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Christina Patterson

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Give Us Back Our Private Lives

Posted: 06/02/10 01:29 PM ET

When Tony Blair launched the new dawn that became (according to the new boys in power) a WAG's drunken shopping trip, he didn't know how to send an email. Less than 10 percent of households had access to the internet. Only 18 percent of people had a mobile phone. We had Hello!, but we didn't have Heat. We had, in other words, coiffed couples in handcrafted kitchens, but we didn't have celebrity cellulite, actors' acne and the B-lister's non-bikini-ready bod.

Heat was born in 1999, the year that the first Blackberry was released as a two-way pager, and the year that a new word was unleashed on the world, a word that was both a noun and a verb. The word was "blog," and it was, in a neat inversion of the Biblical principle, the equivalent of non-bikini-ready flesh made text. Suddenly, every Tom, Dick and Belle de Jour could vomit out their thoughts into the ether-- their comings, their goings, their philosophy, their flatulence, their gap years and their trips to Starbucks-- and they did. Democracy, we discovered, was not just the worst form of government excepting all the others, it was our right to say whatever we wanted about whatever we wanted as badly as we wanted. Democracy, we discovered, was the right not just to attack, but to bore.

The following year, at the start of a new millennium, a TV company with a name that sounded like a cure for diarrhea launched a revolution. The revolution involved-- you've guessed it-- democracy. Or at least it involved something called "reality," which was as near as you could get to democracy because it involved "real" people. All the "real" people had to do was sit in a house for nine weeks, and talk to other "real" people, and fancy some of them, and hate some of them, and get a bit tense and go a bit mad. And the nation was gripped. Who needed drama, who needed War and Peace, when you could watch Darren on his exercise bike or Nasty Nick brushing his teeth?

We couldn't get enough of them, these people who thought that "East Angular" was "abroad", and that there was chicken in chick peas, and that happiness was a new kind of fame called celebrity. And when the pleasure palled - the pleasure of watching real arguments and even real sex (but not yet, alas, real death) in a specially-constructed goldfish bowl - we watched them in their homes. We watched them offer up their sofas, their marriages, their children and their bowel movements, and we got to judge and chastise. Like an Old Testament God, we demanded more and more-- more flesh, more exposure, more humiliation-- but it was never enough. The big surprise, as we sharpened our knives for the slaughter, was that the lambs just kept coming. They begged, they queued, they auditioned, they sobbed, they screamed, they broke, but still they kept coming.

Three years after the reality revolution (we could call it the Orange Revolution, since so many of its stars were orange), a young man in California invented a kind of virtual Big Brother house called MySpace. A year later, Facebook followed. All you had to do was tap in a few details, knock up a few paragraphs, upload a photo or 10 of you in your underpants, or togged up as Superman, or maybe getting pissed with your mates and-- well, if Simon Cowell's not exactly your uncle, you were at least in the great new global game of the masses entertaining the masses. If you couldn't sing, you could post your holiday snaps. If you couldn't dance, you could tell them about your great weekend.

And then, two years later, there was the iPhone. So you could check Facebook all the time! And there was Twitter. So you could offer the world your glittering apercus throughout the day! You could comment on global events as they unfolded. You could alert the world to the horrors in Iran. But you probably didn't. You probably talked about something much more interesting than the world and Iran. You probably talked about you.

Is it any wonder that we're in a bit of a muddle about public and private? We Twitter and poke and blog at work, rarely giving a thought to the fact that our pithy observations on our day, our love life and our bosses can be read by our colleagues, our lovers and, indeed, our bosses. Or to the fact that when it comes to new technologies (as the idiotic Fabrice Tourre discovered when boasting of the "monstrosities" he had created at Goldman Sachs), there is no such thing as transience. Keats might, in fact, have been impressed at our newfound ability to immortalize our every fleeting banality, though he might have been surprised that we chose to do it on the office server.

We have battered down our boundaries. We work at home, and we play at work. When a romance collapses, we announce the fact, not with a weepy bottle of chardonnay and a gaggle of girlfriends, but a status update on Facebook. The thoughts we might have shared with a friend we now tweet. We're all Marcus Aurelius now. Ponder our Pensees! The inner life is the outer life. The private life is the public life. And here we all are, watching ourselves watching other people watching us.

Which brings us to poor David Laws. How brave he was, like some Victorian governess trying to cover up a piano leg, to attempt to impose an idea of propriety on our compulsively confessional culture, to attempt to say that this is public, and this is private and ne'er the twain shall meet. How mad he was to think he could. How unutterably stupid he was to mix this mission-- against the tide of history, let alone the tide of the New Labour hi-tech years-- with financial gain he didn't want or need.

But if Laws' motivation for his secrecy was largely fear and shame (some of us would kill to flaunt such a handsome boyfriend, but some people clearly don't know they're born) I still respect his aspiration to keep his love life private. I don't think everyone has the right to know who you have sex with, or if you have it at all. Some people don't. Others have marital misery. Others have a string of romantic disasters. I don't think we need to know about each other's romantic disasters. I still wish I didn't know about Cherie Blair's Dutch cap.

For anyone in public life, or even the public service that for some (like Laws) is politics, it's too late. The ravening monster of the media, the blogosphere, the Twittersphere and that great vomitarium of "citizen" news and comment by illiterate half-wits who won't even give their name, is just too hungry. It needs meat, and it will find it. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

But for those of us who aren't in public life, those of us, that is, who aren't on the telly, there's a choice. Sure, we can tweet and blog and poke, if we want to. We can do it (I imagine, though I can hardly get through my emails and don't) with life-enhancing wit and charm. But please let's remember that there's a skin that separates us from the world, which means that we're not the same thing as the world, and it's a barrier, and some barriers are good. And other people have it, and should be allowed to keep it. And behind that skin there's a pulse, a brain, and a beating heart. And maybe even still, if we're careful, a soul.

 

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