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You are a public figure

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New Year’s Eve, for the first time, I had an alarming moment when I realized spaceships really were watching me through the ceiling. They knew where I was in the house. I was troubled by it and said so to my friend, but by midnight I forgot, and felt much better.

Rewind a week or two. I was taking adorable pictures of my toddler nephew typing on his grandmother’s iPad, when I had one of those bewildering, revelatory moments.

I realized I was photographing a member of the first generation that will be able to revisit its entire life in sparkling, high resolution. Between me, his parents and his grandmother, there are easily more photos of him than there have been days in his life.

His brother is six months now. In 2081, when they’re both old men, they’ll be able to access their childhood in extraordinary detail. They’ll see their first Christmases, their first bike rides, their graduations and wedding days all in high resolution images and HD video, and it might seem strange to them that previous generations did not have much access at all to their pasts, aside from memories and a few grainy photographs.

Contrast that with my father, (1947-2008) of whom I’ve only seen one or two pictures of as a child. In those pictures he’s someone I don’t know. He has a smooth sepia face that could belong to just about anyone except my dad. He wore a moustache from the day I was born to the day he died and I couldn’t recognize my father in any other face.

The kids born after about 2007 constitute the first generation that’s younger than Facebook. Today, it’s fairly normal for human beings make their first appearance on the internet when they are less than a week old. Think of how many newborn photos you’ve seen posted by your Facebook friends this last year.

The generation growing up now will be the first one for whom the internet has always been around. For them there will have always been a virtual world of data that follows and documents everyone and everything they know about. Every person they know has an online profile, every object they own or place they visit has a wikipedia article.

They will take for granted that everyone they know has information about them — photos, dates, quotes and other data — floating around in the ether, accessible from anywhere, and virtually indestructible. 

I’m still getting used to the idea. I have an app on my phone that lets you take a photograph of something, and it will tell you what it knows about it if it recognizes it. It works about 80% of the time. I can take a picture of a book and it will return the Amazon page for it or the Wikipedia article for it. I can photograph a business card and it will show me everything Google can find on that person. It can recognize public landmarks, art, photographs, and publications. It can recognize famous people in photos, by scouring Google Images for similar photos. It takes about ten seconds and it’s free.

It’s still fairly experimental, but it’s easy to imagine where this technology will be five or ten years. I’d bet any money that before today’s todders graduate high school, they’ll be able to point their phone at a person walking down the street and find out at least their name and a host of linked information, most of the time. Probably well before that.

This speculative article was big on StumbleUpon four years ago, and at the time it seemed so far away. Now it doesn’t.

When I was a teenager, all internet was dialup. You had to turn it on and off, and it occupied your phone line. Search engines were atrocious, virtually unusable. You couldn’t even find out the score to the Giants/Packers game last night. It probably wasn’t even on the internet at all, and the search engines of the day only had the vaguest ideas what you were on about.

You had to take what you could get, which was never quite what you were after. When you were done poking around at whatever decent websites you could find, you turned it off and went back to real life. Today, online and offline no longer have a clear boundary, and this coming generation won’t really understand that there ever was one.

Anyone born into a high-tech society at this point in the game will be totally, irreversibly accustomed to information served up on command, like my generation was born without it occuring to them that there was a time before TV.

When they’re teenagers they’ll be able to ask their phones “Did Mom smoke weed in college?” and instantly have pictures and third party accounts, if the data is out there somewhere. And there will be lots of data out there somewhere.

I was on Facebook before I ever decided to be on Facebook. Four or five years ago, I was at a pub with some acquaintances and they started talking about Facebook. Being a staunch holdout, I tuned out and waited for a new topic, because I had nothing to do with Facebook and wasn’t interested in it.

Then while I was spacing out, one of the girls poked me in the ribs. “There’s lots of pictures of you on Facebook, you know.”


I did eventually cave, as many of you know, and now there’s more about me online than you could possibly want to know.

There’s really no going back now. Once something’s online, there’s no way to get it off. That’s a 21st century maxim that warrants some pondering:

Once you put it online, it belongs to everyone, forever. Thank you.

The three slippery slopes

I think we sometimes underestimate how much of us is out there, and how easy it is to find.

Whenever someone contacts me for an interview or some other request, if I don’t know who they are I Google them. I search them on Facebook, which almost always yields a picture of them even if they have an unusually tight set of privacy restrictions. If they have any online presence, I can find pages of what they’ve written or said, what online personalities they associate with, and what they’re into.

