I remember the day I first logged on to the Internet. It was the early 1990s. I had a desktop Windows PC, and one of those never-ending America Online [now AOL] promo discs that we all received in the mail. Sitting at an old wooden typewriter desk, I was about to upload and pay for the service and send my first email. There I was, no longer isolated in my apartment, but now connected to the world. The excitement, the thrill of that moment, to suddenly feel expansive, global, a part of something so much larger than myself. Fascinated, I spent hours on the Internet discovering websites, people, music, and photos. It was an intoxicating, bordering on addictive pastime.
I felt a sense of pride, too. I had embraced, this new technology, and was sending emails and receiving instant messages on the "information superhighway." I felt hip and current, "surfing the web." I couldn’t have imagined that some 20 years later, my initial excitement about connectedness and a new kind of creativity would slowly devolve into a growing apprehension and disenchantment for a medium that has become an increasingly intrusive, pervasive and invasive presence in our everyday routines and private lives.
The Internet, that adventurous new road of discovery and possibility, became just another mall, another TV, another Cineplex. The previously pleasantly helpful search engines (remember Dogpile?) became a new breed of corporate advertising agency mining us, the users, for market research consumer data and clogging the "superhighway" with nonstop billboards.
Who could have anticipated the effects of the shift to Web 2.0 and its open-source nature? Now we Internet users were not just connected, we were interactive. Then we went from people being connected and interactive, to the capability of devices being interconnected: computers to cameras to TV and radio to cell phones to game consoles. With the advent of smartphones, the ubiquitousness of the Internet is now full blown. A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that "35% of American adults own a smartphone" and that "one quarter of smartphone owners use their phone for most of their online browsing." Already an astonishing number, this trend will only increase as the cost of smartphones and services drop and more people adopt mobile phones over the fading technology of “land lines.” According to another recent Pew report, a whopping 65 percent of people online belong to some kind of social networking site.
We couldn't be more interconnected and accessible, which has become both the blessing and the curse of the digital age. While we are busy exposing ourselves to others through the nonstop production of text, photography and video content somewhere on the Internet every second, what used to be private and personal to most people has suddenly become public, without a thought, it seems. Behaviors that in a pre-digital, pre-Internet world we would have considered rude, unethical or even criminal are now tolerated and considered acceptable online. For example, it has become socially acceptable to write profane or rude comments under a blog post with an anonymous name. Most people would not tolerate this kind of behavior in real time What has happened to a healthy sense of boundaries and personal space? Even the word "privacy" is beginning to sound like an anachronism and old-fashioned.
One interesting and questionable phenomenon to me is the behavior of parents towards their children and how they talk about them on social media. There are some privacy controls on Facebook and Twitter (eroding by the minute with Facebook's new design), I often see parents posting about what Jennifer or Jake did or said on a particular day and even photos of their children on various social media platforms. Why post these things on a public platform, displaying your child's private life to complete strangers, even if it's limited to a privacy setting of a few hundred "friends" and "followers"? These are the same parents who are fiercely protective of their children from Web predators, but seem to have no problem chronicling their child's every move online. Surely, the child has a right to privacy. Their life story is personal, and, offline, how many people would actually receive this information in one's real life? Your spouse, maybe a few friends, a close relative, in total, perhaps a half dozen people. It feels wrong, like too much information, and I'm embarrassed for the child, who hasn't a clue that their silly, cute or disgusting antics have been discussed online. Is this in the best interest of the child?
Another questionable practice is the clandestine photographic and video content uploaded to the Internet by people that you may know or anonymous posters. I attend a fair amount of public events and am forever ducking out of photos that I presume may be posted on an organization's website or Facebook page, either from professional photographers or others with cell phones. But what about the people who don't know that a cell phone or video camera is aimed at them?
A prime example of this type of anonymous posting is a blog on the Tumblr platform called People on the Bus. An anonymous blogger takes candid photos of people on buses and various other forms of public transportation, posts them on the blog and writes an anecdotal story or comment under each picture. While some subjects are aware of the author’s actions, some are not (for example, when they're sleeping). Taking and posting people's photos without their permission is a questionable practice at the least. Yet the blogger has no qualms about his or her mission, despite the fact that the subjects have expressed their displeasure to the photographer/blogger's face. The blogger even brags about this bravado. In one story the blogger proclaims: "While taking this picture the guy became upset and started yelling at me for taking his picture." And yet, the blogger continues to photograph the "people on the bus", upload their pictures, and write about them.
