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.