The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. McCarthy

Being a health nut has its price, but I never bargained for anything like the most recent development. My local organic food co-op stopped stocking one of my favorite items, so I went searching on the Internet under the name of its distributor, Delicious Foods. The moment I typed in “delicious.com” and clicked, I had a sinking feeling. Suffice it to say that I made the fatal error of omitting the all-important word “foods” from the search name, and that the Web site I inadvertently found was more lubricious than delicious.

 

Surfing the Web is an education and an adventure, but it’s also a murky passage into a world of commerce and conversation completely outside one’s control. The unknowns of Internet communication imply not simply the question of what and whom I will find out there, but who will find me. Stumbling onto unwanted material was, in my case, dismaying on several levels; but far more annoying and telling has been the constant stream of e-mail messages I receive as a result of that (I assure you) isolated and accidental foray into forbidden territory. In a nutshell, I seem to have gotten myself onto every pornography mailing list in existence.

But it doesn’t end there. I’ve also noticed a dramatic increase in my “junk” e-mail in general. Before The Incident, I received maybe one unwanted e-mail message per week. Since then, I receive no fewer than 20 per week, from all kinds of people and businesses making all kinds of assumptions about me—from my financial situation to my career track to my taste in erotica. The vastness and variety of people out there trying desperately to peer and poke their way into my life knows no bounds. It would be hilarious if I weren’t so swamped with it. Even so, it’s amusing: a moment of perceived cyber-prurience opened the floodgates of 21st-century commerce, which is defined by equal parts undesirable junk and unlimited access.

It’s what I call involuntary voyeurism, a symptom of the times epitomized by listening to other people’s phone conversations in waiting rooms, on planes, emanating from bathroom stalls (like some fetid social offal) and even while stopped at a traffic light next to another car. On one hand, involuntary voyeurism is an extension of the Walkman craze of the early 1980’s, when people began mentally shutting themselves off from their environment (and social brethren) by creating a pseudo-private space within a public space. But what I’m seeing nowadays more and more suggests not so much a retreat into private space as an erosion of the line between public and private. Of course the blurring of public and private has provoked debate and discomfiture in one form or another for centuries. But what makes today’s version unique is that it’s not only people engaging in private acts in public spaces, but the incursion of public acts into private spaces. When I can sit in my own home and be accidental witness to a pornographic image, or when I can hike seven miles to the top of a mountain and pass along the way someone yakking his way through the pristine wilderness on a cell phone, then I know a line has been crossed.

I can’t figure out: is nothing private or personal any more, or is it that everything is private and personal? What do I share with the people catatonically glued to their cell phones or their DVD players on airplanes—everything or nothing? Today’s more copious, ever faster information apparatus means that we can all partake of far more shared knowledge and experience; but it also means the opposite. Each of us can erect increasingly individualized, customized notions of reality out of that indiscriminately expanding pool of knowledge and experience.

Take Palm Pilots. Basically high-tech note-pads, they place the world at your fingertips and make possible an extraordinary degree of interconnectedness and reachability. With your Palm Pilot you can e-mail, store, schedule, plan, receive, review, fax, upload, download, organize and modernize your entire life in a sleek pocket-size format. People who use them invariably rave about the way they “simplify my life,” a claim I cannot refute but that amuses me. Is this a way to shield oneself from the chaos of information overload, or yet another vehicle into it?

I cannot find time to be with and talk to those scattered friends and siblings I most want to reach, but I can tune in or log on to the lives of strangers, and I’m inundated by calls and e-mails urging me to buy this and try that. This is not an especially fresh or insightful take on modern life, but to me it is the greatest irony of our day. Try as one might to insulate oneself from unsavory or simply unwanted information, merely being in the world is a nearly constant, involuntary act of opening a Pandora’s box. The much-vaunted explosion of choices in every realm of our privileged American lives implies a no less significant forfeiture of choice. And so we’re left asking ourselves some variation on the question, Whose life is this, anyway?

Few would disagree that Panglossian attitudes toward the expansion of accessibility and the razing of barriers to communication, information and entertainment are misguided. The real question we need to be prepared to answer is one many of us are asked all the time: how can you be reached?

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