Have We No Sense of Decency, Sir, at Long Last?: On Adult Diapers, Erectile Dysfunction, and Other Joys of Oversharing
IN HIS MAY 20 TIME ESSAY, “Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing,” Steven Johnson uses Jeff Jarvis’s catheter-and-all chronicle of his battle with prostate cancer as an object lesson in the civic virtues of turning our private lives inside-out.
(Jarvis, if you haven’t been following the why-is-journalism-rotting-from-the-head-down? debate, is a new-media wonk whose breathless Web triumphalism often makes him sound like Unfrozen Cyber Guy from the Wired ’90s. He’s best known for swanning around Davos, tossing off gnomic one-liners like “stuff sucks,” meaning: the material world is so over, now that we’re all brainplugged into the Matrix.
Which is very Nicholas “bits-not-atoms” Negroponte, if you think about it. Negroponte was the tassel-loafered Jarvis of the Wired ’90s. He wrote a book called Being Digulous, a kind of Chicken Soup for the Replicant Soul. Now, at a moment when 1.1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water and as a result 1.6 million of them drop dead every year from diseases like cholera—90% of them children under five—he’s working to get the world’s poorest kids…laptops.
I miss Nicholas Negroponte.
But anyway! Jarvis is best known for blogging about how Newspapers Should Just Die and Anyone Can Commit an Act of Journalism and Not Get Paid For It, Too. And for writing a business book called What Would Google Do?, exhaustively researched by talking to nobody at Google. And getting brutally owned by Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum, who dubbed him “the Sarah Palin of gurus” and lambasted him for gulling the managerial rubes with PowerPoint koans like “‘The link changes everything’…’Atoms are a drag,’ and—yes, his contribution to the ‘X is the new Y’ genre—’Small is the new big.’” Oh, and setting the land speed record in talking. The guy could speedtalk circles around Camille Paglia with his uvula tied behind his back.)
AS THE DRAMA OF HIS CANCER UNFOLDED, Jarvis kept Constant Reader updated on the anatomy of melancholy, or the melancholy of his anatomy, or whatever: “He blogged about the humiliation of wearing adult diapers,” writes Johnson. “He blogged about his erectile dysfunction…” Did I mention “the harpoons up the ass for biopsies; the garden hose out of the dick after surgery“?
To Johnson, this is How We Live Now: we can read the bad news in our doctor’s eyes as she looks up from the pathology report—It’s the Big C!—and “the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.” In Jarvis’s online chronicle of a death averted, Johnson sees a Web Age parable about the value of “publicness” (a gratingly unmusical word, but both he and Jarvis insist on it). Jarvis opted for radical transparency, even in such a searingly personal matter, because as he told Johnson, “there was value that I wanted back from this community.” Translated from the original corporate-consultantspeak, this means: he wanted to share his tragedy with his wider social world, in search of some buoying compassion. Then, too, there was the journalist’s reflexive inclination to crowdsource his crisis, soliciting (in Johnson’s words) “specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process.”
The moral of Jarvis’s story, for Johnson, is that, “by taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, [he] built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise.” Thus, we must “acknowledge that certain kinds of sharing can, in fact, advance a wider public good, as well as satisfy our own needs for compassion and counsel. [...] We habitually think of oversharers as egoists and self-aggrandizers. But what Jarvis rightly points out is that there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing.”
THIS, I THINK, IS A CATHETER TOO FAR. The contention that civic duty demands we narrate the Director’s Cut version of a Fantastic Voyage up our anal canals is the point where rectum meets reductio ad absurdum.
To be sure, Jarvis’s decision to publicize his cancer scare as a wake-up call to men of a certain age, a sort of PSA about PSAs, is truly generous of spirit. That said, the unquestioned assumption that, as Johnson puts it, “we get news that we’re facing a life-threatening disease, and the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away,” warrants closer scrutiny. Jarvis’s desire to reach out to his online flock in his hour of need is understandable enough. But his near-inability to restrain himself from broadcasting the bad news before his son gets home from camp—he managed to hold his fire, so the kid wouldn’t learn about his dad’s disease on Twitter—says more about the blogorrheic, tweet-expulsive times we live in, when so many of us feel the need to broadcast our every thought, at every minute, to everyone than it does about the civic virtues of making our private lives public.
