My Anti-Social Tendencies

Late in David Eggers’ fine new novel The Circle a character drives off a cliff to avoid the aggressive attack of total strangers demanding that he “be our friend.” Eggers’ portrays a kind of dystopian world where fictional social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. have infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life, and he raises serious and legitimate questions about what Ellen Ullman in her New York Times Sunday Review calls the “tyranny of transparency.” In the novel, Mae Holland works for the Circle, a company determined to convince an all too willing public that “Secrets are Lies” and “Privacy is theft.” The Circle manages to reduce humanity and human interactions to various algorithms and patterns, tracing, predicting, and anticipating the hopes and desires of just about everyone. The goal, of course, is to make the world a better place. Totalitarianism always seems to begin with such noble goals.

As with so many of these kinds of novels, the scariest part isn’t how easily the technology might be mastered to pull off such a feat.

The frightening part is how willingly humanity participates in its own annihilation.

Eggers’ novel, to be fair, doesn’t actually end with the death of humanity, but he certainly seems to imply that things like secrecy and privacy are, in fact, vital to being human. In The Circle, tuning out is not only rude but indicative of some vaguely defined evil. Politicians begin wearing cameras and every interaction is recorded. Those who refuse simply don’t get elected. Voting, by the end of the novel, is mandatory through a Circle account; hence, citizenship requires an account. That account requires other accounts and the inputting of various pieces of personal data. Privacy implies, the Circle says, guilt. We are our online identity and our online avatar is us. The Circle closes as the lines of demarcation between who we physically are who we are online collapse.

Characters share (and share and share and share) every last detail of their lives. In many ways, Eggers imagines a world where our self-esteem outpaces our discretion and we imagine that because mom told us we were special (and little league gave us a ribbon for showing up at the fields twice a week) our opinions matter, regardless of our qualifications. In essence, not telling people what you like or don’t like is equivalent to robbing your friends and neighbors of valuable data, even if you are ill-informed, idiotic, or imbecilic.

It used to be rude to speak out of turn. In Eggers’ novel, it’s always your turn. And my turn. And his turn. And her turn.

There is, I realize, a certain amount of irony involved in blogging about the possible dangers of social media. Once I post this blog, I will add a link on my twitter account that automatically posts to my Facebook account, creating a digital trail leading folks back to the blog. Each of those sites will troll for data, searching for key words, collecting frequencies, and making assumptions about what ads to send to my email and what images to stick on the left hand corner of my next google search. Each morning the little elves in my computer will do everything possible to trick my mouse into clicking on the pretty pictures, thereby adding to the digital database that is John Wegner.

And if you are reading this sentence, WordPress has already gotten everything they need from you. Feel free to click on any ads you see if you want, but the cookie crumbs are already working their way into the belly of the beast.

“Based on your search history, we just know you will also enjoy  . . . Click here.” Please and Thank you.

Anyone who reads my blog, though, might notice how infrequently I’ve posted lately. Even before I read Eggers’ novel, I knew my writing would slack off heading into the holidays. I had a major project for work to complete, and, since I spend too much of my workday staring at little pixels, my goal was to take about a month off. Let the fingers rest, I told myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed blogging, and, quite honestly, writing twice a week for a year has helped me write much more gooder :). I’ve written around 150,ooo words in a little over a year. That’s a novel full of essays.

Not a very good novel, mind you, but you get the idea. Writing well, I tell my students, takes three things: Practice, More Practice, and Practicing again. Blogging certainly provides such a thing.

But I also realize the truth of Eggers’ novel. Every key stroke makes my life far more public than I might have ever imagined. Each search, tweet, post, “like,” or click creates an identity and gives external forces opportunities to shape my internal desires. I’m a red-blooded American, heterosexual male: of course I want to see Scarlet Johanson’s wardrobe malfunction and Beyonce in that sheer, see-through dress. 

Am I better person if I avoid the temptation? Or am I a bad person when I don’t click because I’m not being true to myself? If it’s NSFW is it Safe For Home (unless my wife finds out)?

Our public identity has always been a construct in which we “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet,” as J. Alfred Prufrock tells us, but never before, it seems to me, have we so willingly invited the public into our own private space. Our face is in a constant state of preparation or, perhaps more aptly put, constantly being constructed and reconstructed for us with each and every click. When are we every ourselves? Or, Eggers certainly seems to ask, are we every really supposed to be ourselves? 

