Over the last few weeks I’ve had lots of practice at feeling awkward for strangers. There always seems to be a new, uneasy revelation in the news about someone’s privacy being invaded. Around the world and in my own neighborhood privacy breaches seem to abound and as these various pieces of information are aired I keep thinking sooner or later people will figure out that what they really want is more face to face time with their neighbours and colleagues. Although the technology to end it may be in the works, I pleased to say that I think it’s still possible to have a private conversation in person. I suppose if I’m giving credit where credit is due, then I’ll tip my hat to Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning for our new found need to engage with real people. After all, it was their efforts that made us realize that “private” isn’t what is used to be.
As I watch the coverage of the American diplomatic incident that left Washington distinctly uncomfortable and the Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, apologizing for saying, “Fu@$ the European Union” in what she thought was a private telephone conversation, I can’t help but think she’ll be having more face to face meetings in the future. I bet German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose cell phone was bugged by the U.S., is also thinking about having more face to face meetings too. Their experiences should certainly make us all consider the value of always being on our best behaviour.
Of course now that Canadian travellers know that their cell phones have been picked up and tracked for days after they had walked through Canadian airports they can feel a little like these powerful political leaders, invaded. Just like their more famous counterparts, the records of all of their calls and emails have been captured by government entities, in the case of Canadians; the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) did the work.
Now we too can think twice about what we say on our cell phones or using them at all. I haven’t carried one for two weeks and rather than feeling disconnected or untethered, I find myself strangely more in the moment wherever I am. It could be because no one can call, text or email me to disrupt the moment and I’m not disrupting it by looking at my phone for messages.
Don’t get me wrong. My decision to not carry a cell phone isn’t a political statement. I don’t have one because I changed positions and haven’t sorted out if I actually want or need one. The recent revelations have simply added to the debate. What occurs to me is that we wouldn’t have to worry about our cellphones being bugged if we didn’t rely on them so much.
More than anything I worry that as more private exchanges are released for public consumption we will start to normalize these intrusions into our privacy. In many respects we already have. Target, Shoppers Drugmart and many other retailers send me specialized coupons based on the things I have purchased while by myself in their stores. Facebook tells me they own my content on their platform, Google tells me they are making my online experience more effective by tracking every move I make and the government tells me they are keeping me safe. As someone in marketing I can’t help but appreciate what can be done with all of that information, but I also know some simple truths. Knowledge is power and all of that knowledge is an awful lot of power for very few people. No one needs to know everything about me and I certainly don’t need to know everything about complete strangers. There’s also that small detail about the ethics of intrusion.
Perhaps I’m looking at this all wrong. As a friend of mine pointed out, privacy as we recently knew it was a relatively new construct. Having grown up in a West Indian family, I know that there is very little that is private in a real community. I could track the movements of my cousins in Montreal while visiting in Barbados and that is before Facebook, social media or the Internet. My family never needed spyware to figure out what was going on with family members around the world. Perhaps all this spying and gathering of data is simply a reflection of a very natural human instinct to know. Of course, I actually knew the people “spying” on me and their incursions into my privacy really did keep my world much safer and of course they were never trying to sell me something.
So, whether these privacy breeches are natural, abnormal or just plain creepy, it makes me think it’s time for more dinner parties. Perhaps we should think about recreating the old fashioned salons, those gatherings intended to entertain and teach. Those intimate exchanges where the cell phones and laptops are left behind. I’m not suggesting the abandonment of contemporary media, I am a blogger after all and I make my living in communications and marketing, but maybe a little less time online and a little more time in the world around us would be good, not all of our communities need to be virtual.
What do you think, too much time spying? Is it time to spend more time in person? Should we just get used to having less privacy?
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