Contents | March 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
The Atlantic Monthly | March 2001
77 North Washington Street
he cover story in this issue is about the loss of privacy. This is, in the larger sense, not a new subject or a new fear. The worry that others will find out what one is really up to, or what one is really like, or simply where one is really living, is as primal as anything can be. None of us wants to be fully revealed, even those of us who reveal bits and pieces of ourselves for a living. "It is nice to be read," a colleague of mine at The Cincinnati Post used to say. "It is not nice to be read closely."
In an important way, though, this is a new subject and a new fear. Concern over the loss of privacy has grown tremendously in recent years. Toby Lester, the author of "The Reinvention of Privacy," reports that it consistently ranks in public-opinion surveys as a primary worry. And this is not merely a popular neurosis. The computer and the Internet and the marketplace have combined to make the invasion of privacy easy enough and profitable enough to form a basis for commerce on a mass scale. In the daily onslaught of my e-mail, along with pleas that I chuck my worthless life as a wage slave and REDUCE TAXES—CREATE BIG INCOME, I often find offers to assist me, for a becomingly modest fee, in locating anybody in the world I have any reason for wanting to locate, no questions asked. The offerers know that they are in the business of violating privacy (not mine, but that of my quarries—unless, of course, my quarries are also hunting me), and that my reasons for paying for this violation may well be terrible. "Find that sweetheart from long ago," I am urged. Yes, that might appeal to an old romantic, but it might appeal even more to the stalker whose victim has managed at last to escape him.
But there is unexpected good news, as our correspondent reports. The erosion of privacy has given rise to a market for the protection of privacy, which has given rise to inventions—"anonymizer technology," for example—that can defeat the inventions that invade. Soon we may again be able to hide from the person or persons or corporations unknown who seek our medical histories and credit records and the sacred truths of our buying patterns. For a modest fee, of course.
This is good. But what about those who suffer from the preservation rather than the invasion of their privacy? What about the tens of millions who suffer the pain of never being violated at all? What about the people whom Oprah never picks, the people whose fetishes are so pathetic they are beneath the notice of Jerry Springer? Consider those whose long-buried scandals Mike Wallace can't be bothered to expose; those whose early-morning coffee is never disturbed by rude questions from Imus; those whose secret pasts and office trysts are of not the slightest interest to either Kenneth Starr or Larry Flynt; those for whom the bell, when it tolls, is always tolled by the man from the water company, never the gentleman from the Times. What about them?
Judging by the evidence all around us, there are far more people in this country who would gladly expose themselves to the world—if only the world cared to look!—than there are those who want just to be left alone. This is America's true silent majority, and its millions are not silent by choice. They look at Monica Lewinsky, laid bare and shamed before a nation, and they think: Why her, O Lord? Why not me? As this is written, a new low in reality television is being plumbed (by the time it is read, we will have worked our way through several further descents)—the show Temptation Island. In this show four young couples are placed on an island, separated from each other and tempted to acts of infidelity through the attentions of twenty-six attractive male and female seducers; their ordeals are videotaped and played for each other and for the television audience. What is interesting about this setup is that the couples who subjected themselves to this humiliation were offered no financial incentive. It is no surprise that there are people willing to mortify themselves for money; that is simply part of the natural order of things. But these people subjected themselves to global public humiliation for the sheer pleasure of the experience. Now, those are real Americans.
Mustn't attention be paid to all of us? Yes, certainly it must. Somewhere, in some emanation from some constitutional penumbra, must surely be found an indication of this right. Somebody should call Senators Lieberman and Hatch; there's a fine little bipartisan act of Congress waiting to be born.
Illustration by Carter Goodrich.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; 77 North Washington Street - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 4.