Shouldn’t an intimate circle of close friends meet most peoples’ needs when it comes to sympathy and wise counsel? If we zoom out to a wide-angle shot that contextualizes Jarvis’s actions in the larger societal landscape, we’re inclined to wonder if this tendency toward arena-rock confessionalism—sharing our private lives not just with our closest confidantes, but with a stadium full of virtual friends—isn’t symptomatic of the culture of confession that began with the Puritans and persists in afternoon talkshows and the ritual absolution of celebrity sins by Barbara Walters. Is the desire to broadcast the most mortifyingly details not only of our private lives but of our private parts really about the desire to Feel the Love on an epic scale? If so, isn’t it selfish, rather than selfless? Tea and sympathy from friends and family are fine and well, but once we’ve felt that tidal wave of compassion rolling over us, in comment threads hundreds of posts long, can we ever go back to entrusting our secret pain to an intimate few?
As for the notion that taking the private public enables us to leverage the collective expertise of the million, crowdsourcing is only as good as the crowd being sourced. Anyone who’s spent a cancer year in full-battle rattle, desperately combing the Web for information about his disease and worming every factlet he can out of his overworked doctors—and yes, I’ve been there—will tell you that the Wisdom of Crowds is overrated, unless the crowd in question has answered the casting call for America’s Next Top Oncologist. When the word went out that I had cancer, one friend offered invaluable war stories about his close brush with the Big C. But too many took it as an opportunity to tug on my lapel about their pet miracle cures: pendulum alignment, past-life regression, jackfruit enemas, a high colonic while listening to Satie’s “Sketches and Exasperations of A Big Boob Made of Wood,” you name it. Jarvis’s mileage may vary, but I recommend a thorough review of the medical literature, the battle-tested advice of any friends who’ve been there, and a doctor named House.
THAT SAID, the most confounding thing about the Johnson-Jarvis argument for more oversharing, more radical transparency, is its seeming obliviousness to the ways in which our nonstop social networking—let’s call it the Age of Always Connect—is dissolving the membrane between private “I” and public self.
The most obvious evidence of that cultural dynamic lies in those moments where the real and the virtual collide. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the totemic technologies of our times—the cellphone, the iPod, the Blackberry—are turning our psyches inside out, reversing the polarities of public and private. They make solitude portable, encapsulating the solipsistic self in a media bubble. More and more, we’re alone in public, oblivious to the world around us. Thus the ubiquitous obscenity of couples sitting together in restaurants, each gazing vacantly into the middle distance as he or she brays into a phone, or of people unashamedly texting away in the midst of social gatherings or, even more scandalously, during movies, the screen’s glow distracting everyone nearby. (A friend recently witnessed a scuffle between a compulsive texter and another moviegoer, who in a paroxysm of irritation snatched the woman’s phone from her.) Yet more dramatic evidence of the growing tension between electronic solipsism in public spaces can be found in the ever more common phenomenon of the stranger with the headset, chattering blithely about her irritable bowel as she elbows past you at the supermarket meat counter, or—even more appallingly—the cellphone conversation floating out of a bathroom stall, punctuated by the unmistakable plop of a bowel movement in progress. (Is there a surer sign that Western civilization is in its terminal stages?)
We are redrawing the boundaries of publicly acceptable behavior along medieval lines, when privacy, in the modern sense, was virtually unknown.
Do we really need more radical transparency?
THEN, TOO, there’s the question of the individual costs of oversharing, or even just compulsive social networking. What unconsidered intellectual, spiritual and psychological collateral damage are we inflicting on ourselves by being so outward-focused, so frenetically interactive, so terminally social that we get a death letter and “the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.”
This is a disease of the psyche. Its primary symptom is the obsessive need to connect, blogging and tweeting and retweeting, liking and poking on Facebook, telling the world that you Digg it and Reddit and StumbledUpon it, as if the world were waiting with bated breath.
