Every other digital business is being accused of stalking its users. But, we all know that there is no such thing as privacy on the internet
So, it’s circa 2015. And, here we are, living in the age of the double-headed dragon. The beast that carries us to heaven and back.The beast that most of us cannot imagine a life without. It feeds on data and regurgitates it anywhere, anytime, without permission or warning. That is the nature of the beast called the internet. Designed as an open tool for research, the net was never intended as a secure or private platform. Its magnificent face is all too known to us, connecting us to anyone, any place or anything our heart desires. But, when this dragon shows its ugly face, breathing fire (and spewing data indiscriminately), we don’t just balk but get affronted. We protest and yell bloody murder. Hello, a gentle reminder: We’re messing with a powerful and relatively unknown beast here. Now, it seems to have grown a mind and will of its own. (How did we not see this coming, given we’re the supreme intelligence on this planet?) Asking for privacy from this giant is like showing garlic to a vampire. We’ve always known that. Yet, amazingly, we choose to forget this every time we post, tweet or blog, which is at least a few times each day. We feed the dragon and assume there will be no unpleasant droppings. To borrow a phrase from my favourite Gallic intellectual, ‘Toc! Toc! Toc! These netizens are crazy!’
While we are still bumbling about with the reins, the celebrities seem to have tamed the beast, even mastered it. Maybe showbiz has more intelligent life than we think it does. The stars certainly seem to grasp the laws of the wild. Stepping into the cave of a wild beast, digital or human, comes with its perils, and one has to be prepared for the consequences. The celebs get that and only feed it stuff that they want to share with all and sundry. The net has become their most valuable publicity machine.
Cyber lord Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed in a recent global gathering, “Privacy is no longer the social norm.” Which is geek speak for ‘privacy is totally uncool’. So, all those whining about peeping Toms eyeballing their privates, either stop putting your dirty laundry up to dry on a public line or get with the programme and embrace the public eye. Privacy is so yesterday. Today is all about including, sharing and letting it all hang out. Madonna, the eternal queen of cool, totally gets it. Did you see those areolas staring us smack in the eye in her recent interview with magician David Blaine? And, no, he didn’t make her bra disappear. She did that all by herself. Kim Kardashian gets it too. Her sumptuous and basted behind wished us all Happy Thanks Giving a few weeks ago. Then, there is Eminem, the master of letting it rip. Recently, he rapped about how he wants to get violently sexual with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. Close on his heels is Nicki Minaj, who montaged violence, kink and sexual abuse in her latest music video, ‘Only’. The song’s lyrics scald the ears and singe the soul.
Trending across digital media is the new celebrity fad: near naked selfies. Nick Jonas pouts in his tighty whities, Justin Bieber just in his tattoos and Courtney Love just in… er nothing. Everybody and his dry cleaner has not only made a sex tape but uploaded it too. Guess it was just a matter of time before the last bastion caved in and buried guilt under a pile of primal debris. H&M’s latest, and very public, campaign for Alexander Wang’s new denim line shows a woman touching herself south of the equator, her jeans (the hero of this campaign) crumpled at her feet. A truly memorable moment in the history of the world, when wankers become tres cool. On the off chance that you disagree, well, you will soon be bestowed with the omniscient power to digitally dislike. Bravo, Lord Zuckerberg, you have indeed changed the world.
Even the stuck-up English royals are beginning to chill in the ‘information age’. Commoners, unshowered ones at that, can now throw their arms around the princess for selfies. Katie is cool like that, and so is sweaty LeBron James. As for Katie’s ma-in-law, Her Royal M, she appears to be adjusting remarkably well to climate change. The permafrost on her royal face has turned into a permasmile, and her official slogan has altered to ‘We are so amused.’ Heck yeah, welcome to the era of communication, in which it’s uber cool to be uber open.
