Remember privacy? I do. I was raised in the '60s and '70s when it was taken to the limit. I had no idea how much money my parents earned or what my friends did after school unless I was with them or called them on the phone.
People went into the hospital and returned without disclosing the exact nature of their illnesses. Our elected leaders, movie stars and sports heroes sometimes engaged in nefarious activities but rarely were they headlined in the daily newspapers. Perhaps privacy was merely a natural byproduct of having fewer channels for sharing personal information. But I also recall that people simply didn't disclose much of a personal nature to strangers or acquaintances or -- sometimes -- even to family members.
So can you blame me all these years later for wishing that Jon and Kate would simply shut up? Is it really necessary for them to share their family feud with the world? And aren't they aware that their children are old enough to listen to the radio, to read magazines, to hear snippets of Entertainment Tonight on a friend's TV?
How are any of us enriched by following the ups and downs of that dysfunctional family? Similarly, why do celebrities (or marginal celebrities) from MacKenzie Phillips to Kathy Griffin choose to assail us with the most intimate details of their private lives? Yes, yes, I know. They do it for profit or to comfort others who have suffered from "consensual incest" in Phillips' case. But aren't there other ways to provide succor to others without spilling all on Oprah? It's one thing to voluntarily relinquish all pretense to one's one privacy, but totally different to spill the most intimate details of the lives of others, particularly if they aren't around to defend themselves.
For those who behave badly in private -- like David Letterman -- the ultimate punishment is being outed in public. How appropriate that his blackmailer was a TV producer. Who better to understand the value of telling a story that the main character doesn't want told? But what lesson did we all learn from that debacle and isn't one we already know? In two years will it have made any difference to anyone but the one in prison that Letterman was a dirty old man?
The tools to destroy privacy exist. You can Twitter at will -- letting the entire world know that you're constipated or having wild sex or eating a Lean Cuisine. Facebook statuses allow us to share the most mundane, boring aspects of our lives on a minute by minute basis. We can post not only photos of our own lives but also those of people who happen to be framed by a camera at any given moment. We can text as fast as our fingers can fly across our cell phone keyboards. We can Skype and use our computer webcams until one of us falls asleep.
The good news is that it is possible to be connected to our friends and family and virtual strangers in a way we couldn't have imagined forty years ago. The world is a much smaller, more accessible place. That's not a bad thing. Technology is inherently not bad, but the ways we choose to use it can be detrimental. Words can be noise until they are put together in a way that makes sense and are directed at specific audiences. And there is a difference between taking a point of view on an issue and revealing your favorite sexual positions. In that case, audience matters.
Privacy is about determining what to share about your life with others. Sometimes -- as is the case with Letterman -- that decision is taken away from you. But too often we assume that because the tools exist to broadcast every aspect of our lives, we must use them. Not so. There is a nice balance between telling everyone everything and discretion. I advocate a step backwards on this one. Not a return to the 70s but perhaps a little more thought given to the impact of giving your life away moment by moment.