The Great World Database, the Great Machine
I think it interesting that we define privacy as related to what the government does with information about our lives, when it is increasingly the case that privacy is something we have squandered in our insistence on constant connection. One cannot be a private person and at the same time use the internet in all its permutations; electronic devices are designed to share data, not to protect or conceal it. But we make heroes of the people who tell us that the government is watching us as if that is extraordinary, and we celebrate laws that limit spying agencies from performing certain kinds of actions on the great world database when we know that spying agencies rarely limit their actions to what the law allows.
Soon enough we will have smart houses, which means that those who watch us will not only know what we do in secret, they will know what lamps we burn and what doors we lock during our secretive moments. We already have smart cars, but when they begin to drive themselves we will not only be making an electronic record of our activities that is even more complete than it is now, we will be putting ourselves in the position of allowing the great machine to hijack us wherever it wants us to go.
The great machine is sometimes the government, sometimes corporate entities, sometimes entities that are more shadowy; the great machine is the manifestation of the world database that can move beyond recording our transactions to predicting and manipulating our transactions at any time it chooses. We are drowning ourselves in the great machine every day; we are dissolving into it.
And yet we celebrate a court telling the government it cannot look down at our feet where we have spilled all the data about ourselves into a puddle in which we are standing. We pretend that this court ruling or that law means we have more privacy today than we did yesterday.
I am more bemused by this than paranoid, maybe because I am old enough to see the end of the tunnel from which I will exit into whatever comes after this life of absurdity. I am aware that I have ceded any real privacy to the ether, and that I am as diligent about recording my movements into the world database as anyone. Whatever real privacy I have comes not from the ability of the government to spy on me but rather on its indifference to me. As long as the great machine does not care what I do, I am as private as I can be. If I want more than that, I can try to unplug myself from the database, to live without smart devices, to recreate a paper life rather than a digital one. But I am not likely to do that. I am more likely to remain a part of the data stream and to rely on the fact that nobody cares to find out what I do. For if anyone wants to know about who I really am, the truth is out there.
Privacy exists, but it is something a person has to earn. We want to think of it as a right, and perhaps it is, but if that’s true, it is a right that we long ago allowed to erode into something that is nearly meaningless. Information, like water, runs downhill and pools.