None of this is done with any sinister intention, I only do it because it’s easy and helps me understand a bit about who I’m dealing with.

If I wanted to get really nosy, I could find out what name they use to comment on blogs, and thereby find out their political positions, what makes them angry, major life events they’ve mentioned, what causes they support, who they vote for, what they believe their personal weaknesses are, names of many of their friends, and of course their age, place of birth, marital status, probably the names of their children, and if they’re especially careless or trusting, their home address.

I could do this all from a park bench, legally, with no exclusive tools or hacker knowledge — all just by examining what they’ve volunteered at one point or another. The only things stopping me are that I have better things to do, and that I’m not a creepy stalker. But not everyone is the same in those two respects.

If that’s not creepy enough, know that we’re only getting more exposed to the online snoop as technology improves and we use it more. Three other information-age realities promise to make us even more accessible to prying minds:

1) Putting data about ourselves into the public sphere is only going to get easier, faster, and less conscious

2) Expectations about how much can and should be found out on the internet are only going to increase

3) Finding any given bit of information is only going to get easier

We’re accelerating toward a society where it’s normal for our lives to be largely public. People who don’t want bits of their history and personality floating in the ether have to go to increasingly greater efforts to stay offline, simply because the internet is becoming more integrated into how we do everything. We use it more, we feed it more personal information, and we expect more information from it, and we think about it less. I only know a few remaining Facebook holdouts. They’re an endangered species.

Spaceships are watching me through the ceiling

I was part of the also-endangered “dumb phone” demographic until New Year’s Eve. While I was testing out the features of my new Android, there were a few moments in which I experienced that peculiar emotion that’s equal parts fascination and horror.

Among other features that are neat enough to be scary, I discovered that I can zoom in on Google Maps to the house I am in, until the house is nothing but a fuzzy brown shape, and watch a tiny blue triangle move back and forth inside that fuzzy shape, as I walk between the dining room and the kitchen.

In a surreal, horrific moment, I realize am the blue triangle, and unmanned spaceships are tracking my every move through the ceiling. Now, I know I can turn off the GPS capability at any time. But while it was on, I was sharing some frighteningly intimate information about myself, and I don’t really know with whom. As time goes on, the shape is only going to get less fuzzy.

We send data out to faceless databases and networks all the time without thinking about it, and anything that is broadcast can potentially be recorded. There are privacy policies and other corporate promises that claim to protect you, but really we’re just constantly throwing information into a giant black box that might as well be labeled, “Stuff I told the internet.”

Amazon knows that you start your Christmas shopping late, that you read left-wing authors, and of course it knows your credit card information and your street address. Google knows you want to learn more about auto-erotic asphyxiation, that you keep replaying My Heart Will Go On on YouTube, and that you probably have irritable bowel syndrome. It’s all circumstantial evidence about who you are, it might not be traceable to your legal name, but it’s all out there and someone’s definitely hanging onto it.

Let’s assume that we can totally trust those big companies with all that. Honestly, at this stage of the game, I do. I think. And it seems like we’re mostly protected from inadvertently becoming too public because what we broadcast is ultimately voluntary.

After all, we choose what we type and what we post. You might reason that you can curate your online self quite carefully, if you can just stay aware of what you’re sharing, and remember the world is listening.

But “voluntary” might be too simplistic a concept here. It’s not always so easy or simple to say no.

For example, I’m sure you’re aware by now that Mark Zuckerberg is imposing his vision on the Facebook world by converting every profile to a Timeline — an automated chronology of all the bits of your life you’ve put online, whether you realized you were doing it or not.

If you don’t want your life so readily chronicled for others, then no problem, right? Because it’s ultimately voluntary.

You just have to delete your Facebook.

Are you going to do that? A few will, and meanwhile the vast majority of us will continue to use it because it’s a big part of life, it has a lot of advantages, and we’re accustomed to them. If it means increased publicness, then I guess we’re game for that.

It’s getting a bit creepy when Facebook remembers more about my life than I do. It can tell me (or any of the other 500 people on my account) what day I became friends with so-and-so, or what was on my mind at 1:31pm April 11th, 2009, even if I have no clue. It seems to know where my photos were taken, even though I’m pretty sure I never told it.

Yet I can’t quite imagine opting out.

