09.59, Saturday 30 Jun 2007 Link to this post
This isn't a story I tell too many people.
A couple years back, I was hanging out with a A. in the flat we shared, playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour and having a beer or something. S. popped his head in - another flatmate - and a great deal of time later, returned from wherever he'd been and asked us why we were still listening to Dire Straits. Whoops, caught out.
Anyway, we looked closer at the CD player and it turned out that it wasn't the album that'd been on repeat, it was a single song. We'd been listening to the single track Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits, solid for four hours. It's a pretty awesome album, obv., and a pretty great track, but I'm not going to admit that to a soul.
There was a post at Overheard in New York the other day:
Short man: So, my therapist told me to take off my clothes and look into the mirror.
Tall woman: Why?
Short man: To confront my inner midget.
I'm shy of services like last.fm because I have a certain public image and letting people know I listen to Dire Straits isn't exactly in keeping with that. Ambient drone and Balearic house on the other hand, I'm happy for people to hear about.
But how absurd! This is who I am! I got over identity issues and pretending to be someone I'm not in my early teens, like pretty much everyone. Hiding my musical preferences is like wearing a mask, right. I should just let it all hang out. Well, kinda.
Presentation of self is a complex dance. My personality is far too curious and, uh, on occasion abrupt, but I mute that in public (well, I try). I wear a particular expression when I know I'm being photographed for Flickr. I wear t-shirts to the office and suits to conferences. That's half the story.
The other half the story is what you do. You will never publicly call me out on not being my real self. You will never datamine my music listening habits and publish the stupidest songs I listen to, whenever I say I like some fancy orchestral stuff. I mean, you could... but you would look stupider than me for being petty and breaking that social understanding that we all manage our presentation of self, all the time.
This is why I don't believe these are privacy's end of days.
Along with new visibilities comes social understanding of those new visibilities. We agree to look the other way, just as Finns hold a hand in-front of their face while they have a phone call in a public place, and you can slip on your swimsuit on the beach and no-one looks. Just as you will see my predilection for Dire Straits, Genesis and Talking Heads (it turns out, every band mentioned in American Psycho. Why is that?), laugh at me, and then move on: I'll be proud of what I listen to, but I'll simultaneously not mention it next time I'm visiting old colleagues in BBC Audio & Music, and you won't call me on it because that's how the world turns.
A caveat: We can cope with the shifting boundaries of privacy and social understanding if the social accommodations are given time to emerge. It's all to easy to read this shift and encode the lack of privacy technologically: You can't hold a social contract with a database which is tracking your office movements via your RFID identity card and holding the data for 6 months. You don't have any human understanding with the algorithms harvesting your web browsing behaviour and identifying your product affinities.
If the end of privacy comes about, it's because we misunderstand the current changes as the end of privacy, and make the mistake of encoding this misunderstanding into technology. It's not the end of privacy because of these new visibilities, but it may be the end of privacy because it looks like the end of privacy because of these new visibilities*. Uh, if you see what I mean.
Long story short, I decided to expose my music listening on last.fm to the world. I looked in the mirror, embraced my inner midget and said, hey, I listen to Dire Straits. And you know what? No-one cares. And it's great.
The Bad album, Michael Jackson, too. Ssh.