Privacy and the Internet

So, first I thought I was going to write about how thoroughly annoyed all the stuff with William Hague has made me. Then I half heard a guy spouting off on Radio Four this morning about how the internet has made us all incapable of deep thoughts. Unfortunately I had to turn off before I heard the guy they had on for the counter arguments, can’t remember his name and a quick search of the internet has not been forthcoming with it.

So I suppose I’m going to prove Nicholas Carr, who struck me as slightly slimy, right by giving you a mish-mash of thoughts that have occurred to me as a result of the half-heard (traffic required concentration today) radio four interview.

His main point seemed to be that technology, any new technology from clockwork right through to google, made the brain wire itself differently. Well gosh…that’s a shock! I’m quite interested in the way the human brain wires itself – from learning new languages to the ways in which social interaction across different cultures cause different wirings. New neural connections get made as humans come into contact with new things.

(An interesting side point, it was thought that one of the last areas of the brain to continue making connections were the language centres into the mid-thirties but it looks as if brand new connections can be made up into your sixties it just takes a lot more effort on your part. This is un-cited as it’s based on rumour and anecdote but if you’re really interested start looking at studies on altzheimers and autism.)

However, making new neural connections doesn’t mean old ones break up – unless they get really, really unused. The internet is great at connecting us up with everything at once but, and I speak as one who uses the net obsessively, I haven’t stopped reading, writing or watching tv because I use the net. I just do things in different amounts and at different times. This guy seems to be suffering from the usual problem of age, that things in his day were much better than they are now…I could call it Mary Whitehouse syndrome I suppose…there’s a reason I’m thinking of her! Bear with me!

So to her the radio is new, before the radio the telephone connected people who knew each other and allowed them to talk when they weren’t in the same place. The key difference with radio is that you’re allowing complete strangers into your house to give their opinions – is it any wonder she wrote so many letters of complaint? Then with TV it gets worse…and the modern generation who fully understands the concept of the ‘off’ switch just can’t understand what she’s got to gripe about, after all, if you don’t like it – just turn it off right?
But if it’s new, then, well, it’s hard to turn off because it’s so exciting, and if you invite someone into your house you can’t very well kick them out half way through their conversation…no new neural connections there then…

Attention spans then, has mine diminished? On the whole no, but it depends what I’m doing, and I’m not young enough to consider the internet just a part of the everyday…I still consider myself to be priveleged and living in the future! I don’t like disconnecting if I’m at home, but at the same time I’m more than happy to be offline when I’m out and about. Books still have the capacity to absorb me utterly…but as for maintaining deep thought, I’m not as good at that as I once was…

I don’t, however, put it down to the internet, that rather nice research tool which makes finding out things (and where best to find out things) a lot easier, rather I put it down to work which doesn’t stretch me and leaves me too exhausted to actually think about things. If it is not possible to provide stretching and interesting work for a populace then allow us the time and freedom to use our minds creatively and stretchingly…ahh – the internet – opiate for the 20th century masses? Or maybe our opportunity to stretch ourselves?

What the internet has destroyed I would say, is our sense of privacy, perhaps William Hague hasn’t got the attention span for the twenty first century as he must surely know that everything he’s jus tmade public is going to stay public. Whereas I guess if I miscarried I would probably blog about it I wouldn’t feel as if an external force was making me, rather an internal one, but he clearly has felt as if public opinion matters that much.

We gossip and stare and I’m hugely aware that people seem so much more bothered by gossip and the opinions of others. I guess if you’re a politician then that matters, but seriously two men share a twin room and they must be lovers? I still live in a world where if two people share a twin room I’m not going to leap to any sexual conclusions.

But people are judgemental and you can set out your stall and maintain your private thoughts all you like, people are still going to make assumptions and act on those assumptions. I’m very lucky in a way, I’m a private citizen and I can afford to say that if you jump to conclusions about me, if you act judgementally towards me then you’re not my friend and I couldn’t care less what you think. You do not matter to me. I’d never make a politician where I have to splay everything in front of the public because they want me to. I do it because the internet is the place where I feel most comfortable thinking out loud in a way that no previous century has allowed me, as a non-academic, non-member of the priveleged upper-classes, non-eneity to do on such a scale.

Really this is no different to rambling on in an alehouse/coffee-house/tea-shop/on a street corner/over a garden gate. But I get challenged by people who do not share my views because they share a boundary line, I get corroborated by people who share my views and come from an entirely different country. This network of people brings us closer together and pushes us apart, it allows us to think and share our thoughts, even sustain a ramble but the downside isn’t attention span, it’s that people whose social neural connections were formed before the internet behave as if it’s a series of people they’ve invited into their homes and it would be impolite to give them anything other than complete access to every room in the house.

Hey world, keep thinking deep thoughts, keep gossiping, but maybe we can think out a new politics where private lives simply don’t matter and the sex lives of other people isn’t our automatic business unless they choose to make it so?

3 thoughts on “Privacy and the Internet

  1. This is often easier said than done though. It’s not only strangers who make judgements about us – sometimes it’s people we think of (or thought of) as friends who are only too keen to make their judgements and share them with the world at large.

    It’s very easy to say that we should not care, and that these people should not matter. I got given that advice a hundred times over at school when people said hurtful things. But the thing is that they do matter. And when people you love(d) say those things it’s not that easy to draw that line.

  2. Damnit – I had put up a quotation from your blog that my reply was referencing. Your blog comment ate it. It was this bit:

    I’m very lucky in a way, I’m a private citizen and I can afford to say that if you jump to conclusions about me, if you act judgementally towards me then you’re not my friend and I couldn’t care less what you think. You do not matter to me.

  3. I agree that it’s hard, and it’s horrible when it comes from people who you didn’t expect it of.

    The fact remains that if someone would rather jump to conclusions about me than talk with me about whatever upsets them then that person is not worth my time and energy. It sounds harsh and it is but I will not compromise my life to please someone who doesn’t matter to me.

    On the other hand the art of compromise and discussion is what anyone should be capable of and I think that can be harder in some ways than taking a sharp knife to your life. The second option enables you to think you’ve done nothing wrong.

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