This is partly about the media-age article of faith that nothing is really real unless it’s recorded and, increasingly, shared. Don DeLillo parodied this postmodern state of mind in White Noise, in the dryly funny set piece about the Most Photographed Barn in America, where tourists are so busy taking snapshots of the barn that as one character remarks, “No one sees the barn.” Likewise, the New York Times recently reported on the trend, among foodies, of compulsively photographing food while the dish grows colder by the minute. “One guy arrived with the wrong lens or something on his camera and left his wife sitting at the table for an hour while he went home to get it,” says a restaurant manager quoted in the article. Typically, people don’t waste a minute e-mailing the images to their friends or posting them on Facebook or Chowhound. Recording the moment, then sharing it with All the People Who Aren’t Here, matters as much, or more, than experiencing the moment and savoring it with the people who are here—for instance, your wife, sitting across the table from you. Welcome to the Dessert of the Real.
IN HIS TIME ESSAY, Johnson argues that “something is lost in not bringing” our private selves—for example, “the intensities of sex and romantic love”—into the online space between “privacy and celebrity,” a liminal zone that Johnson calls “the valley of intimate strangers.” Taking the private public enriches our souls, he implies, and makes the public sphere a better place. “Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover’s quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal.”
This is so reality-challenged, so head-in-the-data-cloud it’s effectively its own rebuttal, at least to anyone not lifecasting, 24/7, live from Laputa. What, exactly, is the benefit, to a pair of strangers, in reviewing the unredacted transcript of last night’s reenactment of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring me, my wife, and the better part of a bottle of Rumple Minze, let alone watching the whole sordid affair on a webcam? Undoubtedly, someone somewhere would watch this, and maybe even claim to “benefit” from it. But there are those who claim to benefit from 2 Girls 1 Cup, for chrissakes. Have we no sense of decency, sir, at long last?
As for the argument that we must Always Connect so that some passing Twit can have a “good meal” through our Random Act of Kindness, oh, ick.
IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, THOUGH, Johnson’s focus on oversharing in its more virtuous, civic-minded manifestations—Jarvis’s transformation of his blog to create a “space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise”; his decision to publicize his cancer in order to spread the gospel of early detection—overlooks the fact that, too often, our motivations in taking our personal lives public, through technology, have nothing to do with “advanc[ing] a wider public good” and everything to do with our media-age fixation on fame. When Johnson argues that his “valley of intimate strangers” is “a much richer and more connected place than the old divide between privacy and celebrity worship was,” he’s forgetting that connection doesn’t always equal intimacy, that exhibitionism is a form of social dominance, and that we fetishize fame more than ever.
Isn’t that the motivation for much of what we call oversharing, online? Ours is the age of nanocelebrity: broadcasts created by us and, too often, for us and us alone. How many YouTube videos and blog posts and Flickr sets languish, their discussion threads registering a melancholy zero comments, their feature attractions playing to a spellbound audience of one? We’re all Norma Desmond, ready for our close-up. In the age of reality TV and Paris Hilton, American Idol and YouTube (which has the power, if your video goes viral, to turn you into a global celebrity, even if you’re just some guitar geek shredding Pachelbel’s Canon), we see fame as our Warholian birthright. In his book, Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, Jake Halpern notes that 30% of American teenagers believe they’re destined to be famous. The middle-school students he surveyed seemed to see becoming famous as a goal unto itself, rather than a by-product of doing something that merited renown.
Thus, we’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the prying media eye, not only because it affords a few minutes of Warholian fame but because, like the characters in White Noise, we only feel that we truly exist when we see ourselves reflected in the media eye, because that’s where the real reality is, these days: on the other side of the screen. As ever, the visionary sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard was prescient. In 1996, he said, “Nothing is real until you put it in the VCR.” Our blithe acceptance of the Death of Privacy makes Foucault’s portentous ruminations on life in surveillance culture seem like so much twitchy-eyed paranoia; in the age of YouTube and Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, we’ve learned to stop worrying and love the panopticon.