Thursday, March 9, 2017

Erotic Exposure

[ed: See also: Glenn Greenwald interview on privacy.]

The difference between gossip and surveillance is hard to articulate, just as it is sometimes hard to tell where a neighbourhood ends and the country begins. In Miranda Lambert’s song “White Liar,” the husband goes out cheating on a Friday, and by Monday his wife has news for him: “My cousin saw you on the street with a redhead named Bernice.” With this version of the adultery story, the cousin brings the news because she cares about the wife, and maybe also about the husband. It is not none of her business.

Now here is another version. Last summer in Blackpool, the down-at-heel resort town of which the Kinks sang in “Autumn Almanac,” a woman and her lover were waiting in line for coffee at a gas station. The conversation turned to the mechanics of the liaison itself – my man thinks I’m at work. Do I pick up if he calls? A young man, Stevie Wilcock, overheard them. He opened Facebook and typed:
David. If your Girlfriend/wife is mid 40’s, went to work this morning wearing a black skirt, black tights and a light blue shirt... She told you she was in a meeting all day with work. She isn’t, she’s currently stood in front of me at the costa Coffee machine in Chester Shell garage, telling another man this whole story whist they’re laughing about it. Oh she also drives a black Ford Fiesta with the Reg ******. Pack your stuff and get yourself gone Dave.
We have no idea whether David read this, nor do we know, or care, who David is. Likewise, despite what seems to be Wilcock’s intention, namely to expose and punish a woman who has humiliated a man, we have no clue as to the identity of the “Girlfriend/wife”. The registration number is an amusing bit of sleuthing, but what if the car were the man’s? What if it were rented? Tens of thousands of people saw this post on Facebook, yet most of them saw it as a curiosity, rather than something to be genuinely curious about, and there is no certainty that Wilcock achieved the objective he gleefully envisioned (“get yourself gone Dave”). Many relationships survive affairs. Maybe this Facebook post is now the story David and his wife tell their friends, “laughing about it”.

Wilcock did expose someone with his post. He exposed Stevie Wilcock. If we Google the name “David”, we get Bible verses, a Michelangelo. If we Google the registration number, we get a jumble of unrelated articles. But Google “Stevie Wilcock” and we immediately come to the news of an anonymous British woman’s sexual life, accompanied by a picture of scruffy, austere Wilcock, sitting in what I think is the back of a van, staring out at us with his bland, grey-blue eyes. Unless he does something outstandingly noteworthy or criminal, the post will define him for the rest of his life. “Stevie Wilcock, isn’t he that guy who…?”

We might think of Wilcock and “White Liar” as belonging to two separate spheres of knowledge: the written and the oral. One sphere contains surveillance, where records are generated and maintained for a far-removed observer, and the other has usually contained gossip, the kind of knowledge that flows around us changeably, valuable only to those who inhabit a relevant space – a group of friends, or a school cafeteria, or a small town.

In her 1965 essay “On Morality”, Joan Didion claimed that in the California desert “stories travel at night”. She explained, a bit fantastically: “Someone gets in his pickup and drives a couple of hundred miles for a beer, and he carries news of what is happening, back wherever he came from.” Hundreds of miles is a lot for a beer, but when I think of the use of gossip, it is this sort of scene that I think of: the pleasure of news from the nearby afar, the way you hurt someone who I care about, the warning that the stranger arriving late tonight at the motel is known to be bad with his debts and once several towns over pulled a knife when he got drunk. That you were spotted on the street with a redhead named Bernice, and your wife’s cousin tipped her off.

Most major religions disapprove of gossip. (From the Koran: “And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead?”) In the legal system, too, a court will prevent witnesses from recounting remarks made by people who have not testified, so-called hearsay evidence. Because you cannot expect God or a judge to condone gossip, it sits just outside the realm of official record, where it does us a necessary service by carrying information back and forth that might not otherwise appear in a newspaper or a trial transcript.

