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Life in a Glass House

Why are people so eager to invade their own privacy?

There she was for the whole world to see and hear: a young woman sobbing uncontrollably, completely vulnerable, screaming at her interlocutor on a cell phone, broadcasting the most intimate particulars of her private life on a crowded street in Greenwich Village on a bright Friday afternoon. At moments such as these—and they are frequent on the streets of New York these days—I always think of Henry James's disgust with "the devouring publicity of life, the extinction of all sense between public and private." James wrote these words over a hundred years ago in response to a new development in journalism that he detested--"the invasion, the impudence, the shamelessness of the newspaper and the interviewer." Today the "extinction of all sense between public and private" has gone so far that people like the woman crying on her cell phone now routinely invade their own privacy in the most casual fashion, presenting all of us who are minding our own business as we make our way through the city with the prospect that, at any moment and without our consent, we will be turned into voyeurs.  

And providing services to those who wish to violate their own privacy apparently constitutes the cutting edge of Internet business. Just the other day I read in The New York Times that a 38-year-old consultant for dating websites named Mark Brooks reveals to anyone who wants to know his travel schedule on "Dopplr," his DNA profile (whatever that is) on "23andme," as well as all the purchases he makes with his Chase Mastercard and everything he has bought from Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon on something called "Blippy." And why is the web consultant so eager to parade these mundane bits of personal "information" before the eyes of strangers? He says, "It's very important to me to push out [sic] my character and hopefully my good reputation as far as possible and that means being open. I simply have nothing to hide." I must admit that I was taken aback by his declaration that he had nothing to hide. How had this sentiment—once the daring liberation cry of nineteenth-century sex reformers ("Live in the open air! A thing that one is not willing the whole world should know is wrong") and the taunting slogan of champions of artistic candor ("If it is right to tell the truth, every place is the right place to tell it")—been reduced to the public airing of a man's shopping bills and DNA profile in the name of self-promotion? What kind of self, I wondered, was all this new technology giving rise to? Or perhaps my question really was, are we now seeing, thanks to the new technologies, the kind of self that has nothing to hide? Just how empty, I wondered, would such a self have to be?

When I try imaginatively to enter the Internet realm with its many willing takers to its invitations of self-exposure, I feel disoriented in the extreme. At times, E. L. Godkin's explanation for the appeal of nineteenth-century invasive journalism—"a passion for notoriety of any kind on the part of the obscure"--gives me, at least fleetingly, a point of orientation. But I know this naive/hubristic desire to live in a glass house in full view (this was Andre Breton's wish) has other sources as well. Milan Kundera, one of our most perceptive chroniclers of how it feels to live in a world where one's privacy is constantly being invaded, has spoken with dread of Breton's wish in The Art of the Novel:  

The glass house: an old utopian idea and at the same time one of the most horrifying aspects of modern life. Axiom: The more opaque the affairs of state, the more transparent an individual's affairs must be; though it represents a public thing, bureaucracy is anonymous, secret, coded, inscrutable, whereas private man is obliged to reveal his health, his finances, his family situation, and if the mass media so decree, he will never again have a single moment of privacy either in love or in sickness or in death. The urge to violate another's privacy is an age-old form of aggression that in our day is institutionalized (bureaucracy with its documents, the press with its reporters), justified morally (the right to know having become first among the rights of man), and poeticized (by the lovely French word transparence). [Kundera's emphasis] 

What astounds me about today's metaphorical glass-house dwellers—those people who eagerly publicize on websites every detail of their "health" (DNA profile), "finances" (shopping bills and consumer preferences), "family situation" (online dating profile)—is how cheerfully they participate in "one of the most horrifying aspects of modern life." Self-invasions of privacy on the Internet now compete with "bureaucracy with its documents" and "the press with its reporters" for a place on Kundera's list of the institutionalization and I would add normalization of this "age-old form of aggression." And so, too, it seems to me, do all those glass apartment houses which sprang up everywhere in New York City during the glory years of the last building boom. I am still baffled as to why architects thought it was a good idea to erect pricey, luxury apartments without solid, exterior walls on streets that are exposed not only to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers from below but also to the unavoidable notice of those who live or work in the many neighboring buildings, and that a new breed of fashionable New Yorkers couldn't wait to live in them. 