In LeBron’s homeland, the word ‘uber’ seems to have turned into a synonym for stalking. What’s the fuss about? Does New York’s most successful private cab service have the right to snoop and spy on its clients, particularly the ones with breasts? Well, we are talking about a company who’s uber-frisky CEO fondly calls it ‘Boober’ because it jumpstarted his popularity with women. His company philosophy is ‘Boobs are for staring at and data is for calling dibs on’. The only difference between him and a hundred other company heads like him is that he is blasé about admitting it. The others veil it in fancy syntax, such as “in the interest of improving consumer experience” and such other delectable BS. Once the data (food) is within an inch of the net (dragon), it’s out there, beyond regulation, legislation or governance. There are too many continents and jurisdictions involved for any sort of control. So far, the dragon remains wild, free of nationality or passport, so no one can really ask it to behave in a certain way. It roams free and will for the foreseeable future. This is not news to any of us. So, what is it we’re waiting for exactly? Someone to read out our rights every time we climb aboard the dragon for a ride? “You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say or do can be used against you and sold to the highest bidder in the slave market.” Feel better?
If we think that Uber’s Travis Kalanick and the likes need our consent to get information, we’re more than a tad dated. The truth is we’re practically doling it out to hundreds like him every day. Every time we chat, shop, review, follow, tweet, like, search download, post… virtually every time we click, we leave a digital footprint. And, just like our fingerprint, it’s pretty unique. Sometimes, we don’t even need to interact with our devices to send out signals. Just turning them on is enough. Do we really believe all the datajackers out there have and will be asking for our consent? Intel, Microsoft, American Express and Visa are just a few of the companies that have been pulled up for tracking consumers on the sly. Uber wouldn’t be the 40 billion dollar start-up that every venture capitalist wanted a piece of if the company had taken even a minute’s break from trawling through their clients data. Should they have? Sure! But, people do business to make money, not to build safe and ethical societies. Ask Edward Snowden if you need more convincing, or Julian Assange.
You look worried. If you’re wrestling with existential dilemmas such as ‘to share or not to share’, stop right there. Our forefathers thought their asses off, pardon the French, and Rodin’s captured the proof for posterity (pardon the pun). But, where did it get them? Mired in doubt, wracked by conscience and tethered to a dull brick-and-mortar world. Who needs that? Conscience has no place in the millennium and neither do tethers. We’ve been blessed with wings, so what if they’re virtual? Here’s an oblique perspective: information is today’s mantra, data its currency. Which means that we’re all rich. We’ve got something that someone wants, and wants real bad. Our net worth has little to do with our assets and bank balances. It isn’t our wallets that muggers are eyeing today, it’s our identities. Even the hobo on the street, unaware as he is of this, poor sod, has a modest sum on his head. How’s that for an out-of-the-box solution to wiping out poverty, a problem that’s defeating global leaders. Ta da! The techies have solved it! Along with hunger (think 3 D printers).And, this millennium’s biggest emotional plague, low self-esteem. Licked. How can we feel worthless when we’re being liked, wooed and seduced online 24/7? By corporates who want data, by friends and friends’ friends who applaud without hesitation, and strangers who we can’t help flirting with just because it’s so darn easy.
Let’s be realistic. We’re all living more hours online than we are off it. My whole life is up there on the net – my family, my friends, my colleagues, my future employers, my potential employees, my mentors, my exes, my bank accounts, my tax returns, my credit rating, my medical records, my vacations, my entertainment, my peeves and my passions, my demons and desires, my memories and my dreams, my past, my present and my future. What did I miss? Oh yeah, my dog. He has his own personal profile on a social network for canines. And no, I did not take his consent before posting his deets, so bite me. There are three and a half billion people inhabiting the internet with us at this given moment, so we may as well get used to living public lives. We may as well become friends, the dragon and I, get to now each other a little better, learn to zig when it zags and so on. See the beauty of cyberspace? No pushing and shoving. Only poking, liking, sharing and stalking. Sometimes, phishing and scamming, but hey, that happens everywhere, right? Plus, since no one can see me online (unless I want them to), I feel free to say and do stuff I would never do in the real world. It’s liberating, almost cathartic. So, good for my health.
Someone said to me the other day, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” I thought about this, and here is my considered reply. I may not be super-thrilled about sharing my love life, but it appears I don’t mind putting a price on my privacy. As long as we’re talking ROI, whether it’s in the form of relevant content, customised goods or services, it’s a deal. And, that’s all it is, plain and simple. A deal with the dragon. If it backfires, and engulfs me and all that is mine in flames, it’s on my head. Not the corporates’. Not the governments’. And, certainly not the faceless indie datapirates’. I am the dragon’s master. I control it by feeding it. It’s time I took some responsibility.
Priya mirchandani is an independent writer and editor