It’s funny to talk to Millennials about what technology was like in the 1980s. They are a sensitive generation, and these things make them turn pale. “When we were kids, if someone called you on the phone, you had to answer because you wouldn’t have any idea who it was! Then you had to talk to them in the living room! Out loud! And everyone in the room would listen! But if they called and you weren’t home… you’d never know!” As I write this, I realize that there are probably young people in a 20th century revival enclave somewhere, using rotary phones in the same way that they have started lugging typewriters down to the coffee shop. We do have to admit that the reception is clearer on a landline.
The thing about contemporary tech is that it allows us a type of privacy never before known in human civilization. Anyone who comes from a small town can tell you that everyone always knew your business, through a combination of gossip, noting your whereabouts, and familiarity with the multi-generational lineage of every member of your social group. That stuff is probably still true. For more urban people, however, something new is going on.
My husband and I have been married for six years. We have our own bank accounts, our own credit cards, our own retirement accounts, our own email addresses, our own cell phones, our own desks, and even our own bathrooms. We only have one vehicle, but realistically, many people also have their own private cars. We can sit side by side and listen to different music or watch different movies. In a very real way, we live parallel lives that overlap only in certain areas. We share what we’ve chosen to share.
There are certain ramifications to this new privacy. Either of us could be getting up to all sorts of shenanigans without the other having any idea. A suspicious person could be driven around the bend by this. The other night, my husband was watching TV in our hotel room, and a commercial for Ashley Madison came on. I explained what it was (a dating website for married people to have affairs), and his first reaction was that it had to be a joke. This is our world. People can and will do exactly what they want.
Now, I believe people should do exactly what they want – as long as they are not negatively impacting anyone else. The “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” argument is complete and utter BS. The first test of a potential moral hazard is, Does my ethical position magically match up with everything I want to do? If so, it might need more work. There is no reason why people who prefer no-strings relationships should feel stuck in committed monogamous relationships, since there are so many other people available who feel the same way. If the main reason to drag out the fake committed relationship is to avoid disrupting a beneficial financial/living situation, well, that’s pretty unsavory.
Oddly, the new privacy adds a certain cachet to romantic commitment. We’re together because we want to be. There are no major social pressures. We could choose to live alone, have roommates, “shack up,” or get married, and we didn’t have to ask for anyone’s permission. We paid for our own wedding. Our union is entirely what we’ve made from personal preference.
The funny thing about the new privacy is that we’ve voluntarily chosen to ditch certain aspects of it. Most prominently, there is “the dot.” We’ve shared our location data with each other, and at any moment, we can check our phones and see that dot that signifies whether he’s at work or I’m at the coffee shop. I sometimes set a notification to tell me when he’s leaving work, so I know to be home when he gets there. I can also watch as that dot moves up the freeway when he comes home from a business trip. It’s really convenient and cute. We regard it affectionately. It’s a level of intimacy and trust that was never possible before this current iteration of pocket technology.
We can share what we choose to share: not just our thoughts, like the public diaries that are our blogs and social networking posts, but pretty much everything. We can share our playlists and pinboards and location check-ins. We can share news articles and comments and photos. Apparently we can even share our heartbeats, if we wear the right wristwatch. We can offer each other a window into everything that enters our awareness every day. We can know each other at a new level. The paradox is that the new privacy creates a new intimacy as well.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.