We have no more privacy. That’s what we’re told; certainly it’s something we feel. Of course it’s been thrilling, for those of us with the means and the Internet, to be more connected to each other and the world than we could have ever imagined. We can correspond at lightening speed. Vast, seemingly infinite quantities of information — more than we ever knew existed, more than we know how to process — is available for our consumption at any hour of the day or night. Easy access to information promises astonishing convenience and comfort. Radical connectivity has also given us information that was previously hidden. What was once unknowable has been revealed: the secrets of medicine, rare ancient documents, R.E.M. lyrics. And all this information is still less thrilling than what we can now know about other people. Once, we might have been allowed to know the town where a celebrity lived or what she liked to eat for breakfast. The mere fact of a philandering celebrity’s philandering was news. Now, we can hear their whispers and sighs, have seen all their folds and wrinkles. Celebrities are not simply exposed — they are exposing themselves. The film critic Roger Ebert, who has thyroid cancer, uses his celebrity to reveal the most intimate details of his physical deterioration, the withering of his face and voice. The writer Tony Judt did the same before his death; the writer Christopher Hitchens does so now. In the past, we may have been privileged to read musings on death and illness from these celebrities in their own eloquent words. Now we can also watch their gasps on YouTube, can get instantaneous updates about surgical procedures and infections via tweets and pinggs. And even this is less interesting than what we feel we must tell about ourselves.
We the non-celebrities are making ourselves more available, in vaster quantities. But in doing so, we are losing control over the information we considered to be ours alone. We have the convenience of online bill-paying. But credit cards companies know facts about us we never remember telling them. We have the ease of online shopping. Now online shops advertise to us long after we visited their site, wherever we happen to be on the Internet. We want to stay in touch with people we would have, in another age, left behind — people we met on holiday or on the street, people we knew only as children. So we post mundane, daily facts about our workday or our meals — information that used to disappear before it was even registered as experience — hoping that it might bring this giant network of people closer to our mundane, daily lives. But the mundane information starts to define us; we can’t get rid of it. What’s more, all these entities that we think of as being unrelated — the credit card companies, the social networking sites, the online markets — are talking about us to each other. And sometimes, when we’re not thinking about convenience, or the extraordinary wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, we think we might be in danger.
We want access to information. Yet, we don’t want to be accessible. “Defend privacy — before it’s gone,” The Chicago Sun-Times just declared. The police might soon be able to put GPS devices on your car without a warrant, the paper warned. It was just revealed that Stanford Hospital had posted the names and diagnosis codes of 20,000 patients on a commercial website for nearly a year. Facial recognition technology can scan and identify faces in photos. “Do you want police to know that much about you?” the newspaper asked. “Do you want the world to know your medical diagnoses, Social Security number, or other personal data?…Do you want someone to be able to take your picture on the street and then easily go to a computer to find out who you are?”
“[Facebook] is just a few updates away now from euthanizing the concept of privacy,” Ben Parr recently warned on the social media website Mashable. “It won’t be long until your life is on display for all of your friends to see, and then we’ll all know what Facebook has wrought.” In America, the Federal Trade Commission is expanding the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule to make it harder for the adults that have access to American children via the web to take advantage of them. From Hong Kong to New Zealand, governments around the world have established privacy commissions and forums. Individuals have set up watchdog groups and installed firewalls around their children. Companies aiming to placate their consumers have devised increasingly bewildering methods of password formulation. We are scrambling around, desperate to find the perfect balance between total omniscience and total privacy.
Yet, is there anything that we do in private that we don’t do in public anymore? Privacy itself has become a public commodity. What of true privacy, our selves in relationship to ourselves? Can we think about what we do in private anymore? Do we even know what we do? We already know how new technologies are affecting us socially, but what of our personal, interior world? Maybe the fears we have about our privacy have less to do with who is stealing our credit card information and more about a desire that is very old. We want to know, and we want to be known. At the same time, we feel exposed in all this transparency. We want to hide. Is there any place left to hide?
Consider a street in 19th-century France. Strolling along is the quintessential 19th-century French man of the crowd, the poet Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire has devoted himself to the study of urban life, which in the 19th-century had begun to take the shape we know today.
You can learn a lot about Baudelaire’s thoughts on the crowd in a prose poem titled “Crowds.” He wrote:
It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming…
Multitude, solitude: identical terms… The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or someone else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting…
Baudelaire takes pleasure in his work. He likes the ease with which he can lose himself in the labyrinth of shops, likes the predictable distraction of the street. In the crowd, you can observe with complete freedom. Multitude/solitude, together/alone — in the crowd they’re all the same. That is the pleasure of anonymity, the debauched delight of the flaneur.
Nonetheless, one must be careful. When you become a watcher, there is always the chance you will, in turn, be watched. When you watch, you make yourself vulnerable. This is why, to fully enjoy the crowd (as Baudelaire wrote above) one must also have masks to hide behind. On the street, Baudelaire dresses in fancy dandyish clothing, surrounds himself with friends. He wears an expression of disdain that says, I am a disgusting man and I am disgusted. To take pleasure in the multitude, everything and everyone must be seen as available, inhabitable. But the flaneur must have an armor of distance.