I could, I guess, turn off, tune out, and power down.

But what would my friends think if I did?

 

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Sitting in the Fish Bowl

According to the latest Career Builder survey, 43% of employers have not hired someone because of photos, comments, or outright lies listed on social media sites. About 50% of the respondents listed Inappropriate photos and information posted about drugs and drinking as the worst infractions. Only 28% of the respondents listed discriminatory comments about race, gender, etc as a reason to not hire someone.

Because, of course, getting liquored up on the weekend is far worse for business than posting racist or misogynist rants.

I will admit that as the father of two sons with facebook, twitter, instagram, and god knows what other outlets for free expression I have my concerns. According to a survey by Burlingame’s Jobvite, 42% of employers form positive or negative feelings based on social networks sites and 94% of recruiting and HR people are out there trolling the web looking for reasons to give candidates a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Essentially, social network sites have become part of an extended job application.

The good news is that soon enough I won’t have to monitor their social media. Geo Listening, a new startup that scans “posts across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other online services, searching for certain keywords and location information that would tie a person to the school community. Relevant data is then presented in a daily report to school officials.” For now, Geo Listening is confining their intrusion, er, monitoring, to schools that hire their services.

It’s not a violation of privacy, the company says, because they simply collect and process publicly available information.

Technically, of course, the company is correct. Mining available, publicly posted data is not a violation of privacy. As we see above, employers are already on that bandwagon.

However, I’m also, for lack of a better word, creeped out that a public school has decided that mining (trolling is more like it) social media sites is a valuable use of public dollars. Why, I must ask, is it okay for the principle to monitor my son’s facebook account when that same principle has absolutely no right to follow my son to McDonalds and spy on him?

Let me willingly admit that I find the cultural shift to posting private, personal information problematic. We have become a culture willing (and able) to trumpet our “self” as worth posting and publicizing. There is something incredibly egotistical about feeling compelled to share your intimate moments or your day to day moments with the world. Not only are you yelling “Look at Me,” you are also assuming you are worth looking at.

As with any other behavior, I’m more than willing to also admit that we must be held accountable for our behavior.

But, I’m also bothered that hiring managers and school districts have started using social media as hammer with which to punish posters. Yes–posting drunken photos of yourself kissing a cow on the backside says something about you but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t make a good bank teller.

Likewise, trolling student postings for key words that might indicate emotional issues seems like a good idea, unless, of course, you have teenagers. Then you realize emotional instability is teen age life.

What bothers me the most, though, is the slow erosion of civil liberties in the name of safety and security. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate what bothers me the most. Like the argument supporting the NSA’s attack on our privacy in the name of fighting terror, supporters of companies like Geo Listening will tell us that we have nothing to fear if we are not guilty.

But we do have something to fear. When we recognize that unnamed authorities are monitoring our behavior, we both consciously and subconsciously change. When our public behavior becomes a matter of public record for which we are always held accountable, I can only imagine a growing trend to uniformity and safeness. Worse yet, it’s a short step from deciding that pictures of alcohol make a person not eligible for a job to deciding that one’s religion or politics cross some imaginary line.

In essence, this invasion threatens not just my civil liberties but my unique identity. More important, that public self I’m crafting via social media is part of my personal space independent of my office space. I fully understand losing a job or earning a reprimand if I’m on my work computer or representing the company. Doing teguila shots on the bosses desk is a bad idea even if I don’t post pictures to Instagram.

There’s a point, then, where companies like Geo Listening, and the schools that hire them, aren’t just tapping in and hearing my conversations. They are trying to shape my conversation.

And, that, at the end of the day, is a far bigger threat than me kissing my neighbor’s cat while smoking a joint.

 

The Un-Patriot Act and a Shattered Prism

Sitting in the truck earlier today, my son asked me what exactly the Patriot Act was. As I struggled to answer, I eventually just told him that children should be seen and not heard.

Of course, based on the news about PRISM earlier this month, I felt like asking if the NSA would just text him the answer.

Actually, I was able to answer in part. “The Patriot Act,” I said, “is the total assault on our civil liberties in the interest of protecting us from terrorist attacks. It’s why you can’t carry toothpaste on a plane, why we decided to abandon moral principle and waterboard suspects, and why the FBI can spy on you anytime they want. Basically, it’s our government’s attempt to completely gut the 4th Amendment.”

