Sunday, 18 November 2012

Not-so-private lives: The digital living room.

Stories about celebrities finding themselves in the doggy-do because they have tweeted, blogged or put out into the digital space offensive or inappropriate comments are a dime a dozen these days. The current brouhaha in the UK about Lord McAlpine and the libellous comments made by public figures is a case in point.

Meanwhile, individuals who have made deeply offensive comments on the internet have even landed themselves in jail.

It's an interesting conundrum. How do we balance the freedom of the internet with the need to protect the rights of others? What do we do about it? Well, first of all, we have to understand it.

One could see it as a form of narcissism whereby the speaker is so wrapped up in their own agenda that, like a toddler, they feel that their wishes and perceptions actually do constitute the world itself (and yes, the internet can seem abuzz with precisely that!).

However, one major aspect of the problem is probably purely neurological i.e. that our brains have not caught up with the fact that a seemingly private action (sitting at one's computer or using a mobile phone) is actually a public one.

Our brains still respond to a conception of the public/private divide which more matches that of an 18th century English village than the global village in which we now find ourselves.

Therefore many people fail to recognize that the public space (whether the physical or the digital world) is not their living room, and that actually their living room may be in plain view to the often disapproving gaze of that world. Most of us have had the excruciating experience of being forced to listen to a stranger's mobile phone conversations - often about deeply personal topics, that quite frankly we don't want to share! It's as if these folk feel they are warm and comfy, feet up, on their lounges not in the railway carriages, buses, restaurants or cafes that they share with us.

The disease of our times is an almost wilful reduction in the notion of privacy, yet that sense of privacy, of the need for personal space, our right to it, and the limits of it, is key to political theory, to creativity and self-expression, to solitude and philosophical introspection, to maintaining healthy personal relationships and to just staying sane!

While TV shows like the Kardashians take people into the private lives of strangers, our own are (ironically) in danger of being eaten up by the ongoing push for "transparency".

We need to find a way to share the public space of the digital world, while not giving away the precious private space of our own souls.


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