In his book on Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the poet’s anxious relationship with the street, of the tension between his desire for access and his inaccessibility. As far as anyone knew, when Baudelaire was walking in the crowd he was “a pederast, an informer, an eater of children and heaven knew what besides…” In truth, Baudelaire was painfully shy and sensitive. “Baudelaire, the man of crowds,” wrote Sartre, “was also the man who had the greatest fear of crowds.” Baudelaire knew that true anonymity was impossible to achieve in modern urban life. His love of observing was forever at war with his fear of being seen. Thus, he had to carefully construct an identity that would protect the ‘real’ Baudelaire. His whole public persona was a fiction, but it was more than a fiction, too. It was a weapon. The more elaborate and outrageous the shy, sensitive poet could make his public identity, the more he felt the filaments of his private world — forever under attack by the bustle and demands of city life — could be protected.
The problem was this: Baudelaire wanted to shield his private life. So he made himself into a public entity. Yet, as he did, Baudelaire became the public persona he created. As he surrounded himself with layers of artificiality, the “real” Baudelaire became hidden even from Baudelaire. Who was the private Baudelaire and who was the public Baudelaire? How could he maintain privacy if he never knew where to draw this line? The poet only felt comfortable in the crowd, because in the crowd he could, at moments, feel alone. But Baudelaire despised and feared this condition, too, despised the demands that the city made on his freedom, i.e., his solitude. As Sartre put it so eloquently: Baudelaire “was the man who felt most deeply his condition as a man, but tried most passionately to hide it from himself.”
The Urban Dictionary includes a term called “Public Privacy.” Public privacy is defined as:
The illusion of which is given to people on a cell phone or blue tooth in public and within earshot of others. These people believe that others cannot hear about their husband’s rectal exam or their mothers attempt at making toast in the microwave.
Anyone living in a city anywhere in the world has witnessed the phenomenon described above. It is always baffling, and is always something someone else is doing. Don’t they know we’re listening? we think. Do they think that no one cares?
But the illusion of public privacy is one we have all created, one we all participate in — and understandably so. Like Baudelaire, we are perpetually immersed in the crowd. In lieu of privacy in private, we have created a public privacy. Picture a bus in a contemporary American metropolis during a morning commute. We are all listening to music on our personal listening devices. Some of us also read email on a smartphone. Those of us not reading email are playing games on our smartphones or electronic game players, or updating our online profiles. Some of us are reading books, in digital or paper format. Some of us may even be having loud cell phone conversations far too intimate (we listeners think) for the bus. For the most part, we try not to look at each other, try to stay small. If we are alone (and we usually are), we don’t speak, are completely immersed in a narrative different from the story of our moment (i.e., riding the subway). We are in a social space, absorbed in the digital crowd, but trying to be alone inside of it.
When we go home at night, we are still in the crowd. We hop on our computers, consume information. We might go onto Facebook and talk to hundreds of friends at once, retool our image: What do I want to tell people that I like today? How do I want to look today? How can I expand the breadth of my crowd? The more people I am friends with, the more people I can see. Like Baudelaire, we are watching, observing, hoping to find ourselves in the multitude. We think maybe it’s crazy, that having more acquaintances, perpetually developing our personae, and sharing every moment of our lives in the panoptic milieu of the Internet will somehow bring our private lives into focus.
The fear is not a new one. Whether in a crowded 19th-century French arcade, or an Internet café in Beijing, or a subway car, or home, existing in modern social space is being engaged in the weird, counterintuitive practice of having a private life in public because it is so difficult to have a private life in private. Modern cities promised an alternative to the social loneliness of rural life, promised to make people less isolated from each other. Cities — along with their products and technologies — would bring small communities of families together, out of the countryside and into the marketplace. Communities would become societies.
The 19th-century brought us physically closer together. Now we are smooshed together across the boundaries of space and time. We wanted modern cities to make communities into societies. But as we erased the distance between each other, we got something unexpected—the fear that we were more alienated from ourselves. It’s as if we push our own selves further away as we get nearer and nearer to the crowd.
In a way, new technologies have made us all like Baudelaire. We are intoxicated by the multitude but cannot ignore its troubling aspects. Like Baudelaire, we are trying to find our private life in the crowd while protecting our “real” selves in a public persona. Blogs and social networking sites are like diaries with broken locks. They are confessions written for an audience. They let us feel as if we can fabricate a personal world for ourselves, a world we can control. We listen to music no one else can hear and read emails while standing on a crowded bus because we are looking for privacy. Baudelaire used poetry and fashion; we use PDAs and e-readers and the Internet. With boundless access to information, we can easily observe the crowd. But we cannot escape being observed. And we wonder if we can find the private life we’re looking for, either in the public space of the real world or in the virtual one.
Baudelaire wrote about the romance of throwing oneself alone, directionless, into the crush of public life. And it is exhilarating — spending your days wandering from shop to shop, fact to fact, video to video, stranger to stranger. But his poetry was a reminder. The passion for roaming means a love of masquerades and a hatred of home. Baudelaire, too, wanted to protect his privacy. But he feared he had lost the very thing he wanted to protect.
• 13 October 2011