Wednesday, September 30, 2009

'Someone masturbated thinking of you! Find out who!'

I haven't checked the blogosphere very much, but I'm sure I can't be the only person who's uncomfortable with some of the intrusive/investigative capabilities wrought by today's digital age. Many of these fall into the category of what you might call "reverse searches": The week never goes by that I don't receive a solicitation inviting me to find out who's been Googling me, who's been following me on Twitter*, who's been checking out my Blogger profile, who's been standing outside my house with a scythe and a large bag of lime. OK, I made that last one up, but the others are for real, and they're some of the more innocent services available.

The other day I got a spam-mail claiming that it would help me "Find unlisted phone numbers and home addresses
for anyone!" It so happens that as a veteran journalist, I already know how to do that, but my conscience (yes, I have one) also makes me ask myself, "If people wanted their phone number to be found, wouldn't they list it in the first place?" Even scarier are the services that urge you to find the names and addresses of people who have commented on your blog; read the emails of other people who use your computer "over their shoulder" in real time; see who people are phoning on their cell phones; find out where people are physically located as you're talking to them on their cell phones. Maybe I get these solicitations because it's known that I'm "in the business," so people are simply referring "useful services" to me. I find this worrisome nonetheless. And I question how some of it can be legal. Devotee of Lifetime that I am, in recent months I've been treated to movies about "video voyeurs" and identity thieves. A few years ago there was a spate of films about stalkers and the harm they eventually did to the people they stalked. Now, if you're a regular here, you know I'm not big on prior restraint or the prosecution of so-called thought crimes...but still, all I can say is that something about this makes me very, very edgy.

Although it's true that nosy people for decades have been able to hire private investigators to cull much of the above info, the cost (a good private dick, as it were, costs $150-a-day and up), logistics, and risk of exposure were daunting to many. The Web offers a very high degree of anonymity for a very low price (under $50 in the case of most of the services I've just listed). And the info can be in your hands in minutes, not days or weeks. Which is to say, it can be in your hands while you're still furiously homicidal or wildly horny or in whatever overwrought state of mind surely some of the folks who do these searches are in at the moment.

Last week I was laying out the procedural road map for the Playboy piece I'm now doing on jury consulting (which, by the way, is turning out to be one of the most fascinating topics I've ever researched, touching as it does on so many core themes about people and society and the nature of justice). I decided that it might be interesting to interview Tonya Reiman. Ms. Reiman, you may know, is a body-language expert who often does cameos on Bill O'Reilly's show, weighing in on whether various movers and shakers are being truthful and sincere in their public statements. I'm not sure I buy all of what she's selling, but her appearances make for some very interesting segments, and it occurred to me that there were many areas of intersection between her specialty and the art of jury selection. Tonya is also an attractive lady who, like most attractive ladies in media, has something of a cult following online. When I Googled her for some general background, one of the first things that came up was a specialized search-link that provided her phone number
as well as the map coordinates to her home on Long Island. I called the number and got an answering-machine message in the sweet, adorable voice of a girl who sounded to be in her preteen years. Tonya later confirmed that it was her daughter, and I didn't need to be an expert in body language or anything else to discern the love that Tonya has for this child...this child who lives with her highly visible hottie Mom at the address that anyone can find, complete with turn-by-turn directions, in about 10 seconds online.

Like I say...I don't think all of this is such a good idea. Technology and progress aren't always the same thing.

* I don't even "do Twitter," though people increasingly are telling me I should, just to be relevant.


David Brennan said...

There's been such an avalanche of technologies and horror stories about invasive privacy-eradicating technologies for so long now that I personally came to the conclusion that, for the investigator with the resources (basically, the government and then rich people) every facet of your life can be known.

A few years ago, at a 'Star Wars' message board, I was in an argument with a guy (actually, I think it was about 9/11!) and, a few posts later, he linked to all sorts of personal information of mine to try and mock me. It was incredibly chilling!

So, that's just the way it is. "The tide of technology stops for no man", and all the rest of that stuff. And, since American culture is now narcissistic (focused on marketing, self-analysis, etc.) rather than extroverted (focusing on exploration and innovation), this is what most new technologies will be developed and used for.

Funnily, when you read old science books and philosophical texts you always come across phrases like, "Outward thrust of mankind" and "manifest destiny" and "the great races are exploring races".

Now? The cultural pressures are inward towards more criticism and restriction. We don't innovate anything, we don't have any destiny (other than to murder Arabs, I guess) and we don't explore.

Anybody with any experience in a creative field will tell you that all the great work being done is now done by Easterners.

Instead, we all stare at ourselves and at each other. It's like....voyeurism has supplanted innovation.

So, I think that the end of privacy is a predictable and, indeed, inevitable byproduct of modern America's effeminate, introverted culture.

Stever Robbins said...

Think twice before Twittering Steve. If you want to hear my whole take on the topic, I just addressed this in my (brief, five minute) podcast here:

For PR purposes, I've certainly built a substantial online presence. Yet I've always tried to be very careful to be friendly and outgoing without actually giving away inappropriately personal details. I try to keep it all at roughly the intimacy level of cocktail conversation.

That said, the lack of privacy thing creeps me out, too.

Cosmic Connie said...

"There'll be the breaking of the ancient Western code/Your private life will suddenly explode..."

Once again, Leonard Cohen's lyrics have proven to be prescient (the above being from his 1992 song "The Future").

Unsettling trends, indeed.

We're all complicit in this, of course, eagerly embracing the technology that allows us to be super snoops. And, as in all other areas of life, most of us have a double standard: we want to know everything about everyone else as it suits us, while maintaining complete control over what everyone else knows about *us*. Can't have it both ways, though.

Anonymous said...

I understand that you often go for shock value in your titles and sometimes your art, and I do think there's a lot of merit to what you say here. I too worry about loss of privacy, and as a woman there are special concerns as you illustrate with the body language expert. Still I think your choice of a title was dreadful and unfortunate. There was no need to go into that gutter to make this point.

Cal said...

To be honest, I have always wondered why there hasn't been any other John Lennon or Rebecca Schaefer incidents with zealous fans. And that is not to mention just everyday people, with the proliferation of services on the Internet to get public or non-public info.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, I couldn't agree more. Think about it: You don't even need Mapquest anymore. Just jot the address (or place of business), fly to the city in question, rent a car with GPS navigation, and the dulcet turn-by turn voice will guide you straight to your favorite (or least favorite) person's door.

littleplanet said...

The dawg bites the hand that feeds it, I guess...
but I also think the toys have been minding the shop, and having a party at the expense of normative mature social evolution.
I always wondered what Japanese-style adult-child stay-at-home failure would produce - in the western world.
Perhaps that's a whole other story...but technology altogether has become the plaything of the morally misfit, and the dangerously infantile.
While the rest of us figure out how to use the gadgets in reasonable and socially responsible ways, we've allowed little devils to run amok with dangerous toys.

In answer to the ponder: "Is my privacy sacred to the detriment of others?" Hardly, I say.
Too many glass houses have bullet-proof windowpanes. Or one-way mirrors.