Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June 26th, 2007

How much public information is too much?

Posted by metaphorical on 26 June 2007

How much public information is too much? Or, to put it another way, can the Interweb make some information too public? In the past, we’ve had matters that were of public record, but not widely known and not widely accessible. That middle ground has lately been lost.

Earlier this week, many of the 53,000 state employees whose salaries are a matter of public record freaked out when the Lansing State Journal put a database of them up on the Web. It’s just the latest example of something that’s been going on for a long time.

As the Poynter Institute’s blog said on Friday (thanks, sjvn for the heads-up):

Although this information has always been a matter of public record, never before has it been so widely accessible. Thus, many state employees, LSJ readers, and other community members are in an uproar over this, citing privacy concerns.

We see this everywhere these days. Here are just three instances.

1. Sex offender databases existed in police stations and city halls for years, often as a matter of public record, but putting them on the Internet lets everyone view them with a mouse click.

So, for example, in Wayne N.J., where I used to live, there were three sex offenders registered in accord with Megan’s Law in early 2007. Not just their names but their address, gender, date of birth, eye color, hair color, height, weight, race, and crime are listed here.

2. Campaign contributions are a matter of public record, but a few years ago, they started showing up online. (C-SPAN, for example, has a search by donor name or zip code, or candidate, going back to 1994. The Federal Election Commission database is here.)

3. College students and job applicants still put their resumes on-line, not knowing their Social Security numbers, which millions of them include, can be harvested, a matter I wrote about back in March 2005.

Besides the Michigan state database, two things put me in mind of this. The first was the poorly done “study” by MSNBC that I wrote about yesterday, that relied on public databases of campaign contributions as mandated and collected by the Federal Election Commission and other agencies.

The second is from last weekend’s New York Times Book Review (yes, I still read the book review in one of the few newspapers that has one, as discussed here last month).

Tina Brown (yes, that Tina Brown) reviewed Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939 by Katie Riophe.

Why these couples? Why H. G. Wells and Rebecca West; Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim and John Francis (Earl) Russell; Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell; Lady Ottoline Morrell and Philip Morrell; Radclyffe Hall and Lady Una Troubridge; Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin? All were literary or artistic figures, famous in their time (some still are in ours). All had the useful (to the rest of us) habit of writing everything down. They did their thinking aloud on paper – in urgent, dashed-off notes, carefully hoarded correspondence, diary entries, hand-delivered notes and unsent emotional manifestos. All of it was “eyes only,” so to speak, but time has declassified it. The result is YouTube in a time capsule.

I’m not sure about the YouTube comparison. The diaries and letters presumably had a paucity of video, and today, blogs serve many of the purposes of these literary records. In fact, maybe a comparison to MySpace or rather Facebook is more apt (the differences between them is something Digglahhh is hopefully going to write about soon).

But that’s incidental to Brown’s main point, which comes in a paragraph so lengthy that I’m going to break it up so that readers of this blog don’t bill me for new eyeglasses.

In a sense the book’s title is a misnomer. These unions were not arrangements in any static sense; they were vibrant works in progress, exercises in passionate experimentalism. The encrusted inhibitions of the Victorian era had at last fallen away, allowing the intellectual elite to regard matrimony as a lifelong seminar in ways of loving. It’s hard to imagine now the successful management of so many creative permutations in marital compromises. The ménage of Clive and Vanessa Bell encompassed the presence of a live-in lover, the bisexual painter Duncan Grant; Grant fathered Vanessa’s child Angelica, whom Clive was happy to pretend was his. It was unconventional enough for the writer Radclyffe Hall and the monocle-wearing Lady Una Troubridge to live together in Paris openly as lesbians, but Troubridge also accommodated Hall’s obsessive pursuit of a nubile Russian nurse.

Today, when the invasiveness of media has largely put an end to such uninhibited pursuit of definitive emotion, it all seems not just interestingly adventurous but refreshingly tolerant. One can’t help feeling the sanctimony bred by publicity has made grown-up romantic life, marital and extramarital alike, at once more boring and more hazardous. Even royalty and the once inventive British aristocracy have to be as bourgeois as small-town librarians lest they fall victim to gossip columns, kiss-and-tells and tabloid newspaper exposés.

This then is the middle ground that has been lost. It’s not just that JFK got away with his affairs in and before his White House tenure, while Gary Hart and Bill Clinton did not. It’s that we have erased the DMZ that used to protect unconventional choices, made by the ordinary extraordinary citizens around us, from the battlefield of the ever-judgmental straight world.

When everything is either totally secret, or totally known, with nothing in between, we need to press to our chests matters that used to be held at arms length. Yet surely we will find it impossible to breath walking around that way all day, all our lives. And so, fearing that everything will be known, we will start to restrict our choices to the acceptable few and mundane. No more nubile Russian nurses. And as a lover of nurses (or at least one nurse), I say more’s the pity.

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