The birth and death of privacy

Dilbert
I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

Continue reading “The birth and death of privacy”

Hats, Manners and Society

baseball capI was at a local restaurant on the weekend, enjoying a nice meal with my wife. Of the six males – I hesitate to call them ‘men’ for reasons below – in the particular room in which we sat, I was the only one not wearing a baseball cap. I was also the only one not under 30.

Wearing a hat indoors, as I was taught by people whose manners were impeccable (my parents and grandparents), is gauche. Gauche: graceless, awkward, unsophisticated.

Wearing at hat at the table during a meal was so crude as to be viewed in social terms in the same category as breaking wind in public. Yet there they were. At a younger age than them, I would have received a smack for even thinking of doing so. Perhaps they were orphans without parents to raise them appropriately in the matter of manners and behaviour.

Why does anyone wear a hat indoors? It doesn’t protect the wearer from sun or rain indoors. It is as much use at the dinner table as wearing a raincoat and galoshes and holding an umbrella. Is it simply crude and coarse behaviour or just laziness? Given the me-me-me nature of the selfie generation, perhaps it is both. So obsessed with themselves, they cannot bear to remove an icon of their carefully crafted look-alike image.

Perhaps it is also an indication of poor hygiene: I always suspect the wearers have not washed their hair – or perhaps, judging by their dress, their bodies – for several days, and do not wish to have their greasy hair noticed in public (don’t get me started on the trend for shaggy, unkempt hillbilly beards…)

Emily Post, who became famous for writing about etiquette, would have been scandalized. After all, one of her prime rules about the wearing of hats was to  remove it when at mealtimes, at the table, In restaurants and in coffee shops. Only boors did not agree with her judgment.

Young men these days don’t read Emily Post. Or any other books about manners. Ours is a gloriously selfish, individualist, uncivil age where each person’s wants and needs are more important than those of anyone else and respect is a sign of weakness. And to express their staunch individuality, the younger generations all dress alike and show bad manners.

Nor do young men read advice about clothing. Sartorial etiquette is entirely missing from their education. All five were dressed identically although in two different parties: somewhat worn and faded black T-shirts, untucked over equally worn jeans. No effort was made to dress for dinner or at least tidy up. No effort was made to reflect that a social outing for an evening meal was of some greater significance than, say, sitting in the back of a pickup truck guzzling beer.

Their shabby appearance made what should have been a fine dining experience for the rest of the clientele feel more like a hasty meal in a truck stop populated with construction workers on a break. The ambience was lowered to the lowest common denominator: them.

Don’t mistake me. I understand casual: I dress so most of my day when I work from home. But I do not dress so not for every occasion, nor would I wear scruffy clothes to a dinner or event. I wear hats at times, too, yes, even baseball caps, but would never consider keeping it on indoors. It is just uncouth and lowers the quality of the experience for those around you. It is, in essence, uncivil. Uncouth.

Continue reading “Hats, Manners and Society”

Sex, violence and TV shows

We just finished watching the third season of Game of Thrones on DVD this past weekend. Before that, we watched The White Queen, another DVD series (one season only, although it deserved more).

As we watched both, I found myself wondering why directors and producers felt the need to insert gratuitous – but apparently obligatory – explicit scenes of sex and violence that really had little to do with either plot or character development.

The same questions arose when I watched Deadwood, The Sopranos, First Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Personally, I found these explicit bits distracting, like commercials, because they drew attention away from the story and characters.

I had a notion that the writers ran out of ideas at these points and instead threw in a bit of sex or violence, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the paucity of the writing.

Why do both need to be so graphic? Can’t the same effect be accomplished by suggestion, by clever camera indirection? Do we need spurting blood and genital closeups to make a scene seem real or effective? Can’t a good director or cinematographer convey these emotions through suggestion, shadow and impression?

Do we need to have full-frontal nudity to convey a sense of the erotic? Or has pornography dulled our senses to the point where anything less doesn’t capture our attention? Why do we need sex and violence instead of story? Because we, collectively, haven’t got the attention span of gnats and our emotions are reduced to biological urges?

Or is it a generational thing? Am I just being old fashioned and curmudgeonly? Maybe, but I’ll keep my reserve, thank you.

Continue reading “Sex, violence and TV shows”