Why not? Because there are definitely parts of it I like. I can interact with the like-minded, learn from them, and watch their lives unfold from a polite distance.

So we let ourselves become a little more public, and it keeps us honest and keeps us connected.

But truthfully we have no idea what this tradeoff really amounts to — what liabilities we’re creating by making our details so accessible. If it seems like a fair price to pay, maybe it’s because we haven’t paid it yet.


How do you feel about your life becoming more public? Do you think it’s a healthy trend in general? Do you take steps to keep your information offline?

Wonderful photo by Gato-Gato-Gato

kanchan January 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Nice writing David!!!!!!

Jardley January 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm

I don’t think I consider it a healthy or unhealthy trend. It just becomes your new normal. Just like how me as a child of the 90s who saw more payphones than cellphones then and can’t fathom how life was just fine. Now I wholeheartedly understand why someone would give an 8year old a cell phone when just a few years ago (we’re talking say 3 years) I didn’t. I thought, who would they possibly call other than their parents. You end up getting used to it and that mindset at least for me is reinforced because I don’t take the time out to really process and think about how much I’ve given to the outside world.I think I’d be shocked maybe a little horrified if I really thought about how much of my life was given to the web. And as your own FB photo life shows, will be given without my consent.

David January 17, 2012 at 8:40 am

New normals, definitely. And so frequently. A decade’s worth of technology can bring us to a place we couldn’t have imagined. Remember when phones were all attached to walls? I guess we have to go with it, with as much awareness as we can muster.

Also, I love your artwork.

Lori Gosselin January 17, 2012 at 8:38 am

Hi David,
This is all surreal! Yikes – I never put it all together as well as you have here! You had me at “a member of the first generation that will be able to revisit its entire life in sparkling, high resolution.” and after that I couldn’t stop reading.
The comment from Jardley,noting that it’s just the new normal is more disconcerting yet! Things are changing so fast! How will we keep up, much less know what to do with these new fast-moving trends?

David January 17, 2012 at 8:44 am

That first part is what I can’t get over. For a long time people only had stories and memories of past years in their lives. Now we can see them with lossless quality (visually anyway — feelings can’t yet be captured).

My oldest nephew is learning to talk, and he’s putting together these cute three-and-four word sentences in his tiny voice. Soon that will be all gone. But that voice is preserved in video. He will be able to hear it. I don’t think there are any records in existence of my voice at that age. It’s gone.

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 9:39 am

Yes! I was conscious of this when I was recording the voices and images of my babies/toddlers/preschoolers. I wondered how I sounded when I was learning to talk, but who knows? I imagined my children being impressed to see themselves as babies when they got older. Now 10, 8, and 5, the middle one is the only one who seems to especially like seeing pictures and videos of herself. The oldest is more matter of fact about it. The youngest doesn’t seem to care much, at least not yet. I think personality plays some part. But like you said about us taking TV for granted, my kids are very used to seeing pictures of themselves. It’s not a big deal. This why I decided to not worry about posting photos of them. Five years ago I hesitated, but over time I’ve begun to think it’s inevitable, whether I do it or someone else does. My niece and nephew are posting their own photos on Facebook accounts (as young adults) now.

I’m still in the cell phone dark ages though with my 6 year old phone. I do like the idea of a smart phone and look forward to getting one someday (just have other financial priorities right now), but I’m glad you can turn off the GPS!

Tony Draxler January 17, 2012 at 10:34 am

David I was lucky enough that my parents used to just put on the tape recorder while we were playing… it’s one of the neatest things I own, to be able to hear myself pretending to be Super Smurf and wrestling with my dad when I was 3 years old. There are only about 8 tapes or so that survived (I don’t know how many were made, maybe only 8) but it’s such a small glimpse into my early life that it’s soooo so precious to me. I’m a little sad that kids growing up in this generation won’t have the same sense of awe and wonderment at their childhoods that we do now because they’re so over-exposed to it

Dar January 17, 2012 at 8:42 am

I recently created a blog, between that and Facebook I’m fairly certain there’s a great deal of information about me available to anyone. With my name alone you can find my address and home phone number. It can be unsettling, but then I remember I really have nothing to hide. I haven’t committed any crimes. People will judge me in just a few seconds in person, just as quickly as they will by seeing my picture online and reading that I like meditation, Buddhism, Wicca or what have you. I’m reminded of a quote you shared with us, “what other people think of me is none of my business”. So long as what I’ve shared doesn’t endanger me physically or financially…although it could since employers may use online information to decide whether or not to hire you, then I’ll just accept that people are going to judge me before getting to know who I really am, is that anything new?

