Words come and words go. Times change, language evolves.
Here’s a prediction: Two words that will be incomprehensible a generation from now are “secret” and “private.”
They will wither like “ether,” “phlogiston,” “the celestial music of the spheres” and so on, and for the same reason. They will no longer describe anything in our world. For better and/or worse, human beings are outgrowing their privacy and secrecy.
Rockers and folkies of the 1960s sang of us all transcending our differences and becoming One. Fifty years later, it’s happening — not, as they imagined, through love and peace and mantras and hallucinogens, but through technology and terror.
Marshall McLuhan, that uncannily prescient media savant of those same 1960s, foresaw at least the technology part of it. In his 1964 classic “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” he wrote, “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”
Japan, for all its political seclusion, is not — or until very recently was not — a private place. Its traditional society was communitarian rather than individualistic. Members of a community, still more of a household, knew each other’s business. There were few secrets. Escaping into your inner life, if you were unusual enough to have one, involved not going into your room and closing the door but building a “grass hut” in the mountains and becoming a recluse. Japan scholar Jordan Sand, surveying the architecture of the early 1900s, wrote, “The use of rooms opening directly to one another . . . put Japan 450 years behind the West, where they had corridors since the Renaissance. Voices carried easily through paper sliding doors . . .”
There were no words in Japanese for “private” and “privacy.” Even today the English words fill the void. Shyness and modesty, compensating qualities, have lately been picked clean. It starts in childhood. An Asahi Shimbun series called “Children Today” shows how perfectly at ease 11- and 12-year-olds are online, where the whole world can see and hear them. One segment last week featured a group of sixth-grade girls, classmates, chatting via an online bulletin board. They talk about the things that matter to them and their circle — the color of a friend’s cell phone, in this case. When a stranger throws in a comment indicating he’s been following the conversation all along, the girls are unperturbed. “Who’s he?” “Who knows?” And the talk goes on.
Happiness is measured in terms of exposure — the number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, blog hits. I’m seen, therefore I am. Shukan Gendai last week noted a rising urge among Japanese women to be photographed nude. “In the past,” psychologist Takashi Tomita told the magazine, “women who appeared naked in public did it for money. Now it’s a form of self-expression.”
Governments once cloaked themselves in secrecy. First it was a reflex, then a prerogative, then a supposed necessity. Japan’s Freedom of Information Act took decades to spawn. Agitation for it began in the 1960s and championed the democratic public’s “right to know.” The Act was finally passed in 1999. Ten years later it already seems quaint. This is the age of WikiLeaks, YouTube and the limitlessly empowered whistleblower. Government secrecy is dead. Maybe government as we know it is too.
Considering how easy it is for anyone, anywhere, doing anything, anytime to end up on YouTube or some similar cybervenue, on display to the world, it is curious how little anxiety there is on that score. An 18-year-old New Jersey university student and a number of Muslim residents of Japan recently found out the hard way how real the danger is. In September, Tyler Clementi jumped to his death off a New York bridge after a roommate and another student allegedly videoed him in an intimate liaison with a man, then broadcast the video. The Muslims in Japan were victims of an apparently accidental uploading in October of police data gathered in heightened surveillance necessitated, it is said, by the terrorist threat. “The police have broken in a few seconds what it took me 20 years to build,” said one victim, expressing how it feels to suddenly find oneself no longer a private individual.
Everywhere you go, everyone around you has a camera. Surveillance cameras too are ubiquitous, their numbers growing rapidly. Last month, the Washington Post editorialized concerning the new full-body scanners and police-style pat-downs at U.S. airports, “Lost in the fury over privacy is the fact that the scanning takes a mere two seconds (and) the computerized images are not photographs and do not show passengers’ faces.”
True, perhaps, and yet, for the remaining few who are still sensitive to such things, it contributes to an uncomfortable sense of being perpetually observable if not observed, stalkable if not stalked. For young people growing up regarding the “extended nervous system” as natural, or older people sufficiently adaptable or sufficiently resigned to it as necessary protection, it may not matter — but soon it will be as if privacy had never existed.