On French Presidents and the Creeping Reach of the Internet

I don’t necessarily consider myself a Francophile, but there are certain aspects of the French culture that I admire, or at least find interesting. One of those cultural traits that I generally admire is the French reverence for privacy, at least as ensconced in their “invasion of privacy laws.” Even public figures like the French President can seek protection under these laws, when their mistresses are inevitably revealed.

Of course, I am an American and sometimes I think what goes on in the “private” life does have bearing on the public role of a public official (although, I am not sure what his public role has to do with the French president’s situation aside from the fact that his partner was receiving significant public benefits as the figurehead “First Lady” that maybe she shouldn’t be receiving, because it isn’t like he was married to her or legally owing some duty of fidelity). However, after reading Dave Eggers’s newest novel The Circle this week, I once again am questioning my own decidedly non-public figure privacy and what I willingly sacrifice to the Internet.

I claim to be one of those people who is easily troubled by the reach of social media, its promotion of one global “monoculture”, and the fact that so many people seem slaves to it. I strongly dislike people tying their personal identities to consumer products so that their own social media experiences become one long commercial. I also dislike the notion that social media promotes that in order to experience something, you have to document and share it in some way. I don’t like the way people’s identities become tied into the expression of what they choose to document about themselves via the Internet. Mostly, I want to believe that who I am has nothing to do with a series of “selfies”, tags, tweets, instagrams, etc… but rather with my identity is based around what I think and how I live my life in my daily interactions with others present in my life. And present doesn’t mean existing only in some electronic world reduced to binary code.

But yet, I do participate in some social media (like the fact that I have this blog), where I willingly sacrifice aspects of my own personal privacy to the Internet Gods. I lament the fact that we seem headed toward the totalitarian, completely “transparent” world of The Circle because people willingly give up their freedoms and personal privacy to the electronic world. I find it ironic that people get upset with regard to government surveillance, but seemingly don’t mind the fact that thousands of for-profit companies spy on their online activities every day, mine that data, and sell it to others, all in the effort to sell more products. I try really hard to clear my cookies on a daily basis, because I get so tired of companies trying to sell me products (not to mention the blogs of some friends who now market their lives on the alter of consumerism).

I try to maintain a moderate perspective, because I do understand the benefits of social media, even as I grow increasingly skeptical of them. I don’t think my own narcissism is a good enough reason to be complicit in the creep towards an electronic future where people are only seen as products and privacy is a historical relic. I will try to be hopeful (even if doubtful), that the majority of other people in the world are thinking about these things in the same way.

In The Circle, Eggers impresses me by writing about individual social media and Internet-based “products” that individually each seem entirely justifiable and reasonable, but in the aggregate create a system that is totalitarian and devoid of individual choices and distinctions. The more connected through these programs the people seemingly become, the more alone they really are, because in such a world, there is no place for authentic human interaction that isn’t transcribed, recorded, or sold in some way. Do I think Google wants to take us there? Well, I think that is a less cynical question today than yesterday, based on things like their newest plans and purchases.

It is up to us as individuals to say no to these things and draw meaningful lines around the parts of ourselves that we will not sell to a commercial entity or give commercial entities access to. Otherwise, we might as well go ahead and become like Eggers’s Mae and live our lives completely “transparently” by wearing a web cam that publicizes our actions and monitors our every move. If we don’t make distinction and say no to the electronic creep, it is where we are going.

ETA: I was also thinking about this in the context of the outcry by Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow about the Hollywood Foreign Press’s choice to award Woody Allen the lifetime achievement award. I have no idea whether or not Woody Allen did or did not molest underage girls, because I don’t have the facts to sit in judgment of him, and the court that did have those facts declined to prosecute close in time to the alleged events (not 20 years later like Mia and Ronan’s continual Twitter rants). If he did, clearly that is terrible and indefensible. However, I do respect him a heck of a lot more than Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow because he doesn’t choose to air his grievances via social media and at least has the decency to try to maintain his family’s dignity and privacy by refusing to weigh in this way. Of course, I also respect the fact that he doesn’t show up to award shows because they are self-congratulatory BS.

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