David January 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

That’s a good point — it is freeing to be that transparent. I have always been such a private person and now I’ve released almost three years of private thoughts, and who knows what else. And I feel healthier for being willing to do that.

Dar January 17, 2012 at 8:58 am

Being able to express yourself online, such as through your blog is a unique and worthy opportunity. Like you, for years I’ve kept pretty much all of my thoughts and feelings to myself, because when is there an appropriate opportunity to just start talking about it at length with someone you know. Online I can express myself, and know that no one feels obligated to listen, I don’t have to obsess about whether or not they agree with me, or like what I have to say, since chances are if they don’t, I’ll never know.

I just feel like I might be heard and at the same time, that I’m not asking anything of anyone. It’s nice.

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 9:47 am

Yes, an opportunity. I started blogging because I wanted to say some things. Over the years I’ve referred many people to various blog entries or pages I’ve written, and I love the ease of that.
I feel uneasy about the idea of spending too much time online at the expense of “IRL” relationships, and think we need to be careful about that, but I’ve met some great people online I never would have met otherwise because of distance. I’ve also been able to study subjects of interest to me while being a stay at home mom much more easily than a mom of twenty years ago could have. The online world has enriched my life.

Dana January 17, 2012 at 11:34 am

David, it was really interesting reading your take on having an online presence, especially after reading your article from a few years ago about shyness. My wife sent me the link to your blog the other day (https://www.raptitude.com/2009/04/how-to-always-have-something-better-to-talk-about-than-the-weather/) and said this is exactly how she feels. Even though she couldn’t convey it to me in her own words, you could, and i really appreciate it. So Thank you.

As far as online presence goes, i recently tightened my online security settings (at least as far as Facebook is concerned, since that is my primary social network). I actually went through my entire Facebook and deleted every post or entry prior to Oct 2011 when i first read about timeline. I guess i was more scared about what my online presence would look like than anything else. I am somewhat glad i did that because i had about 5 years worth of useless posts about nothing and i would rather start with a clean slate and fill in the past as i see fit once the timeline took place.

I treat my social presence more like a filing cabinet, compartmentalizing my life and allowing access to different groups. i have friends, colleagues, family, extended family, and unfiltered for my “groups”. and share with whom my updates seem appropriate. I know as the years go on it will only get easier and easier to get information about someone from their online presence. I actually saw an article on the news about banks and how they are now using social networks to gain information about potential clients.

I think having an online presence is perfectly fine and actually where evolution would bring us eventually. As humans we are very social creatures and it would eventually lead to this.

Your point about freeing yourself through your blog isn’t the first i have heard of this. I stumbled across a blog a few months ago, talk nerdy to my lover, and the woman behind that blog said the exact same thing. Its really great to see that the internet is not only being used for research and to share knowledge but it also has therapeutic effects as well.

I just want to tell you that i throughly enjoy reading your blogs and hope you continue to share your thoughts with us for a long time.

Tiva Joy January 17, 2012 at 8:45 am

“How do you feel about your life becoming more public? Do you think it’s a healthy trend in general? Do you take steps to keep your information offline?”

I don’t mind being open and honest about myself and who I am. Sometimes, what I say, especially when intoxicated, is a little embarrassing when I have sobered up, but still I have to admit that is who I am. I am more open and honest on twitter with complete strangers, and Facebook I am a little more reserved out of respect for my family and certain type of friends.
I used to “check in” places on foursquare.com, but had lots of family members express their worry for my safety, thinking I could easily obtain a stalker.
On a better note, I love having so much information at my fingertips… google is a great place for learning.
I have to trust that feeling I have believing I am protected and safe from harm, though.
Great blog, David

Naomi January 17, 2012 at 8:59 am

Hi David, another really good blog with lots to think about. It made me think about an article that came across recently about social networks being invented by the Romans. The point was, that man is a social animal, put us in any situation and we will start to gather information about each other.
In the last few decades, families and communities have begun to physically disperse, isn’t the internet a way that we are beginning to come together again…albeit in a different way? I do think we all need to remember that the internet is very public though….

