On the Extinction of Privacy (Part 1)

Every so often, I get a message in my inbox informing me that I’ve been “tagged” on Facebook. These perky little pronouncements used to be a source of gratification—somewhere, somehow, another human being had thought of me. Now the sense of flattery has given way to trepidation. I can never tell if yet another unbecoming shot has been posted for the world to see.

The ubiquity of digital recording devices today means that every moment can be captured—every instant wrested from oblivion. But not all instants are created equal and our lives are never recounted as a complete succession of events. Narratives require gaps in time, the deliberate suppression of inconsequential detail, the ability, in short, to distinguish between the pedestrian and the profound.

We are losing that ability. We have become rabid historiographers living in a hyper-documented world where the incidents of our lives are archived long before their significance can even be assessed. In bygone times, it was the momentousness of events that demanded the presence of the photographer and the attention of the witness. These days, it is precisely the reverse, with the occurrence of boredom alone providing sufficient motivation for the recording of events. It is because we have nothing else better to do that we unpack our cameras—and pose.

Yet even the simulated significance of the impromptu shoot is better by far than the violation perpetrated by the stolen shot. That our souls can be captured so readily and so easily in moments of complete exposure, in moments of utter vulnerability, without our knowledge and without our consent, is the threat we now constantly face. And we have no directions for navigating this novel terrain: no norms, no rules, no customs, no etiquette. Who owns the rights to a posted picture? Is it the photographer or the subject? Should “tagging” remain unregulated? Or should the subject’s permission be obtained?

And why, at the end of all this, do I even pose these questions? Admittedly, it has far more to do now with the mortification of my vanity than any assault on my privacy—and I can only hope it remains that way.


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