wet bus stop; she’s waiting; his car is warm and dry

Those of you who don’t follow sensational crime stories, or who live outside of New England, might not have heard that a Boston University medical student was arrested for robbing and killing prostitutes found on Craigslist earlier this week.

I don’t intend to speculate on the suspect’s guilt or innocence in this post. The man certainly doesn’t look like the prostitute-robbing type. And when you read as much Radley Balko as I do, you grow suspect of District Attorneys who leap to the airwaves after making an arrest to trumpet a suspect’s guilt. However, I suppose there’s not a phenotype of “prostitute robber / murderer,” and vainglorious DAs are hardly new.

As I said, that’s incidental. What intrigues me most is a highly public arrest in the Age of the Panopticon*.

Within hours of the arrest being announced, webloggers had found the suspect’s Facebook page. Within a day, they’d found his wedding website with his fiancee. Amateur psychoanalysts have already picked apart his choice of wedding hotel reservations (“registering at Bloomingdale’s before thinking better of it and switching to Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s”). And a slew of anonymous commentators have already told this stranger their opinion of him (and his fiancee) on TheKnot.com.

Here’s a fun exercise: if you were accused of something unthinkable, what clues could people unearth – in hindsight – from your public Internet presence? Google your own name and see what comes up – your weblog, your Facebook page, your LinkedIn profile, etc. Take as objective a look as you can at each of those windows into your life. Now imagine what the dumbest, loudest people on the Internet would say about those clues if they already thought you were guilty.

Leave a lot of cutesy comments for a significant other? “Clearly shows signs of being obsessive. Probably even a little possessive or jealous; I’ll bet they snap when they don’t get their way.”

Complain a lot about how your job’s stressing you out? “Some people repress a lot of tension from work. They let it build and build until it snaps something.”

List any past job experience as a finance professional, lawyer, bartender, musician, or sales executive? “Oh, well, you know how those people are.”

My generation still hasn’t adapted fully to the Panopticon – the all-surveilling-all nature of the Internet, where each of us is equally vulnerable and powerful in turn. We see nothing wrong with bitching about work in our Facebook status, or posting pictures of ourselves on dating sites, or complaining about exes in our weblogs. Yet this clearly doesn’t mesh with our other behaviors. We don’t act like drunken emotional buffoons all the time, but we leave evidence of that behavior lying around for anyone to find.

Given a long enough timeline and enough monkeys at the typewriter, someone will discover something embarrassing about us. And if some brush with glory – or some brutal crime – catapults us to the spotlight, everyone is going to find all of it.

So one of two changes has to occur.

Either the next generation – children born in the 21st Century – will have stricter notions of privacy than we ever did. They’ll make every network private, handing out access cautiously and withdrawing it as a statement of defiance. People will craft multiple masks online: one for family, one for acquaintances, one for potential romantic partners, one for close friends, one for work, etc. Already we see some of this in Facebook privacy settings, but it’s not as broad as it could be.

(If that’s the route they go, I’d see it as a tremendous loss of the Internet’s communicative potential. But, recluse that I am, I can’t fault someone for wanting to keep their drunken pics off their boss’s computer)

Or, the next generation will adapt its behavior, acquiescing to the changes in technology. So the Internet makes everything public? Fine – we’ll abandon all attempts at privacy. We’ll back-sass our parents, speak frankly to friends and strangers, and tell our supervisors what we really think. They could find out who I’m dating or where I went last weekend with enough effort on Google, so why hide it?

(This might also be an unpleasant result, as it means our kids will spit more trash and give less respect than we did. But I imagine we’d think that of them in any case; the old always do think that this generation of kids are the worst ever)

Regardless of which way it changes, the next generation has to make that change eventually. And when they do, our generation will have to catch up. Because technology has once again outstripped our mores, and we need to stop acting surprised.

* I’m not strictly happy with Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the death of privacy. The Panopticon doesn’t expose everyone to surveillance – it exposes all the prisoners. The Panopticon also contains a warden who cannot be seen. As Foucault points out, the perpetual tension of being watched without knowing when you’re being watched enforces discipline better than any number of guards.

Since I compare Facebook to the Panopticon in order to say that “we’re all watching each other,” not “we’re all victims of a monolithic power,” I could probably find a stronger metaphor. But I can’t think of one yet. The next best analogy is to the Belcerebon species from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, an alien race cursed with immutable telepathy. Each Belcerebon constantly broadcasts its thoughts to every other thinking creature nearby. And while this is pretty close to the way Twitter works, I get a lot more literati cred referencing Jeremy Bentham than Douglas Adams.


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