Sunday, February 20, 2011

How to Be Alone (privacy)

I've been reading and re-reading Jonathan Franzen's riveting collection of essays "How to Be Alone" for the past few weeks. One of the ideas that I've been taken with is his analysis of faux-privacy that our culture seems to crave. Yet with so many profiles on facebook, blogs, gossip columns, and twitter followers, privacy seems to be a silly idea: something we nod our heads to like 'education' and 'freedom' but that's also as gray fuzzy thing. When I can hear the results of some one's pap smear on the subway because the passengers is blabbing into her cell phone, it's hard for me to take privacy seriously in general culture.

Franzen points out that what people want isn't privacy, it's acknowledgment in public space. In some ways this intrudes upon the Garbo-esque 'I Vant to Be Ah-lone" put-on many pretend to crave. As public spaces shrink and Americans are further isolated and removed from each other, we're trying to re-adjust, find new ways of connecting, even at risk of exposure. It's primal and it trumps all arguments for privacy because those are mostly abstract while the need to connect is visceral and self-evident.

There is one other thing that destroy privacy: security. More accurately, it's the appearance of security. But most people are perfectly willing to sacrifice their most intimate secrets if it's couched under the 'security' argument. There are 3,700 cameras in the NY subway. I know this because the MTA has posters up advertising this fact proudly, saying that they're taking OUR safety (i.e. my safety) seriously. This is supposed to make me feel comfortable. When they do a full-body scan and can see me naked at the airport, this is supposed to soothe my fears that the plane will be blown to bits in mid-air. When every card statement is being poured over and analyzed by random strangers on the other side of the world, I'm supposed to feel assured when they call me up to verify my purchases to make sure it's me using the account. I don't think I've ever asked in that moment -which is a clear invasion of privacy- who are you? Who am I talking to, and why are you looking at my records? Why are you scanning my body, do I know you? I don't ask the question because a little part of me -the consumer- feels like I'm secure. I'm safe and the simple fact is this stranger doesn't know me, has no information that is immediately damaging to my reputation.

Franzen argues that what most people mistake for privacy is something else: data protection. We want data protection so people don't get social security numbers, medical records, and other things which can be used to commit theft. This is simple and easy to do, but doesn't have the same 'sexiness' as saying privacy. But data protection is the actual thing we want. This is achieved through simple encryption and codes that can be broken by a hacker with enough skill and time. I am betting -however- that my circumstances- don't warrant extra attention and the robbers, hackers, and diamond heist criminals will over look me in favor of bigger prey.

But how marvelous the invention and re-invention of privacy is to the general public. It's sacred and yet absolutely absurd. It doesn't exist and we're constantly trying to defend it. For the most part, we are left utterly alone throughout our lives. We are free to urinate on the streets (and just as free to be fined), but odds are it's the onlookers who feel more violated that the street pisser.

The question is what do we do with that time alone? In between work and family/friends, there are these huge gaps of solitude in the car or subway, at night before bed, right before waking up, meditating, eating meals, when sick, and definitely in the final hours. Dying and death is an act of solitude. And made all the more bitter and painful if comfort is sought, because the attempt is futile. There is no comfort, there is no one who can relate in those moments. Death and birth is unique and separate from anyone else's experience. There are common motifs that may repeat themselves, voluntary and involuntary muscle lapses, agonal breaths taken, and stillness. The only comparable thing that happens to it is sleep. And every night -no mater how many partners one has- when the lights go out and stillness settles into the body there are 6 billion people falling into sleep every night completely alone.

Franzen has made me think about my life and my love of reading and writing: two of the most solitary things to do with free time. As I search for new friends and lovers every year, I always try to balance it with a regime of 'aloneness.' I can't think without having that aloneness every day. I become irritable, pessimistic, and depressed. And I feel guilty because society/media/culture keeps telling me that I should be 'wired in' from womb to tomb. But for now Franzen's essays are keeping me comfort with as much pleasure as my friends and family.

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