. “He” doesn’t have a family or a job, doesn’t feel pain or fear, has no life beyond the screen.
The irony of using a blog to talk about the Internet doesn’t escape me. Even as a college professor writing a book about reclaiming our attentiveness in a distracted world, skeptical of smartphones and Twitter (neither of which I have), I still use email and online course platforms every day. Yet I’m hoping that the presence of ethical users can keep the Internet trading good ideas, too, helping to sustain our own dignity in a world that’s always whittling the human down to the mechanical. In his “Principles of Newspeak” appendix to Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell traces the link between complexity of language, nuance of thought, and plenitude of the self. Party members in his fictional “Ingsoc” state speak an oversimplified argot called “Newspeak,” which makes some ideas (conveniently for those in power) impossible to imagine: “There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond [one’s] power to commit,” Orwell writes, “simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.” His hero Winston Smith notes that
In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentrity.
For Orwell, Ownlife is the site of resistance to all that would colonize, commodify, or subject humanity. Ownlife is where reflection lives, and consideration for others as well as oneself, and the realization that you and your present concerns are not all there is to the world. It’s what we sink into when we experience an unmediated moment of joy, without a selfie to capture it, or freeze in wonder as a comet hurtles across the sky. It’s where we don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone, where our identity doesn’t rest on anyone’s opinions. It’s where we are alone, whether we like it or not. It’s what we escape when we fill the minutes between things, thumbing our phones. It’s not profitable. It’s dignified and quiet, if we let it be. And it’s what’s endangered if someone photographs us (and circulates that image) without our consent. Which is why it’s worth protecting — legally as well as morally — in order to protect our own humanity.
I’m thinking less about celebrities or figures who step knowingly into the Internet spotlight than about the private citizens who may find themselves on the wrong end of Internet image-alienation without quite knowing how. Media law already provides degrees of redress for private and public citizens seeking to retain control of their own “image and likeness,” yet every day, a new conundrum — from Facebook’s ownership of all your personal posted images to an old mistake following you around for years until you plead for “the right to be forgotten” — shows how far behind reality the law actually is. Will it ever catch up with the way the Internet alienates image of person from person, likeness from reality, simulacrum from object, and then sends those unhooked images, thin as playing cards, around the world for years to serve the needs of (and make money for) people the original person will never meet, contributing “content” that swells the coffers of corporations who will never pay us for what is, technically, our own information? (Read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future for more on this.)
Despite having grown up in a world in which omnipresent smartphones (and smartphone photos and videos) are “normal,” many of my college students haven’t quite thought about how Snapchatting can go wrong. Some have heard of the Jennifer Lawrence hack, but few have realized her private photos, shared privately, had been stolen out of the “cloud” – in which all our supposedly “private” content rests – which means the same thing could happen to any of them. Some students offer versions of many people’s responses to Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I worry about surveillance? I don’t have anything to hide.” Yet this point of view ignores the reality of how a theft of image and likeness does echo “primitive” peoples’ stereotypical fear of cameras: that box that captures your picture also steals your soul. And it does look very much like soul-stealing, once your image gets alienated from you and bent to other ends, in ways that can follow you around the Net for the rest of your life. Especially when that endangers your Orwellian ownlife, in which the dignity of a private self is its own end and reward — not to mention when, as in the threats against Alex, the dangers are literal.
So what can we do? Well, first of all, we can do our part to be ethical on the Net, brightening and enriching the communities of which we are members. We can investigate tools like reputation.com, Ghostery, and other online management techniques for blocking trackers and avoiding dissemination of private information without our knowledge. (Searching for your own name plus the names of towns in which you’ve lived can be very revealing.) We can avoid feeding the Facebook beast beyond the point of reasonable social or professional use (particularly with images of ourselves we wouldn’t want, say, parents or employers to see — students, I’m talking to you.) But most of all we can cultivate in ourselves the habits of attention, mindfulness, and quiet, without the Internet, that cultivate our Ownlife — that irreplaceable thing that we can choose every day to protect or to give away.
** Updates (Nov. 19):
Reasons to be concerned about this if you are a parent: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/data_mine_1/2013/09/facebook_privacy_and_kids_don_t_post_photos_of_your_kids_online.html?wpsrc=fol_fb
And reasons to be concerned if you are a teacher or professor: http://dailynous.com/2014/11/18/philosophy-grad-student-target-of-political-smear-campaign/