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Transparency and privacy
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
In my adult life I've written probably a dozen fan letters to the various musicians, writers, and actors whose work has compelled me, and from that number I've received exactly three responses — one from the playwright Harvey Fierstein, one from author Paul Auster, and one from the musician Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. I never expected anybody to return my correspondence and it certainly wasn't my intent to expect a dialogue — as a pretentious, full-of-himself writer and critic I glorified myself as a "colleague" of these guys, not a fan, and I thought my praise for them was a professional duty, a manly, artist-to-artist thing that required no response.
I'm sure these guys (and all artists) receive hundreds of similarly deluded letters from self-proclaimed "peers" and "fellow artists" all the time, but to their credit, these guys didn't comment on the preposterous and condescending tone of my letters — their responses were thoughtful, thankful, funny. And since none of the three were uber-famous when I wrote to them, I'm fairly certain the letters came directly from the artists and not some assistant or manager. It's funny, even in letters to fans you could discern the distinctive, particular voices of the three — Fierstein was sort of brassy and funny, Auster was polite and odd, and Westerberg came across as a playful goofball. Sometimes I wish I was a memento-keeper, for I'd love to have another look at those letters, but they got tossed in some purging fire years ago when I changed addresses.
This past week, though, I added another artist to my list of "professional correspondences." I recently discovered a wonderful children's book written by a writer more known for works in other genres, and the book so tickled me that I again felt the need to reach out. I queried the guys name online and voila — the second ordinal listing on Google showed an e-mail address for the university where he currently works. I sent a brief, laudatory e-mail to the address and surprise, within an hour I got a response from the writer. He was very cordial, and he thanked me for my kind words, adding that he still likes to hear that people are reading his book. After he signed off, though, he added a cautious "P.S." "Um — by the way — how did you get my address?"
I puzzled over this for a second, then sent him a second e-mail. I explained how I got his address from the Internet, how it was the second listing, etc., and then I told him not to worry, that I wasn't a stalker. He responded almost immediately, saying "I'll take your word for it!" and again thanked me for my praise. A few hours later my curiosity got the best of me so I re-typed his name into Google and I noticed that, indeed, the university listing had since been changed — instead of the writer's personal e-mail listing, a general departmental address was given. In the course of a few hours the guy's personal address had been deleted from the website. All because of my letter.
Upon reflection I discovered it was hard to blame the guy. I, too, have developed a cautious relationship with the Internet and its capacity to intrude on the privacy of the people who use it. After a few half-hearted efforts I finally deleted my Facebook account, and while I initially reasoned that it was a time-saving measure, to force me to focus on my writing, I also felt that I was allowing too damned much information, too much personal information, to be cast into the cyber world. It made me uneasy that I was willingly offering up to the faceless "friends" out there too much of myself, stuff that I rightfully should be holding onto. I know if somebody really wanted to hunt me down they certainly could--these articles appear online, I recognize, and they're often personal--but there's no reason for me to make myself so readily available to so many strangers. I often hear of conscientious people wanting to reduce their "carbon footprint" in the world and while that has little appeal to me I certainly want to keep my "online footprint" as miniscule as possible.
There's a full-on battle being waged right now, a battle over privacy, and it's disconcerting to me how devalued the notion has become. "Transparency" has become a 21st century buzzword, with a lot of progressive people believing that it's necessary to strip away the deceit and bureaucracy that plagues so much of modern life, and while I agree that that sounds wonderfully idealistic, I have to wonder what the ramifications will be. Do we really want absolute transparency from our government, our institutions? I'm not sure it's a slam-dunk that we do. Obviously the Wall Street crash exposed a lot of what's wrong with the way financial institutions are regulated, and I recognize how appalling it is that so many criminals got away with ruining million of lives and yes, I would like to see the rats get what they deserve. Still, though, I look at Julian Assange and I look at Anonymous and I wonder: is that what we really want?
Especially Anonymous — do we really want a vigilante group to act as judge, jury, and executioner for all our social ills? It's easy to get on board with some of their operations--who doesn't hate the Westboro Baptist Church, who doesn't distrust the paranoid secrecy of the Church of Scientology — but I'm uneasy how big and powerful Anonymous has gotten, how ubiquitous they seem. If they want to expose rapists, that's fine, but here's the thing: They better be right. Every time. For one misstep and they're just another group ruining someone's life, they become the very thing that they've railed against. And it doesn't take the world's greatest ironist to point out that the group that revels in public exposures is, by design, completely private and shielded. Anonymous.
I had to laugh when I saw what Anonymous did to the Westboro Baptist Church this week — the "hactivist" group hijacked the Church's Facebook page, making the hate group seem like the most tolerant, gay-loving group on the Internet. But my laughter dried up when I wondered what the trickle-down effect of such exposures might have on regular, private citizens. Suddenly it didn't seem so funny anymore. Humor is like that — things stop being funny when they start becoming You.