Towards the end of his life in 1832, the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that newspapers "publish abroad everything that everyone does, or is busy with or meditating; nay, his very designs are thereby dragged into publicity. No one can rejoice or be sorry, but as a pastime for others; and so it goes on from house to house, from city to city, from kingdom to kingdom, and at last from one hemisphere to the other - all in post-haste."
Almost 200 years later, the trend is not only for the famous, but all of us.
Anything we do or plan that leaves an electronic trace can be dragged into publicity; short news cycles turn an email or a photograph snapped on a phone into a pastime for others, from one hemisphere to the other. We live in an age so fast we are eliminating small talk.
A few years ago at a dinner party I was introduced to another guest, but it wasn't necessary. "I know who you are," he said. "I've got a Google alert out on you." He said it as though I didn't, really, need to add anything to the avatar of me that he'd already met, the doppelgänger whose photos, quotes, friends and bloopers were popping up conveniently in his inbox, and which had preceded the flesh-and-blood me, standing there, mute with a drink in her hand.
This is the new normal. More recently, I was on a panel with another writer. She asked me what I wrote. "I used to Google everyone," she shrugged, "but I've stopped." She said it as though apologising for her ignorance but also as if she'd quit an addiction, or stopped steaming open her housemate's mail. While Googling is ubiquitous and convenient and we can't live without it, vestiges of our private selves, mostly the idea that we have them, remain. For now.
We live in an age which has yet to work out whether privacy still exists, or if it does, what it is useful for. We can be physically tracked by corporations and governments through our mobile phones, while our "meditations" and "very designs" can be discovered by Google and others from our emails and online search histories.
Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, helpfully, if unwittingly, encapsulated the death of personal privacy this way: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." I've heard that before, word for word, from members of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi. But not even they had a motto as telling as Google's: "Don't Be Evil."
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