On a much larger and more public scale, a website has been created that uses as its content material a diverse and unconventional assortment of people who happen to be shopping at Wal-Mart stores across the country. Welcome to PeopleofWalmart.com. Although the "About" page of People of Walmart states that the website was started by three friends, they only give their initials, giving them anonymity In fact, the website has become an industry, with a book and a Facebook page that has about 750,000 followers. While the producers claim to be creating "satire" for "entertainment purposes," in fact, the "satire" and "entertainment" aspect seems to be the fact that these particular people are either obese, inappropriately clothed or dressed in unusual costumes. These particular Wal-Mart shoppers may or may not be aware that they are being photographed or filmed. Besides the authors' rather juvenile premise and bullying attitude, the purpose of the website feels not satirical but mean-spirited, while perpetrating a massive invasion of privacy. Why is this behavior acceptable on the Internet, but not in one's life? PeopleofWalmart.com is only one of many web pages connected to a ring of similar sites that range from "That's My Boss" to "Your Kid's Art Sucks" (isn't that something private, displayed on your refrigerator?) to "Random Creepy Guy" and so on.
While I am the first one to acknowledge that the Web 2.0 has created a welcome resource of international news, information, entertainment and even education for millions worldwide, it has also been the cause of much social upheaval and dramatic cultural and communication shifts. The Internet has made the world smaller, but often this comes at the expense of our humanity. It's as if we have traded global bits for a complete lack of privacy, and real personal expression for the voice of the crowd and virtual anonymity. The Web does not beckon us to communicate like a novelist, in author Doris Lessing's words, who writes "as an individual to individuals, in a small personal voice."
So, what's going on in global cyberspace? How have people lost respect for personal boundaries and a healthy sense of privacy? Has the world just gone mean and completely amoral? Have we somehow been taken over by our machines in a science fiction scenario, in which we have succumbed to a cybernetic Stockholm syndrome: a race of hapless captives tethered to our electronic devises, who start acting like these soulless machines. I didn't do it; my smartphone was there, and I took the picture and shared it because I can. No moral dilemma.
But here's the thing, to quote the title of a book by computer scientist, inventor and composer Jaron Lanier: "you are not a gadget." You are a person who must use a gadget responsibly and ethically.
In You Are Not A Gadget, a Manifesto, published in 2010, Mr. Lanier, who is known as the "father" of virtual reality, spells out his criticisms of Web 2.0 and Silicon Valley's often not very humanistic mindset, which has affected not only how we communicate but how we see ourselves as human beings. While he's still an optimistic visionary, Lanier's view is that the very infrastructure of Web 2.0's "open culture", whose freedom turns out to be "more for machines that for people", has had a deleterious effect on human communication. Taking issue with what he feels is Silicon Valley's less than people-centered methodology towards computer programming, he asserts, "The antihuman approach to computation is one of the most baseless ideas in human history. A computer isn't even there unless a person experiences it. "
The first chapter of the book, entitled "What is a Person"? says it all. "Anonymous" is not a person. I agree with his assessment that "anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction....A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person can become."
Consequently, we have lost not only a sense of privacy, but also a sense of reality. People are not anonymous; we don't walk the streets wearing masks. We don't give our personal information to strangers. Children's antics are not the subject matter of a news item.
What if we had an online rule of thumb. For example, if you wouldn't say it out loud, then don't say it online. If you wouldn't do it if you didn't have a cell phone in your hand, refrain from doing it if you do have a cell phone in your hand. You might tell a few close friends about what little Jennifer said or did today, but would you stand in the middle of Times Square with a bullhorn and tell the millions of people from around the world passing by 24/7 the same information? Then maybe don't do it online.
How can we start to respect privacy again in a world of digital exhibitionism? Can we reclaim the value of "a small personal voice" from the anonymous crowd? There might be a solution yet to be developed out there in Silicon Valley, in the cybernetic software, by scientists who do believe in humanistic computation. Then again, maybe the responsibility and the answer lie somewhere deep in us.
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Judy Sandra is an author, screenwriter, and journalist. At JS Media Blog, she writes about communication and culture. She is the writer/producer of an independent film project set in Denmark Metal Girl, which she adapted from her novel The Metal Girl. A global citizen, she lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a TV pilot.