But that’s just my inner libertarian speaking and it isn’t entirely fair.

I’ll willingly admit that, like most of our Senators and Representatives, I haven’t actually read the entire Patriot Act so I shouldn’t speak as if I’m an expert. (But, heck, that doesn’t stop my Senator from speaking about anything so why should it stop me?) I will also willingly admit that we have not had a major terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 since 2001.

But only if all the supporters of vast government intrusion in our daily lives will admit that we have no actual evidence any other terrorist attacks would have occurred even without the Patriot Act. In other words, as smarty-pants academics sometimes point out, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

According to various sources, aspects of the Patriot Act (and PRISM) have thwarted 50 (or 100 or even thousands!) of attacks. But, and please excuse my skepticism, the sources for such successes are the very people who benefit the most from reminding us we must fear the terrorists. And, as someone who has read enough George Orwell to have a healthy distrust of large government agencies, I have my doubts that any government has the capability of organizing and effectively using all this information they gather. This is the same group, after all, that gave money to around 900,000 people after Hurricane Katrina who had given false names and social security numbers. Hell, all you have to do is google “government inefficiency” and see your tax dollars at work.

But what bothers me the most about the Patriot Act and programs like PRISM is the almost complete shift away from the goals and intent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Both documents hold a special place in their hearts for the individual in the face of government (or communal) intrusion. While is is true that “privacy” never actually appears in either document, clearly the intent of the 4th Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure language is designed to trumpet my right to be secure from the government’s right to see my stuff. Without “Oath or affirmation” and without probable cause, the government must keep their grubby paws off me and mine.

That includes my words, emails, snail mail, and anything I want to google-up on a daily basis.

The writing of the Constitution coincides with the rise of the Enlightenment, an era we might argue ushers in a truly anthropocentric world view. In less fancy terms, we are witnessing a developing middle class in industrial societies and an increased distrust of kings, queens, and rulers “ordained” by gods or primogeniture. Democracy emerges not as a way to increase the size of government but as a way to distinguish between communal needs versus personal responsibilities. The goal of the founders, it seems to me, was balancing those needs that should be shared and those that should be up to the individual.

The Patriot Act, I told my son, was created as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that all of a sudden seemed to supersede our individual abilities. All of a sudden, we had these crazy people (yes, I’ll be insensitive and call people who fly planes into buildings crazy) attacking innocent people and we felt helpless.

Since life isn’t like Red Dawn or a Bruce Willis movie where one lone man can thwart a nut-job and his merry men, we all wanted our government, as a unified entity with vast shared resources, to protect and serve. Even though it pains me to write this, the goals and intent of the Act were noble and well-intentioned.

But like most knee-jerk legislation, we crafted a new law (and a new way of living) based on the exception not the rule and in doing so we have sacrificed large sections of our individual freedom in the name of potential safety and security.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to see a vast government conspiracy where the President (Bush or Obama), the NSA, or the CIA stifles free speech by imprisoning people willy-nilly. (Except, perhaps, at Guantanamo Bay?) I’m not someone, like the crazy guy on Facebook who uses Patrick Henry as his avatar, who believes we are on the verge of a totalitarian state. In fact, those critics of the government who resort to such hyperbole tend to do as much harm as good to intelligent discussions about important issues.

But I am someone who worries that we are slowly but surely re-crafting American identity and reshaping the balance between the individual and the communal without having serious, intelligent, well-informed discussions at any level. We have moved from a nation of persons innocent until proven guilty to a nation under perpetual suspicion until proven innocent.

The balancing act between privacy and personal security is certainly not an easy one. I have to get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Orlando. I am happy knowing that my biggest fear is that the person next to me has a cold, body odor, or a screaming baby. But I also recognize the human right, dare I say the human responsibility, to be left alone and, most importantly, trusted by its government until she does something to warrant suspicion and I recognize that right comes with inherent dangers to my personal safety.

And there, I told my son, is the problem with the Patriot Act and PRISM. Both Acts attack, fundamentally, our human right to be left alone and free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness without the specter of community judgement lurking over our shoulder. They might provide us with safety but they cost us the linchpin of our  national identity.

That, it seems to me, is un-Patriotic and essentially un-American.

