Is privacy a generational thing?

June 7, 2007 at 3:00 am 3 comments

photo from BrazilI’ve been ranting recently about the surveillance society and loss of privacy. Perhaps my paranoia comes from my legal background and knowing the law, individual rights etc. But I came across an article that caused me to ponder – maybe it’s a generational thing. The older generation (anyone over 30 these days!) is generally apprehensive, mistrustful and reacts with alarm when faced with so-called intrusive technologies such as CCTV cameras.

But younger people reveal their entire lives on MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook and so on. It’s an era when it’s important to be seen – to publicly document your daily life; poetry; photos etc. To be involved in the theatre of community. Their sense of privacy is not the same as that of older generations. Take the story of Kitty, a 26 year-old New Yorker who has naked photos of herself on the Internet; her LiveJournal chronicles the death of her parents; her boyfriends and relationship breakups; and her ambitions and insecurities. When thinking about reaching 35 years and the realisation that her life has been publicly documented, Kitty says: “It’s a documentation of my youth, in a way. Even if it’s just me, going back and Googling myself in 25 or 30 years. It’s my self—what I used to be, what I used to do.”

Now I have to admit to a twinge of jealousy at this point. When I was growing up with the Dinosaurs (well a little later than that) all I had to do was hang around the local shopping centre, speak to school friends on the telephone, swap letters by ‘snail mail’ with a penfriend in Japan, visit friends’ houses and listen to music. I used to write to myself in a diary I kept locked with a key – God forbid anyone should read my private thoughts. These days, kids get computers in primary school, they can sms their friends, they can build a profile online and network with people globally, and they reveal their inner most thoughts and anxieties. It’s a world of self-documentation focusing on the intimacy and banality of daily life where you’re one individual in a noisy, busy virtual space.

The extreme caution of older people who worry about revealing too much personal information over the internet puzzles younger people like Kitty whose opinion on this is: “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.” Gotta agree with her on this, being someone who hates having my photo taken.

In a world that is wired up and networked, privacy is perhaps an illusion. When we lived more disconnected lives in which smart technology played little or no part, our lives were our own. Now, a young person’s life belongs to the collective: to friends and strangers who inhabit the same virtual worlds like Xanga and Club Penguin. They live in cities with CCTV cameras, where their employer owns email content, where Google probably knows a lot about each and every one of us. Maybe because of this, younger people are more honest, they expect transparency, they believe that all sorts of opportunities might come their way based on the profiles they post on MySpace etc. There’s a lot of similarity between today’s youth and Hollywood celebrities – they’re all public figures, seeking an audience, being comfortable with fans and reveling in attention, and knowing how to communicate depending on the audience (instant message, blog, email).

As someone who has a life-long love of history, I envy the way younger people can literally archive their youth. I used to wait with impatience for my photos to come back from the photo lab, so I could stick them in the obligatory photo album. When today’s youth are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, they can Google themselves (will Google still be popular by then? what will the internet have morphed into?) and reconstruct their life to date through images and text online. I have to do this by trotting out dusty old photo albums, hard copy high school year books, yellowed, fading letters. But then I guess I won’t have to cringe with embarrassment over the 80s hair for all to see; or regretting publicly documenting my innermost thoughts or decisions.

There’s a site called Noah K Everyday where a 26 year-old man from Brooklyn, US has posted a picture of himself every day since he was 19. This guy looks pretty sad to me, but what a way to preserve and chronicle your life bit by bit, emotion by emotion. And kids these days need incredibly thick skins – they are exposing their faces, lives, personal thoughts in a world in which people judge you by how you look. Contemporary society is for the pretty people toting the latest brands. But they are people with a high tolerance for the sting of criticism and personal judgement. You’d need to be if a private video you filmed of intimate moments with your boy/girlfriend ends up plastered all over the internet.

I wonder if kids think about how their private information can be used – prospective husbands or wives will Google you to piece together the reality of your life as opposed to the tales you’ve spun; employers will check whether you’re a shadowy figure in some sex tape; will these kids feel compelled to keep chronicling their lives into old age, recording every wrinkle and every medical drama -witnessing the inevitable decline of youth?

The inner private space has become the outer loud, theatrical, creative space. I guess it is akin to when the printing press was invented or the telephone first became publicly available – maybe people then had similar reflections, mourning a past life when people connected differently, but still being excited by the tremendous change and opportunity that was happening around them. So I’m going to try to be less paranoid about CCTV cameras and the surveillance society, but I can’t promise anything :)-

Entry filed under: Privacy, Reflections.

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