The hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” contemplates the wish of people to maintain the ties that bind us to family and community into a hypothetical heavenly context. But the assumption that goes unquestioned is that such continuity is desirable. As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist cult, the idea of being trapped with such people for eternity is too creepy to think about for long.
But the need for connection is inherent in gregarious species, as we human beings are. And since more and more of our lives are conducted on-line, social media has taken the place of the traditional forms of interaction in the marketplace, the town hall, the places of worship, and even homes.
How much of that should be mandatory? If we ask Google, Facebook, or Apple, the answer is everything. And the fictional version, The Circle, featured in the film of the same name that stars Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, takes things to their logical conclusion, something called going completely transparent.
The pivotal scene, in which Watson’s character, Mae Holland, recounts to The Circle’s employees her experience stealing a kayak for a nighttime paddle, explains the concept. The company’s leader, Eamon Bailey, a character modeled on Steve Jobs and played by Tom Hanks, has a son who is disabled and whose only chance to share such adventures comes through watching videos of them on the Internet, asks Mae if she feels that she violated his right to join her in the dark of San Francisco Bay. Her answer is that knowledge is a right, and as a result, she will from then on take the world with her in everything that she does — potty breaks excepted.
Unfortunate events ensue. If you haven’t seen The Circle, I won’t give away the plot here. The idea of a transparent life is not new, but we have reached the moment when it’s possible. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with a design for a prison called a panopticon, a circular building with cells open to the interior to allow guards at the center to see every inmate any time. Orwell’s 1984 presents a society with cameras everywhere, and was only a couple of decades off from the reality of the cities in Britain. And with social media, monitoring all of us is not only possible, but is now in progress. And unlike the previous examples, each person can be watched all the time by crowd sourcing — a crowd who will be made up of persons who are themselves being watched by other crowds.
Is all that knowledge a right? Years ago, only the rich or the powerful — but I repeat myself — had access to the information about our private lives. They hired private investigators or dug through files, and the expense of doing so, along with the occasional protection of the Fourth Amendment, put a brake on spreading our personal data around. But not any more.
If by knowledge, we’re talking about scientific discovery, history, news about our government’s actions, and other such information that affects us all or that helps us understand our place in the cosmos, then yes, having access to that is a human right. When, for example, the New Horizons probe sent back pictures of Pluto, that was shared with the world, and rightly so, even though it was paid for by U.S. tax payers.
By contrast, am I obliged to bring the world along with me if I go hiking in the wild lands of the Ozarks? If I choose to spend that time alone without feeding my experience to the Internet, am I violating the rights of my fellow human being?
I certainly would be denying the world access, and that’s my right. I’ve said before that we have an obligation to each other to repay what we have received from society, but that only works in the context of individual rights. We cannot participate in society well if we don’t have private, individual time to make something of ourselves to contribute.
More than that, as sad a misfortune as the kind of disability that Bailey’s son lived with happens to be, video feed of someone else paddling around a bay or hiking in the woods or eating a peach or wearing white flannel trousers and walking upon the beach, as J. Alfred Prufrock speculates about in T.S. Eliot’s poem, is not the real thing.
Experience is meaningful because we earn it. We may get the facts of what others live, but a lot of that reality will be lost. I can see the pictures and read the stories, for example, of what climbing Mt. Everest is like, but I will never know it for myself. I don’t like heights, and I don’t have the time to spend the months and years of preparation necessary for that adventure. So the peak of what is currently the highest point of land on this planet will remain for me something that I can only learn about, but never know intimately.
I will have my own set of experiences that will be uniquely mine. And because of that, I can offer the world my own personal take on it. I bring to the world a contribution to the diversity of our society. Without my own perspective, I’d be just like everyone else, having nothing special to give.
And that’s the key problem with complete transparency, the Borg collective, or whatever other name we want to give to the horror shown in The Circle. The diversity that leads to discovery, opportunity, and progress is impossible without privacy, without personal experience that is mine alone and yours alone and that alone of the person over there and so on. As powerful a tool as social media is for good, as with every tool, we have to develop wisdom along with skill to keep ourselves from stumbling into the potential harms.
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