The golden era of stalking

9
Jan
2009

A week or so ago, friends of mine and I were out at a restaurant enjoying a great meal. Our waiter was quite a handsome fellow, and there was a bit of flirting and eye contact going on between us throughout the meal. A few days later, a complimentary comment was left on my blog by this same waiter. At first I didn’t know it was him, but a little sleuthing and clues from the comment let me to that conclusion. I emailed him back and we learned a little about each other over several emails exchanged. Looking into my weblogs for clues as to how he found me, I noticed that his path through the site started with a google search on my full name. I quickly realized that he must have copied that name from the credit card receipt, plugged it into a search engine, and my blog was the first entry that came up.

My friends are divided as to whether this constitutes stalking behavior. I don’t think so, although direct contact would have been considered so in a previous era. This gets back to an issue I have explored in the past relating to the ease of information access on the internet. In a previous era, if someone I had flirted with in a restaurant had wanted to find me, they first would have had to get my name somehow. Credit cards in restaurants were in much less use. Assuming they could find my name, they would then need to consult the phone books (of several boroughs in New York) to find my information. If I wasn’t listed or didn’t have a phone in my name, their last hopes would involve placing a “missed connections” ad in a publication like the Village Voice, or going down to the public records office looking for a needle in a haystack to search for my name in any of various indexes.  THAT would definitely qualify as stalking.

But as information becomes easier and easier to access, the effort expended to track someone is ridiculously small and insignificant. And someone like me that maintains a public blog generally wants to be found, intentionally or not. I would argue that the current and real definition of stalking must be something far more menacing than a 5 second google search. Who among us hasn’t googled for information before going on an interview or a date? Who doesn’t look up old friends and acquaintances on facebook and the like? In a modern society, we are constantly trading our privacy for convenience, whether it be in the use of credit cards, online banking, social networking sites, what-have-you. Implicit in our acceptance of the convenience of modern life is the erosion of what used to be considered “private”. We like to feel that we have some measure of control, but as soon as we accept the trappings of modern life, we accept this loss of the possibility of anonymity to a greater or lesser degree. If we feel that stocking up on canned goods and moving to a small cabin in the mountains is an option, we had better be prepared to live in a culture of oneself, cut off from the world.

I am not in any way arguing that our loss of privacy is a good thing. In many ways it is a very bad thing. Who likes the idea of companies (or the government) tracking our spending habits and online (or offline) activity. This information can and has been abused. But the only thing we can really do as a society is to try to protect against the misuse of this information as much as possible, by enacting legislation and trying to set our own personal example in the respect of others’ privacy. Of course, each of us has a different threshold for what we consider trespassing, and it is almost impossible to know what the boundaries are. Generally speaking, it seems the younger the person, the less concerned with privacy in the traditional sense, since they have grown up in the world with the Internet always present in their lives.

In the long run, we are inevitably headed (for better or worse) towards a situation of less and less privacy, to the point of being able to know each other’s thoughts and deepest desires on a whim.  There will be both cultural and technological changes that will permit this to happen.We already have scientific proof of concept all around us. Our culture will undergo massive, sustained, but barely noticed upheaval as we move towards a collective mind. There will be many small steps along the way, but ultimately we are headed for something not terribly unlike the Borg in old Star Trek episodes. Americans in particular shutter at a loss of individuality, perceived as it is at the center of our culture. But for convenience sake, we will all go quite willingly. And like most things, these changes cannot be said to be all good or all bad. Still, it would be nice if we decided, individually or as a culture, to explore these issues as they are happening, rather than just waking up one day to the realization.

Comments

  1. Amanda says:

    Not stalking in my opinion. And, even if it is–who can blame him??

  2. Salvador says:

    I agree with Amanda on both counts. And the waiter, of course. ;)

  3. Kelly Mayfield says:

    He was interested! What happened?

  4. There’s no question that the Internet is leading us- inevitably- toward a world in which privacy is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps, though, “stalking” isn’t the right word, since it is itself a product of the age of privacy…

  5. Amanda says:

    any way….what did you do?? Are you going out with him?

  6. Robert says:

    Is it a habbit of yours to take out your handsome waiters for coffee and drinks afterwards? Haha!

    I’ll call you. A couple of friends and i might go out for dinner [drinks] tommorrow night if you’d like to join. I’ll let you know.

  7. Gray Cossack says:

    Stalking implies an obstinate intent.

    I think googling someone’s name is more a matter of personal interest and curiosity on the person looking into the search engine, initially.

    I think your observation confuses two issues into one; willfulness and privacy.

    Privacy is indeed eroded even with all the safeguards placed over the internet. I am guilty as the next to sheepishly type in all my private information onto forms and these social pages. I give phone call solicitors and utility company people a hard time on the phone, yet that level of scrutiny is not applied to my obliging flat screen.

    Willful is quite a different animal that could have stalking as a counterpart. And I think there are several different degrees of stalking starting with Google and ending with a rabbit in your soup pot. But I won’t dwell on this.

    I have a crush on my local barista and as an outcome, have begun drinking too many sweetened coffees. She has my name and can google me anytime. Now my barista got my name because told her. But that is because I want her too. But what about her privacy? She is stuck in a bubble if she wants some cash. Her privacy is compromised only because my thing for brunettes and she has a fixed job that interfaces with the public.

    So you should be happy that your eye candy looked you up. It is only the reverse order with a full 360 twist of sexuality. For God Sake, you live in the City! If you want a true false sense of privacy, move to the suburbs like I did.

  8. Gray Cossack says:

    Oh, think azure mediterranean and chasing glass smashing french thieves on their moped.

  9. Gray Cossack says:

    Oh btw

    I saw Your comment is awaiting moderation on the NY Times webpages. What the fuck is that about?