Monday, December 14, 2009

Torture or Progress?

The world at large has spent a lot of time lately discussing what types of torture are humane. Yes, I know, "humane torture" has to be a whopper of an oxymoron, but there are people who are worried about it. Those who classify the tortures put privacy way down on the list of things to worry about. Prisoners cannot expect privacy, full stop. If you are imprisoned then you are going to be watched 24/7.

Now let's reverse that idea. If you are watched 24/7 does that make you a prisoner, does that make you a victim of torture? Nope, not necessarily. What that might make you is a citizen of a technology-laden society. Not so slowly but surely our regular, day-to-day lives are fully entwined with the computer revolution. Less and less the regular business of living is conducted face to face, or envelope to envelope. More and more bills are paid online, banking is taken care of online, business is conducted online, schooling is happening online, shopping is online, information gathering is online, personal and social contact is online. Nor are we limited to land-locked computers; there are a multitude of small and hand-held devices on the market that allow you to do pretty much everything you can do on those computers and phones sitting on your desk.

Thanks to these computerized products virtually everything we do is known to someone else, sometimes lots of others. Get in a car and use your GPS and someone out there knows precisely where you are going, and any detours you are making along the way. Stop in a store and use a charge card and someone knows precisely where you were and when and how much you spent on what. Send a message, text or email, and someone out there knows who you are talking to, for how long, and yes, they can, if they wish, know just what you said. Privacy, as we once defined it, no longer applies. We aren't living in a private world.

There is no expectation of privacy in the work world either, something the courts have settled. Businesses regularly use keystroke programs and video cameras and audio recorders to check up on those who work for them or who are in their businesses as visitors. When you hear "This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes" you had better believe that someone is listening in on your conversation.

There is another correlative to this. Because we are so interconnected, others believe that we should be contactable at all times. Where once business was considered a 9 to 5 idea, today it's not. And not just business either. Once, if you wanted to contact a friend to see how they were doing, you needed to keep in mind whether or not they were working or likely to be home. Social contact was what took place through a landlocked home phone or face to face. Most homes had a cutoff time after which phone calls were not taken or allowed in--you might wake sleeping people in the household. Today there are no such limits. It doesn't matter what you are doing or where you are; your friends can contact you at any time, without limits.

We've all had the experience of being in a store and being forced to listen to cellphone conversations taking place. Or being stuck on a bus or train when those conversations were going on. We've all seen those people walking city streets while furiously texting messages or having cellphone conversations, and who have no sense of what is going on around them. They step off of curbs still texting or talking, without checking what the traffic situation is. They expect you to walk around them. What's worse to me is when you see two people or a small group of people sitting down at a restaurant, presumably to see each other, to socialize, and at least one person, if not more, is busy texting throughout the meal.*** The same for business meetings, lectures and school classes. The old song said: "When I'm not with the one I love, I love the one I'm with." Passe today. There's no such thing as not being with someone--just hit the on button.

Far from valuing privacy in general or private moments in specific, lots of people today believe that the opposite of privacy is what is valuable. They seem to feel that instant contact, 24/7 is a gift. They believe that being accessible at all times is a right and privilege. Try not picking up a ringing cellphone or, gasp, having it turned off, and watch some people go ballistic. How dare you not be available when it was convenient for the caller/texter! Never mind what the law says--what better time to have a mind-engaging conversation then when you are driving 60 mph on a congested highway somewhere.

The right to privacy is not specifically delineated in the Constitution but is derived from the penumbra. For years we have argued about having that right, but we're pretty much shooting down any right to privacy through our love affair with technology. There are still some who would like to have it both ways--we get privacy and we get 24/7 access to anyone and anything we want. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way.

There is one way, however, that we can get some measure of privacy--turn the machinery off and/or set some rules about when you will and will not be contactable. If you're out to dinner with your husband/wife, pretend there was a massive power outage and refuse to answer any messages, calls or texts. You want to save yourself some time? Stop texting/talking while in a grocery or other store, and just shop and get out. And maybe, just maybe, we might want to rethink the topics of conversation that are going to be overheard by others in a public space--do I really need to know the intimate details about your digestive/reproductive system? Please, spare me!

So no, a lack of privacy is not considered as torturing prisoners. How could it be? None of the rest of us are getting any privacy either. You want to give me the perfect gift for Chanukah and the rest of the year? Give me back some measure of privacy. Stop assuming that we must be available to each other at all times.

***A slight side detour as regards texting. You think we aren't addicted? Think again. NYC has had not one but close to one dozen cases in the last few weeks of bus drivers who have been reported and suspended for texting while they were driving---yes driving a bus in traffic. And a few of those drivers have been school bus drivers. Now, don't you feel all warm and safe about getting on a bus?


Rachel said...

I'm gonna guess that this will divide by age. Older people have more of an issue with privacy. Younger people haven't really known anything but a world where almost nothing is private so they aren't missing what they never had.

Trudy said...

I'm not so much against the idea of being able to instantly communicate with people as I am about the time wasting that goes on. Just this morning a coworker was on her cell talking to someone and the whole 5 minute conversation was about the fact that they were both having a cup of coffee. The whole conversation could have been covered in about 5-10 seconds, if it was really necessary to share this information.

sima said...

Reclaim your privacy. shut off your phone. Leave it at home. Screen your calls. Disable texting on your cellphone. You don't have to be constantly available to anyone. Fancying yourself so indispensable that everyone must reach you at any time is conceited.

free dating said...

She goes on to say that, “Rather than attempting to define privacy for all, society should give individuals the tools to control the use and spread of their data.” Disappointingly, the tools she praises are the very limited access controls that Facebook and Flickr provide.

If that’s the best tools we’re going to get, I think we’ve got a long, long way to go before loss of privacy isn’t a mainstream issue any longer!

efrex said...

Not much to add to your excellent content, but I must congratulate anyone who uses a Finian's Rainbow quote in her posts: "When I'm not Near the Girl I Love" is one of my favorite Yip Harburg songs.

ProfK said...

Careful, you're showing your age. Try mentioning Finian's Rainbow to someone in their 20s and watch the puzzlement on their faces.

efrex said...

Try mentioning Finian's Rainbow to someone in their 20s and watch the puzzlement on their faces.

Nah, you've just got to hang out with the right 20-somethings. I was in my 20s less than a decade ago, and I was extremely familiar with the show back then; besides, it's back on Broadway now (with a star turn from a former colleague with an unbelievable story).

JS said...

"The right to privacy is not specifically delineated in the Constitution but is derived from the penumbra. For years we have argued about having that right, but we're pretty much shooting down any right to privacy through our love affair with technology."

It's a lot worse than you think.

The foundational case on privacy versus the government's ability to conduct searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment is Katz v. United States. Some quotes from that case:

"What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected."

"There is a twofold requirement [for Fourth Amendment protections], first that a person have exhibited actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and, second, that the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as 'reasonable.'"

The case sets the foundation for unreasonable searches and seizures by the government on both our own subjective protection of our privacy and on the objective standards that society sets for what it is willing to deem "private."

Scary stuff.

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