Privacy — or our astonishing lack of it — might be the defining issue of this decade. It’s certainly the defining issue of this month (and probably the year, too.) As America grapples with the NSA surveillance programs, Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and the data mining operations known as “social media,” we get hit with the perpetual motion machine of sadness known as the Donald Sterling fiasco. I’ve written extensively about this mess at VICE, and since the initial incident, Sterling has gone on Anderson Cooper 360 to further insult Magic Johnson — you know, just to be totally sure we all hate him.
Donald Sterling is not a nice man, but what many pundits and media figures have started to realize is that the NBA is punishing him and taking his property for comments made in private. His girlfriend released the tape of his offending statements with the explicit purpose of destroying his reputation.
There’s an assumption of privacy and safety when in your home, with your loved ones. I’m glad I know that Donald Sterling is an asshole, and I’m even glad he’s on his way to losing the Clippers, but it’s an open question as to whether or not we should be glad that he’s being denied his right to privacy.
Modern relationships suffer from a nagging issue that previous generations couldn’t have even hoped to fathom. All of our secrets are available. You don’t even have to go to the analog trouble of hiding a tape recorder. All you need to destroy someone’s sense of privacy is to obtain a few passwords.
Facebook, Gmail, and countless other services ostensibly designed to help make our lives more efficient, are actually just repositories for our secrets. Naked pictures, correspondence with exes, controversial opinions, fights with relatives, fights with spouses, racially charged messages, and numerous other less than savory nuggets of reality are readily available to all the people you most want to hide from, if they have the right combination of letters and numbers.
“Who are you texting?” “Why can’t I check your Facebook messages?” “Who’s Lindsay and why is she always tweeting at you?” We’re sharing more and more of ourselves, yet we all still expect to be able to squirrel away our secrets. This very website that you’re reading this on encourages free expression and honesty, which opens it up to criticisms of “oversharing.” How can anything be oversharing when the entire medium of the internet is designed to coax sensitive information out of you?
You can’t criticize people for interacting with the medium as it’s set up. It’s completely counterintuitive and totally illogical, but it’s cuts to the heart of our macro-problem of privacy. We want it both ways. We’d like to be able to continue casting out our opinions and proclivities with relative impunity, but we also don’t want companies using our opinions and interests to more efficiently sell us products. We also don’t want to hear things that make us uncomfortable.
You see, we can’t have it both ways, and we won’t for much longer. Every generation becomes more permissive, more accepting of “the way things are,” and interested in continuing to push society toward increased openness. I have no reason to assume that my children won’t be as blasé about social media as I was about cordless phones and softcore pornography on Cinemax.
We don’t have much privacy anymore, and we’ll have even less in the near future. Baby boomers will continue railing against the death of secrets until they’re all dead, but the die is cast. We can be mad at what Donald Sterling said, but also how we heard what he said. In each instance though, the thing we’re mad about is an anachronism.
The sort of club-footed racism that Donald Sterling wallowed in, the systemic distrust he engaged in that he doesn’t even see as racist, will disappear in time. So will the idea that someone having their private statements recorded and shared with the world is an invasion. Humans are very bad at going backwards. We just keep moving, even if we don’t know where we’re going. Our civilization has wrecked the planet and global warming threatens our entire way of life, but god forbid we stop building freeways and fast food restaurants. Instead, we’ll build better, bigger, fancier fast food restaurants. Maybe one day we’ll put one on the moon.
Complain about it all you want. Write your think pieces about the death of privacy until you can’t type anymore. I’m sure it’ll make you feel better. Just remember that the website you write it for is part of the “problem.” In 10 years, your demands for privacy are going to make you sound like the Unibomber, or worse, Donald Sterling.