Ektor January 17, 2012 at 9:01 am

Nice one David! I have to say i am slightly frightened of what could be the price to pay for it. But the world is changing anyway so we better accept the change, use the lot of good things we can now and mostly we have to make treasure of this possibility to be united that never was so evident!!!

Maria January 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

The illusion of control. The other aspect of exposing your intimate thoughts or your impulsive speech is that even at our youngest, prudence and silence are a choice. As for being observed from above, think of how many people during your lifetime have observed you from across the street, or across the room making gestures or faces that you did not even know you were making…I recently reconnected with a childhood schoolmate who told me he admired me from afar for a long time during our school years, and told me things about myself that I could not self observe. chilling but normal. We all watch others while they remain unaware……

Rose Siboney LaLuz January 17, 2012 at 10:02 am

Hmmm… I am one of those last holdouts with no facebook or twitter accounts to eat up the minutes of my life. Until just three months ago I was also one of the few weirdos who chose not to own a television. Now I am living with my boyfriend and find an inordinate amount of my time is spent staring at a huge and very loud flat screen. Being fresh to this, I don’t think he and I are experiencing it in the same way. Why? Is what most people ask and when my answer to the facebook question is No, I don’t. The value I place on my time/energy is one big reason, another perhaps more difficult to comprehend is that I don’t perceive it as actually constituting real human contact. According to research in the fields of neurology, biology and sociology as lucidly explained by Daniel Goleman in his books on social intelligence, humans evolved to connect/communicate with each other through the most subtle of micro expressions, tone and pitch, body language and even scent. All of these are left out of the equation on the internet. I don’t think our physiology has caught up with our technology. Personally, I want the warmth of your hand when we shake and the glint in your eye when you flash that wry smile and the smell of my child’s hair as we cuddle. I am an odd one, I understand, sigh….

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 10:37 am

Not odd. I totally agree with you on the time issue. I also rarely choose to sit in front of a TV. But spending time online and spending time in real life isn’t mutually exclusive. I feel I have a richer set of connections because of the internet. And I still get lots of cuddling time with my family. :)

PeterisP January 17, 2012 at 10:03 am

Think about the old metaphor of Internet as the Global Village. It’s that simple – even while staying in the same room, most of us have moved from an anonymous magacity to a global village, with the relevant social and privacy expectations.

Surprised about Amazon? Imagine the local pharmacist knowing which teenagers are buying condoms and which ones are buying pregnancy tests – and at the same time knowing who is going out with his daughter.

Surprised about Facebook? Imagine seeing a girl on the village street asking anyone (literally) who she is – and you’ll know her relatives, her relations, funny childhood embarassments and current interests. The only thing that changes is shinier pictures.

All of it actually is the way homo sapiens have lived forever. it’s not the new kids that are strange, it’s actually you and me and my generation; we happened to be raised in a short cultural gap of relative anonymity that wasn’t reasonable earlier and won’t be possible in the future.

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 10:39 am

Wow, that makes a lot of sense! Perhaps things are become MORE natural.

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 10:23 am

I just posted 2 comments already before I realized I haven’t answered your questions.

How do you feel about your life becoming more public?
I feel like I’m walking on an edge, or maybe being swept along by a wave, that makes me feel a little cautious but I’m open-minded to trying new things and optimistic in general.

Do you think it’s a healthy trend in general?
I hope so, and I believe it can be so. As always, people will have to inform themselves and make choices. I think it might be easier for the kids today, when they are adults, to treat technology as an ordinary tool instead of something awesome we want to keep playing with as much as possible.

Do you take steps to keep your information offline?
About six years ago I did. I had only a private blog, a private photo gallery, a few blog comments, and yahoogroup discussion posts, yet a Google search for my name shocked me. I changed my blog, considered using pseudonyms for my children, changed my email address, etc. However, I noticed how much other people are sharing and thought about it a lot, and finally decided that there are just a few things that really must be kept private, such a financial information. The benefits of communicating online greatly exceed any potential risks, risks that were around even before the Internet, just at a slower pace.

Vilx- January 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

Being a computer programmer myself, I’ve been aware of this phenomenon for years already. I haven’t quite decided what to do about it either. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to stay anonymous if you want to use Internet in more than read-only mode. And even then, there’s a small trickle about your Internet-using habits leaking out there somewhere. I don’t know if anyone collects this data but….

