For the last several decades, the seemingly endless parade of new social media has been raising public awareness of boundaries — the psychological boundaries between human souls — and in the last few years we have begun to talk about this with a heightened sense of urgency.
About 10,000 years ago, the only important boundary between our openly living ancestors was a natural one — the skull that kept mental activity out of sensory range. What people were thinking and feeling was for them to know and others to find out. And the others did find out, because this sort of internal activity has a way of leaking into the face, hands, and body, and these things were still visible.
When our ancestors took refuge behind walls, of course, their bodies regularly disappeared for long periods of time. But privacy was tantamount to secrecy, and eavesdroppers pursued them through whatever cracks and knotholes the builders left behind. In doing so, whatever their original motive, they discovered vast perceptual riches — far beyond anything their ancestors had seen in the glow of a campfire — for insiders, thinking they were shielded from view, dropped their guards and behaved with unprecedented levels of intimacy.
Paradoxically, while humans were becoming more private, their ways of communicating were becoming more public, and personal exposure took new forms. When people began to record their intimate reflections, a diary left out on a table was often too tempting for others to pass up. When the wealthy corresponded with friends, servants read their letters. When telephones were adopted for domestic use, neighbors listened in on party lines.
Today, an army of citizen surveyors is re-drawing all the old property lines. Once-private telephone conversations are now held on the street and — famously — in trains, where innocent others are broadcast information that once was extracted from whispers. If there is resentment here, and there is, it helps to reflect on a simple fact about us humans: we are used to taking personal information by theft, that is, by eavesdropping. Unconsciously, we may even pride ourselves on our ability to do this.
On the Internet, the problem is different. Information once stamped personal and private is now hung out like a banner. Clearly there is an appetite for this information, as there is clearly no shortage of foragers on Facebook. But what kind of nourishment do they seek?
A case of double eavesdropping
Once eavesdropping was an important — even essential — way to explore lives that were intertwined with our own. It gave us the information we needed to thrive in our highly competitive Machiavellian societies. But why do we now spend so much time eavesdropping on total strangers, or on fictive beings brought to us by the media?
I suggest that we do it for a threshold experience, one that is purely psychological. It can only be obtained by operating at the periphery of other souls, where we encounter what a French philosopher once called "that minimal glimmer of otherness." It is here, precisely, that we can imagine — as us — what it is like to be them, just as we hope these others will somehow discover, from their own perspective, what we experience by being us.
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John L. Locke, a professor of linguistics at Lehman College, City University of New York, is the author of Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, just published by Oxford University Press.
Books mentioned in this post
John Locke is the author of Eavesdropping: An Intimate History