The less access that you have to traditional channels, the more important gossip becomes. Gavin Butt in his study of queer artists in post-war New York, writes that gossip has “historical importance in disseminating knowledge about same-sex sexuality”. (Warhol’s diaries, full of married men with “a problem”, i.e. gay desire, are the case in point.) So where society makes full expression of the self impossible, gossip can give it the mercy of a double life.

Then, more mercifully still, gossip vanishes. It must be new or it is not worth repeating. Only the most embarrassing moments turn into memes, and if you grew up before Google Image search, you may remember that memes were in-jokes and folded notes, not images, and that these could be forgotten in a way that they cannot be forgotten now. An incident from my childhood makes this obvious. As a boy from a liberal suburb in Massachusetts, I liked having sex with my male friends. I also had a tendency to take a good thing too far. Once, at a birthday party, I fellated a boy in front of a large group, in a bedroom in broad daylight. (This was a stupid thing to do, but if you think that it is hard to get a blowjob as a teenage boy, try giving one.) The next day I received a phone call from a member of the bedroom’s audience, Pete, who told me he and his friend Willy were blackmailing me for $160, payable, quite reasonably, in $40 installments. If I failed to pay the first installment by Friday, he would start telling everyone what I had done. I told him I would come up with the cash, then went upstairs and sat trembling in my bedroom, flooded with shame and terror.

The next day was Thursday. In school, I found Nick, a sly and elfin boy who could always be counted on to spread a rumour. He would not believe what I had seen, I told him. What? he said. I can’t, I said. Please? Nick said. OK, I said, fine. But you cannot tell anyone. Pete blew Willy at a party. This being unusual news, the rest of the school took an interest, and by the end of the day it was accepted fact. I left at 2pm to find Pete standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by a hostile crowd. “They suck dicks,” he wailed, pointing at my friends and me. “They do.” Like two missiles colliding in mid-air, the stories disintegrated into the cool water of confusion. I never paid the $160. (...)

In ads for its new video-streaming service, Facebook advises me to “go live” when I see something arresting. When a person walks an animal that is not a dog, for instance, or when a scene unfolds at the airport baggage claim. Things that I once might have related to a friend, I am now supposed to film. It is one of the odd realities of our era that although we live under a sprawling surveillance apparatus, we eagerly volunteer to do surveillance of our own. We already know that Facebook shares data with the NSA. When coupled with facial-recognition software, Facebook Live will become a geolocation tool of unstoppable reach and depth.

For a person who finds himself the subject of unwanted attention on Facebook or Google, the options for recourse are quickly depleted. There are really only a handful. Facebook will accept takedown requests in cases of abuse. Where search engines are concerned, citizens of the European Union can invoke the “right to oblivion” law, which allows them to petition Google to remove compromising information. One may as well petition a leopard to donate to the Vegan Society. If Google declines to grant your request, you can appeal to a court, but by that time the page has been indexed and mirrored, now accessible from anywhere. Because the internet is moving toward a single-identity system – Google and Facebook, who know who you are, lie beneath most of your interactions online – the double life becomes endangered.

It is a strange phrase, “the right to oblivion”, and the strangeness is revealing. It does not mean what it thinks it does. Strictly speaking, the right to oblivion would be the right to a state equivalent of never having existed. Not even a puff of smoke but the absence of anything ever having burned in the first place. The right to be completely forgotten, to have an unmarked death. What the EU wishes to intend by it, however, is the right to keep a certain part of life out of print: a bankruptcy, a nude photograph sent to a former lover. The spectre of a beautiful Latin word – oblivion from oblivisci, to forget – conscripted into sentences beside the American neologism“Google”, metaphorises the horror of our predicament, adults standing helplessly before the blinking and childlike incomprehension of the Valley. Oblivion, meet Google.

by Jesse Barron, The Tank |  Read more:
Image: Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No.1, 1998. Courtesy Wako Works of Art, Tokyo