It’s, scary, damn scary. Like the proverbial Big Brother, except we’ve created it ourselves and have embraced it willingly. Here’s a scary thing that happened to me recently – For a long time I was reluctant to join Facebook. I don’t like to put much personal information on the net, because I know that there is already tons of it out there whether I want it or not. But, after some persuasion from my wife, I finally did. And a little while later I noticed that it offered me a friendship with a certain person, let’s call him M.M. Facebook said I might know him. The fact is that I DO know him – but I haven’t advertised that anywhere! I only have emails with that person, and both our names are mentioned together (among others) in one faraway webpage on the other side of the Internet. It was like a shock. WTF?! How could Facebook POSSIBLY know that I know M.M? To this day, I don’t know. My wife thinks that it might crawl the web and found our names on that one webpage. My brother suggested that GMail (which I primarily use) shares information with Facebook. That sounds more likely, though also weird. But in the end – it’s just creepy.

As I said, I still haven’t decided whether it’s a good thing or not. On one hand it seems that it could give too much power into the hands of one group of people. On the other hand, there’s also this (obligatory) XKCD comic: http://xkcd.com/792/

I guess we’ll live to see…

Michele Kendzie January 17, 2012 at 10:44 am

When I registered at Facebook it connected with my email account (yahoo at the time) and suggested friends to me based on my Contacts list. I can’t remember whether that was an opt – in thing or automatic. Another way FB suggests friends is if you and the other person have a friend in common.

gem January 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

It was google via your gmail. Doesn’t matter if you connected it or not. And I’ve had that happen with an email account which was only ever used via a POP mail client. It was a business account and my clients (which I always refused to add as friends .. they aren’t friends .. they are clients!!) would show up all the time. So that means that “something” was crawling around my PC collecting email addresses and feeding them back to me through FB. This angers me, frustrates me but in the end, yes I still kept FB.

I did however find another social site that respects my wishes. I am someone else and while I know that can be traced to my real identity in the process described above, at least for most on that site, I am only a nickname. I can say what I want without worrying about offending some fb friend that I “had” to add.

I learned a rule very fast when I got online in the early 90’s. If you don’t want something known by everyone, kept private, kept secure, don’t put it online. It is very simple. I actually have expanded that to include any PC that goes online.

Trish Scott January 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

“We Are One” is way bigger than what fits on a bumper sticker. Some of us understand this telepathically and have understood that forever. Your life is an open book already. Facebook is just giving everyone who doesn’t “get” this an experience where they can immerse themselves gradually, starting from the shallow end of the pool. Transparency IS.

Liana January 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

I am an urban planning student, and just re-read some Jane Jacobs and Mitchell Duneier chapters on sidewalks for a social planning class today – wow, what great timing!

Jacobs (and as quoted in Duneier) describes the safety of a city by how a stranger feels on the sidewalk – if she feels like a stranger, the city will be perceived as an unwelcoming and hostile place. Jacobs posits that this derives from humans instinctively fearing the unknown, and cities are by definition filled with people we don’t know.

Therefore the safety we feel in most city streets (she is writing about 1960s Greenwich Village), is at least partially due to “public characters…or anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character…[he] need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function – although he often does. He just needs to be present…”

Jacobs is explaining that sidewalks feel safer and more predictable in the presence of public characters, because he or she have vetted those in the neighborhood, and act as not only a watchman, but an informal index of the moral character of those who pass by whom we do not know firsthand.

As your post so eloquently describes, I wonder how the rise of digital information will affect this necessary dynamic of communities. Does the role of the public character now live in our pockets and on the web? Will the exposure of information force us all indoors and away from the public realm? Or will streets become safer when no one can hide behind the anonymity of a metropolis?

Thank you for yet another wonderful post – I LOVE reading your entries!


Duneier, Mitchell (1999). Sidewalk. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jacobs, Jane (1961). The Death and Life in Great American Cities. New York, NY: Random House.

Collin January 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

“[Facebook] seems to know where my photos were taken, even though I’m pretty sure I never told it.”

Yeah, I’ve noticed that too. Pretty creepy, especially when the location isn’t in the album title.

Jacqueline January 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm

The information is embedded into the digital information of the photo. Where did I read that? Somewhere online….hmmm.

Rose-another Facebook holdout here! I don’t feel like I am missing a thing.

