Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Valuing Private Life

This morning I received my second invitation to be someone's friend on Facebook. The first one came from a former colleague; and I felt it was sufficient to reply to him politely through electronic mail, emphasizing that I continued to prefer electronic mail as a channel for communication. This one came from a journalist at a French news source to which I subscribe (from which I have seen very little, if any, news since subscribing). The invitation informed me that this journalist has 281 friends, 6 photos, 2 notes, 22 Wall posts, and membership in 58 groups. No wonder I am not getting any news feeds from this source! If all of their journalists are busy with their Facebook activities, when will they have time to write any articles?

That really cuts to the core of my own motivation. John Cage used to tell a story about a brief encounter he had with psychoanalysis at a time when his life felt like one rejection after another. As Cage told the story, after a few sessions the analyst said to him something like, "Your problem is not a serious one. After only a few more sessions we should have you composing again," to which Cage replied, "But Doctor, I'm already composing too much!" The fact is that, as anyone can tell by examining either this site or my Examiner.com articles, I am already heavily engaged with the physical world, the virtual world, and that "world of information" provided by my RSS feeds at such a prodigious rate that I have to keep thinking about which ones I want to unsubscribe. Yesterday's BBC World Service Television news summary provided through PBS ran a closing piece on the too-much-information problem; and, if this is the time of year when we take stock of what he have been doing with ourselves and contemplate making any changes, then that feature was certainly well-timed.

However, beyond the evidence that Facebook can be a dangerously deep time sink, there is another problem, which is that matter of personal privacy. When I received my second invitation, it came with a reminder that I never replied to my first one. (This, of course, was mistaken. I had replied. I just chose to do it through a channel other than Facebook!) I was then presented with a three-by-three grid of photographs and names of "other people you may know," which was surprisingly accurate. This raised the question of just how Facebook knew whom I "may know." This, of course, brings us (again) to the terrain of data mining, because there are any number of ways through which Web pages can connect me with these people. The problem is that not all of those pages are ones that most people would regard as public (which is to say that most people do not give very much thought to whether or not they are public). Specifically, from my own point of view, my connections to two of the names on that grid were established only through my Yahoo! Mail account. Thus, when I had recently written about the potential problems with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security looking in on every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (and we may assume that they are particularly active in the wake of Friday's incident), I had forgotten that the search space extends beyond those social networks.

Now one does not have to be an Annaliste to appreciate the value that private life played in the development of Western civilization. One does not even have to read the five-volume History of Private Life published under Annales School auspices. However, one may wonder whether or not the final volume, completed in 1994 and entitled Riddles of Identity in Modern Times, slipped into obsolescence long before its contributing authors anticipated. In our "brave new world" of social software, we may be regressing to the Rome of the first volume, when social circumstances were such that the very concept of a private life had not yet really emerged; or, rather than thinking in terms of regression, we may be moving into an age in which the boundary between private and public lives is blurring so much that neither will constitute a meaningful category for much longer.

In this respect I can thus own up to being conservative. In the literal sense of the word, I am determined to conserve as much of that concept of a private life as prevailing circumstances will allow. Since I am already watching that concept slip away through my use of electronic mail, no matter how judiciously I use it, I figure that the best I can do is defend those fronts that are still defensible; and thus I shall continue to keep my distance from Facebook and its many social software cousins!

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