Baring It All on the Internet

The Cost of Putting Our Lives Online

Posted Nov 16, 2014

Our personal computers know -- and tell -- a lot about us. If you think they can keep a secret, just try Googling something as a test. A few days ago I typed "surveillance cameras" into my browser, just to see what they look like, and soon ads for security devices began appearing on my home page as well as other sites that I visit. 

Just a coincidence? Not likely. Something similar happened later when I typed in "History of Seine River Cruises," as part of my research for a new novel. Not long afterward I began seeing ads for flights to Paris, and River Cruises on -- surprise! -- the Seine.

Is Big Brother watching us? George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, a novel about life in a futuristic society where there are no personal freedoms or privacy, was required reading in my high school political science class. We were shocked, and began to imagine hidden cameras everywhere. But 1984 seemed a long way off in 1949, when the book was published. Back then we didn't believe things like that could really happen. And certainly not in this country. 

Now, thanks to whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and others, we know more about how much personal privacy we have, and have not. But surveillance by government agencies aside, new research suggests that what we are doing to ourselves via social media may be more damaging, psychologically. An article in the New York Times calls it the cost of putting our lives online.

The question is, does a celebrity have the right to protest when her nude "selfie" goes viral? It's an unfortunate truth that baring your soul, not to mention your body, on the Internet might wind up causing you to lose a spouse, a lawsuit, or a job. The current frenzy of personal data swapping is harmful, say the experts, because whether we realize it or not, privacy is essential to human beings. It defines who we are, as individuals.

Can we be protected from ourselves? In California, and a few other states, laws exist that allow minors to erase embarrassing or damaging social media posts, but there are no federal laws that would afford the same protection to adults. If Congress ever gets its act together, that may change.

It's difficult to argue for an intrinsic right to privacy when so many people are eagerly volunteering personal and even embarrassing information about themselves on social media websites. Nevertheless, counselors report seeing more and more low self-esteem, depression and anxiety among their patients. All symptoms, they say, of "too much exposure" and lack of privacy. 

If we are doing this to ourselves, why don't we stop? Is it the lemming syndrome, loosely defined as a mass movement and a headlong dash to destruction? Follow the leader, even if it means going over the cliff with the rest of the pack? That seems a bit simplistic. Another suggestion is that women, especially, have the idea that they too can become celebrities if they embarrass themselves enough to gain some kind of notoriety. That may be closer to the truth, but I wonder if they ever ask themselves, "Is it worth it?"