Vilx- January 18, 2012 at 2:40 am

It’s called “Geotagging”, look it up. In a nutshell, many of today’s cameras (whether they are in cellphones or standalone) have a GPS module, so when you take a picture, it checks your location and writes that in the picture metadata. There’s loads of other information there too, like when it was taken, the camera model (and for pro equipment – even the lens model), etc. Of course, usually you can turn this off too, and if it’s a cellphone, I’d expect that it doesn’t work (or is somewhat inaccurate) when GPS is turned off.

Nitya January 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Todays toddlers are going to grow up into very different sorts of people because of the experiences to which they have been exposed from birth. Even photos of ultrasounds are flashed to adoring relatives before they are born! All this knowledge has to make a difference, neither good nor bad, just different. I’m curious to see how all this visual knowledge plays out. I’m predicting much a much higher incidence of kids wearing glasses for a start.

In my lifetime I’ve seen such changes that I can hardly believe its the same planet. I’m actually very excited by these changes for the most part, particularly the avenues individuals have in which to express themselves. This once once the preserve of the very few who had influence by virtue of their occupation. Now, we can all say our piece ….with pictures!

The amount of information available about an individual , is scary. Even looking up a phone number now gives us a wealth of data along with the number….the address, maps street view if we want. I’m personally very happy by this instant access to information , but maybe in generations to come people will not be happy living under such scrutiny.

nrhatch January 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm

This is a wonderful post, David. Lots to think about . . .

If we want access to others via the internet, we give them access to us via Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc.

Big Brother is watching. :shock:

Dean January 17, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I think having a more public oriented internet makes it easier to connect with the rest of the world making people less close-minded, as for the price of this luxury as of right now I see annoying adds “oriented” towards you since corporations share your information. So far it seems like things are in our favor at least from what we are seeing anyway. The potential price could be something from a hollywood tecno conspiracy movie.
Also there is a TV show called “Eden of the East” that uses the idea of having phones that you can point at someone and bring up there life story. The show also brings up some interesting points about the way technology is moving.

Steph in Berkeley January 17, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Much of this is so clearly true, but one thing is less voluntary…I own my home, so my complete name and address are public and pop right to the top of google when my name is entered. I SO don’t like that. And it’s not out there because I’m trusting or particularly careless…just a homeowner, and as public information, it’s thrown out on the net. I don’t like it a bit.

But I guess I can get in line with the tens of millions of other people who have information floating around online that DON’T want it there. Trade off, indeed.

Vilx- January 18, 2012 at 2:44 am

I guess that with Internet, “public” information has really become *public*. It’s not like it wasn’t available to anyone before – it’s simply easier to get to it today. I know, it makes me feel uncomfortable too. But then again – from a security standpoint, nothing’s really changed. :/

Vilx- January 18, 2012 at 3:00 am

I wonder if the increased voluntary “publicness” will turn out to be good or bad… Or, well, probably it will just be different, but how? Here are a few thoughts:

– Good: Less anonymity means that people will have to become more conscious of what they are doing. If your potential boss can easily find photos of every party you’ve attended in the past 10 years, it makes you want to be more cautious.
– Good: At the same time people seem to become more open when they are online. They post status updates of their thoughts, diaries, albums, etc. It really helps to become… more aware of each other. You can see good and bad in other people like you never could before. I like to think that this encourages compassion and… stuff (David, you can probably put this in better words).
– Bad: Information is power, and that can be abused. Compromising pictures can be brought up when you least want it; Misinformation can be spread much more easily; etc. And the other way round – when everyone is used to having this information about you at their fingertips, it can become a threat to “remove you from the Internet”. It’s something only the Big Guys from Up There can do, but still…

Anthony B January 18, 2012 at 10:38 pm

I personally think that the trend toward transparency is a good one. Call me crazy. Yes, people can abuse the information you put out there. But being transparent means that there are more people ready to help you when something does go wrong. Also, as we trend toward more transparency, eventually society won’t put up with people who don’t want to be transparent. As the saying goes, “People who have nothing to hide shouldn’t mind being watched”. This will form a protection against People Who Abuse Your Information. We might have some problems until then, but I think this is the way privacy will end: positively.

And for the conspiracy theorists: google “Mark Zuckerberg Address”. It’s not that hard.

Connceted Isolation January 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I don’t use Facebook and and although I am active online, I make an effort to keep my personal information off the web. I think there is a balance between how much info you should put out there. This was an interesting article. It’s amazing how fast technology is moving and changing our lives.

Hiten January 21, 2012 at 10:49 am

Good post David.

