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Society struggles to adapt to post-privacy age

by Michael Hoffman

A demonstrator at a rally in Tokyo earlier this month carried a sign reading “Himitsu hantai” (“Against secrets”). She meant government secrets, the rally having been called to protest the state secrets bill that is now the law of the land. The legislation imposes draconian penalties on leakers or seekers of information that the government, with no necessarily independent oversight, deems secret, according to standards left undefined. It’s impossible not to be reminded of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984,” or of a slogan propagated by that novel’s ruling Party: “Ignorance is strength.”

“Against secrets” is an interesting turn of phrase and suggests meanings the demonstrator probably didn’t intend. Society itself is evolving “against secrets.” Not just government secrets but all secrets — even personal ones — are suspect.

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, in 2009, articulating the spirit of the age.

What would Schmidt say to this, I wonder? It’s a story that goes all the way back to the dawn of the millennium, when individual personhood as we knew it was fading, but not yet quite dissolved, into the World Wide Web. In February 2001, the weekly Spa told of a 25-year-old man who met a woman, a manga artist, online. He got to know her, got to like her, met her in person, fell in love with her, slept with her, and was shocked to discover, flipping through one of her books in a convenience store one idle afternoon, that she had used him — his personality, his body, his love talk and mannerisms — as material to feed her erotic “ladies’ comics.”

Dizzy with embarrassment, he confronted her. She was surprised at his surprise. That was how she worked, she explained; that was how she made her fantasies “real.” He fled and never saw her again, determined that her thousands of fans would never see him again.

He shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place, to paraphrase Schmidt. Shouldn’t have been doing what?

In a traditional — or let’s say an ideal — democracy, government is transparent and individuals are, by and large, out of the public eye. That now seems reversed. Individuals are visible as never before, and democratic governments, reeling from successive exposures of state secrets, are struggling desperately to withdraw into the shadows. No democracy has gone further in that direction than Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Opinion polls and increasingly massive and vocal protests against the state secrets law show a public outraged by their elected government’s retreat from public scrutiny. Even more indignation has erupted worldwide since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last summer revealed the extent to which the American and other governments are, in a manner of speaking, watching us — not as intently or malevolently as Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother watched his people, but again, the comparison is inevitable and is often drawn.

But there is nothing Orwellian — except to those few who don’t like it — about the mass surrender of personal privacy. It is spontaneous and voluntary, embraced almost as a liberation. From what? From the need for secrets, from whatever hang-ups inhibit the indulgence of an apparently instinctive need to reveal ourselves, all of ourselves, to others of our species — to the whole of our species if possible, or to a large and indiscriminate segment of it otherwise. I am seen, therefore I exist. I tweet, therefore I think.

Facebook, launched in 2004, has more than a billion users worldwide. Line, launched in 2011, has 300 million. Numbers like these are an astonishing proportion of planet Earth’s 7 billion people, and prove our desire to be seen, heard and tracked — not by Big Brother but by just about everyone else.

Line, conceived and brought to birth in Japan, is supposed to differ from Facebook and other social networking sites in being relatively “closed” — just you and your own circle, not you and the whole world. But Aera magazine, in an article titled “Children’s Line hell,” shows the Facebook principle of the more the merrier percolating into Line too. Among junior and senior high school students, a Line group tends to expand to include the entire class or the entire school. The “hell” consists in the unspoken imperative to reply immediately — or else — to any random message you get.

Or else what? The context being school, the word “bullying” immediately springs to mind. And so it proves to be. Insults, threats, ostracism, forced online nude exposure and the online spreading of personal tales, true and false, are among the examples cited. Result: “I end up dealing with more than 100 messages a night,” says one second-year high school student. “I was always inclined to skip school, but lately I can’t even get up in the morning. I’ve lost all desire to study. But I’ve learned by bitter experience” — ostracism in his case — “not to get off Line.”

A third-year high school student recalls for Aera the summer he went traveling with his family and left Line at home. When school resumed he found funeral flowers on his desk: “We thought you’d died.”

Is there life any more (governments aside) out of the public eye?