The glass-house dwellers who live in full view may think, if they consider the matter at all, that they, too, have nothing to hide, but like the self-absorbed woman crying on her cell phone in broad daylight, they force what they should regard as the sanctities of their private lives to the forefront of our attention before we are even conscious of what is so indifferently thrust before our eyes. I still recall the mingling of amusement, disgust, and anxiety that I felt when my husband described seeing a middle-aged man fast asleep in his spartan, modernist bed from the seventh floor of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art during a morning seminar in the president's suite which happens to look out on the 21-storey, all-glass, Charles Gwathmey condominium on Astor Place. My husband said it was just like seeing a homeless man sleeping unprotected and exposed on the street—a sight that always makes me cringe—except that this sleeping man was inside a see-through and sterile-looking multi-million dollar cubicle and that he was happy to be there. My husband told me that everybody at the seminar had noted it as they drank their coffee and ate their chocolate brioches.

This, I thought, is the way strangers interact today. And over my own morning coffee, as I read the newspaper, I am daily served up more and more outrageous examples of "the extinction of all sense between public and private," but  they are offered in such a nonchalant manner that I can only conclude that reporters are no longer aware of what they are doing and that most readers and even the victims of the violation no longer notice that anything untoward has happened. When that thought crosses my mind, it is habitually accompanied by the words of a character from an early Henry James's novel, Francie Dosson in The Reverberator. Reflecting on what a steady diet of invasive newspapers has done to her and her family, she worries that they have "become coarse and callous," that they have "lost their delicacy, the sense of certain differences and decencies."

How else to account for a short piece that I haven't been able to forget that appeared in the "Antiques" section of The New York Times, with the headline "Arts and Crafts from Bloomsbury Days," announcing an exhibition of drawings and objects from the Omega Workshop, the creative design cooperative in London that operated from 1913 to 1919. The reporter explained that its "brief lifespan is not surprising, given Britain's turmoil during World War I and the artists' complicated personal lives." Which she followed up with a sentence that, in its breathtakingly off-handed fashion, seemed to me to be the equivalent of watching a man sleeping in an all-glass building over a cup of coffee: "([Vanessa] Bell had affairs with two other members of the collective, Duncan Grant, who was openly gay, and Roger Fry, whose wife, Helen, had been committed to a psychiatric asylum.)"

Who could possibly imagine how much pathos was contained within those two parentheses? Roger Fry, the painter and influential art writer who coined the term "post-impressionism," has long been an important figure to me. That Fry was forced to permanently commit his long-tormented wife to an asylum--a promising artist, great wit, and beauty, whom he fell, as he put it, "completely in love with in one afternoon's talk"—could be casually mentioned in a list of Vanessa Bell's lovers as a kind of tag-line startled me. I was aghast as I thought about all that Fry had suffered and I recalled a few lines from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1910, the year he committed his wife: "I've given up regretting the callus that had to form to let me go through with things. Now and again it gives and I could cry for the utter pity and wastefulness of things, but life is too urgent."

Francie Dosson was anxious that she and her family had become "coarse and callous" as a result of repeated exposure to indecencies; Fry, because of his intense sensitivity, was forced to form a callus to protect himself; and then I thought of another painfully sensitive soul who wrote of callousness—a word that has all but disappeared from our vocabulary—John Ruskin. In Sesame and Lilies, a lecture in praise of libraries and reading, Ruskin warned his audience against "vulgarity." This word, too, I thought, has long dropped out of conversation. The essence of vulgarity, for Ruskin, was the "want of sensation," the incapacity for "sympathy." Sometimes when I try to understand how the shameless quality of our world has become all but invisible, I've returned to this little sermon from Sesame and Lilies:           

Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true inbred vulgarity, there is a dreadful callousness, which, in extremity becomes capable of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror, and without pity. It is in the blunt hand and the dead heart, in the diseased habit, that men become vulgar. 

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.

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