Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Secret Lives Of Nobody

Silver Swans--"Secrets" (mp3)

You only know what I want you to.
I know everything you don't want me to.
--"Poison and Wine" by The Civil Wars

The decline of our privacy as a society has become so much of a given that we barely even notice it. Satellites in space can see what we're doing in our homes, cameras on our roads and our workplaces can record any impropieties that occur out in public, our cell phones tell whomever needs to know where we are, our purchases in stores are tracked and logged, our Internet habits can never be erased. Our preferences and patterns, no matter how individualistic we might think that we are, fit easily into actuarial tables so that our lives and especially deaths can be predicted with near certainty based on where we live, where we work, etc. Even our garbage, should the media or the evil-minded choose to go through it, will paint a pretty complete picture of who we are.

In short, if we were books, we would be wide open.

But perhaps what is more interesting are the ways that we continue to fool ourselves in personal and local matters. However freely or not freely we may give away ourselves to forces and interests larger than our comprehension or focus, we still like to think that we can conduct our lives privately among the people we know personally.

Not so.

Or at least, I don't think so, based on my experiences. When I walk through my days, my mind and mouth must do any number of social juggling acts, probably even simultaneously, even though the brain isn't supposed to be able to literally multi-task. Whoever came up with that theory must not have to navigate the social paths of the modern world.

When I meet the people I know, I have to institute an internal series of checks and balances to keep me from saying something that might cause trouble. With me, I'm carrying things like this person's affair, that person's run-in with the police, someone's addiction, someone else's dislike of yet another person, her sexual orientation, his future with the place where we work, your dating history, my past drug use. I am lugging something you won't know for days or weeks, something that happened in another state, something I saw, heard, said, received by text or email, something that may or may not have happened online. I have files in my head on 29 years of working in the same place--the lies, the secret deals, the slights and unfairnessess. I remember things that other people who were there don't even recall happening. You are, no doubt, carrying all of those things, maybe more.

Big things and little things--who got invited and who didn't, what happened in a closet, why so-and-so's promotion is never coming. How alcohol entered the mix, what can't be taken back, transactions off the books.

I have a friend who, from his apartment perch, can see the comings and goings of an entire street. The people who live on that street live in blissful ignorance, never even considering those eyes in the sky, eyes that belong to someone who doesn't sleep very well and who sees the cars that leave and return at all hours of the night and morning. And sometimes he tells me.

And yet, we like to think that we can do things that no one will know about? Wake up. We're all watching each other all the time, and the slightest divergence from accepted behavior makes us wonder the tiniest bit. Put in enough years living here and you can't go 30 minutes anywhere in town without seeing someone that you know. Who knows what those people have observed that we don't know about. Sentinel cameras everywhere are one thing, but they are no match for a person seeing something and putting 2 and 2 together.

Sometimes some of us get together in a Chinese restaurant and talk. Talk pretty candidly. But I can't help thinking that the ears at the next table knows somebody that we know, somebody that we name--from church, from the neighborhood, from a friend of a friend.

It's hard to live like this. The eggshells are everywhere. Maybe it's just adulthood. Maybe it's a circumstance of a small city. But it's also a harsh reality. I have a friend who, when he and his wife bought a new car, bought the exact same car in the exact some color as the one that they already had so that no one would know that they had bought a new car. Who does that? Well, I guess the answer is someone who knows precisely the kind of world that he is living in or the one he's paranoid enough to expect. Why can't both be true?

These are things that we all know but pretend, by choice, that we don't want to know. I don't blame us. It's like when I hear something and I only tell one or two people who I know will keep the secret secure. They only tell a couple of people and it spreads close and near or far and wide, depending. Until I get burned from my very, very minimal sharing of a secret, I'll probably keep doing it. Or, since I did feel a little burned a month or so ago about, I'm probably still in my mouth-shut mode. But we all know that it won't last. We all want to know as much as we can about everyone and everything else, and being able to be the one who can share the information is local power. But it's worth reminding ourselves, even as we're sharing those little secrets, that there aren't any. Somebody already knows.


Billy said...

I mostly agree with you. Mostly.

What distracts me, however, is how someone who believes that secrecy and secrets are all but gone could also believe in the feasibility of so many large-scale conspiracies.

Personal secrets still exist. Sure, most are hiding in plain sight and could be discovered with a little bit of effort or inquiry or nosiness, but mostly no one cares enough to look. I struggle to believe this is the case once things get much larger than personal (see: conspiracies).

Bob said...

Unfortunately, I think history would suggest a complete reversal of your opinion. People are obsessed with the petty secrets of their neighbors but don't seem to give a crap about what their country does.