I guess for me it’s all about what role an individual sees themselves having in the world. If it involves helping others, leading others etc, then this will require a more public role.

I think our generation is in a state of flux – those who knew the world without the Internet and now know a world with it. The generations below us are the ‘Facebook’ generations and having a public identity is far more acceptable to them.

Kevin January 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I’m new to this blog, and I love everything about it. Insights, experiments, all of it. I’m in a place of personal recovery and your words really hit the spot. So thanks. You’re helping me.

To chime in about this post, my favorite play is Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. It’s a one-person show — sort of. Krapp is 69, and it’s his birthday, and on every birthday, he records himself speaking about his life. On this birthday (which the title of the play eerily and omnisciently suggests is his last), he is listening to a tape of himself at the age of 39, who has just listened to a tape of himself at the age of 29. Krapp-39 dislikes Krapp-29, and Krapp-69 dislikes Krapp-39. One of my favorite moments is when Krapp-39 uses a word Krapp-69 doesn’t know, and he has to look it up.

I could go on and on about this play, but I mention it because Beckett sat down and wrote it the instant he heard that a tape recorder had been invented. He hadn’t even seen one yet, but the idea that humans now had the capability to record their own voices blew him away. His observation was that for the first time, humans would be able to hear their own voices, their true voices – a kind of record of who they were unaltered by memory’s tendency to reshape the past selectively and with bias.

As you’ve observed, part of finding peace is accepting that we have no control over how people perceive us. If we allow our sense of self-worth not to be tethered to the approval or disapproval of others, we suffer less. But boy, has this generation ever thrown down a gauntlet! Because now more than ever, the task is to not only surrender to perceptions of who we are, but also to perceptions of who we have ever been. And now more than ever we are able to perceive our former selves as different people. What’s dangerous about that is that as humans we already have the tendency to regret our previous choices, so it seems to me that the ability we now have of seeing those previous choices in plain, objective view, unaltered by a subjective memory, increases the possibility for resentment and self-directed anger – if we choose that.

James Feudo January 23, 2012 at 7:24 am


It truly is amazing what technology can do. I also have Google Goggles on my phone it and it’s fun to amaze people by searching by taking a photo, but you’re absolutely right.

Our GPS enabled phones are constantly broadcasting our location, web sites can tell where we are by our IP address, with people carrying phones that take pictures and shoot video in their pockets, any embarrassing situation is likely to get digitally capture – where does it end?

I’m still on the fence as to whether it would have been good to have Facebook (and this other technology) when I was in high school. The instant access to friends would have been great, but then on the flip side, the embarrassing photos and the cyberbullying would be problematic.

Great post – it really got me thinking both about privacy and whether technology is helping us.



Jason Storey January 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I relented to the digital age a long time ago. Information is my strength. I chose to learn computer programming and electronic engineering to learn the limitations of both, all I learn is there is none. The only constraint is time. If we must be part of this global information exchange I plan on receiving more than I give.

and as I write this that statement you main regarding learning another’s beliefs through blog comments seems more prevalent than ever.

Joshua Favale March 1, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Wow. You got me with this right after I temporarily deactivated my FB for some privacy reasons, which I won’t detail here.
-And on the same day that I spent about 30 minutes looking for some combination of Native American names I could use to start a new FB account, and so start over, be more vigilant with info shared and friends made, and thus clear my slate. But will it be cleared? How could it?

We’ll see what we can do. Thanks for the article.

open access publications April 16, 2012 at 1:43 am

The downside to this is that you have to leave your hard-drive on whenever you leave. An external hard drive that stays on for days or weeks is an invitation to data loss. Why not just upload your files to drop box and then synch whatever you plan to work on? That way you can access the files via a multiple of apps and have triple redundancy backups

open access publications April 16, 2012 at 1:44 am

New normals, definitely. And so frequently. A decade’s worth of technology can bring us to a place we couldn’t have imagined. Remember when phones were all attached to walls? I guess we have to go with it, with as much awareness as we can muster.

KellieBom April 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I just had an insatiable urge to Google myself… both real name and aliases.

Tina April 2, 2013 at 8:40 am

no matter how many mirrors you see yourself in to, the image is always the same…and the more confusing it gets for others to figure out who you really are. There is anonymity in information overload, especially in this attention deficient, hyper active, hyper connected world. This is really nothing new and it is not related to the net either, only magnified.

One, No one and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello 1926

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