Private Acts in Public Spaces: Toilet Texting and Multi-Tasking

toilet_texting_t_shirts

Click to buy the shirt (just don’t tell me you did)

I’ve never been a fan of public toilets. It’s not fear, exactly, although I was raised in an age of “stranger danger!” and have a cultural inclination to look warily at people in enclosed spaces. Too many reel to reel “educational” films in junior high: I’m not sure how much algebra I remember, but I know that strangers who ask for help are, evidently, all perverts. (I was equally traumatized by an anti-fighting film that showed, in graphic detail, a bus crash. I still cringe when I see kids riding yellow school buses.)

I suspect I’m also guilty of seeing too many of those 1970s B-films, usually late at night when the house is creaking, the dog is barking, and my imagination is racing. Let’s face it: bad stuff happens in bathrooms after dark. (They also happen around chainsaws, two story houses on the corner, and with little rich kids whose heads spin around. You should also never tease that kid whose eyes go two different directions. Or people who live in the deep south and use “peckerwood” regularly in sentences.) I highly recommend cloth shower curtains so when they wrap up your body, you can still breathe.

I would also guess there is some deep-rooted psychological issue regarding body parts, waste, and privacy. Maybe I was potty-trained in public or mocked for peeing in the pool. Doesn’t matter to me: I’m quite comfortable with my phobias and neurosis and I value pottying in private.

Because of this irrational fear of being locked in the bathroom with a maniacal killer and a corresponding disgust with publicly shared bodily functions, I am amazed (and a little freaked out) that 75% of Americans admit to using their smartphones while on the toilet. According to the 11mark survey,

Toilet texting is particularly popular among those 28 to 35-years-old, with a reported 91 percent of that age group admitting to the habit.
Even more disturbing, 1 in 5 men admit to taking it a step further by phoning into business meetings from the bathroom. But they aren’t alone; 13 percent of women also owned up to joining conference calls from the can.

OMG.

Whatever happened to reading the sports section? Carving phone numbers of people you don’t like on the walls? Writing bad poetry? Or just good, old fashioned vandalism?

Clearly, we are raising a generation that has grown up in houses with two bathrooms and no sister or parents pounding on the door. Chalk another bad habit up to disposable income and comfortable living. I’m sure that much of this toilet texting (so poetic) occurs in the comfort of one’s own throne room, but raise your hand if you’ve often suspected the person on the other end of the phone (or in the stall next to you) was, in fact, taking care of business while taking care of business if you know what I mean. (Don’t raise your hand if you are the guilty party. Lord knows, you probably need both of hands right now since the same study says 16% of phones have fecal matter on them. Can I just say–Eww?)

When my children were little, we were lucky enough that my wife was able to stay home with both boys. I would get out of the house for work by 6:30 or so but try to get home again by 5:00 at the latest. That might seem like a long day for me, but for those of you who have stayed home with kids, that can be a longer day at the house. Often without a bathroom break. Many a day I walked in the door not to the sound of “Hi, Honey. How was your day?” but to the bathroom door slamming shut, the click of the lock, followed by a long sigh.

Justifiably so. The bathroom, that place dedicated to personal hygiene, has its own special place in American lore. Certainly, the invention of the water closet was designed for sanitary reasons and convenience. Early dwellings had shared bathrooms. The advent of single dwelling housing accessible to the middle class, though, opened the door for a throne within the proverbial castle. The bathroom, quite simply, became a place of solitude where we could perform that most human of functions in privacy. Civilization at its finest.

But now we’ve come full circle. Our phone, ever present tool of our work lives and increasingly a lifeline to our social selves, has invaded that most sacred of places–the last bastion of privacy where, quite frankly, only our small children would ever want to follow us. We are inviting our friends, neighbors, and co-workers into our private space, refusing to take even a fraction of the day for ourselves and our bodies. Bathrooms, at a certain point in time, allowed us to compartmentalize our lives. We created houses with separate rooms dedicated to specific functions. Bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms, and most importantly, a room dedicated to the expulsion of human waste. We could emerge with our bowels voided, body cleansed, and physically refreshed. Instead, we are increasingly multi-tasking, relegating that physical cleansing to one task among many and turning our private space into a public arena. And we wonder why we are so stressed out?

Thank god we don’t have 4 d smart phones and the first time someone toilet skypes me . . .

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)