A Fan of Private Life: On Social Media, Novels, & Tuning out

I am a fan of private life.  Lolling in a hammock…making gazpacho…reading the latest book by Richard Russo.   None of that is especially personal, but I can’t help notice that private life is increasingly driven and threatened by electronic devices.  All that meaningless data at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is eaten up by bots, advertisers, and given to the Russians.  “She reads Dostoevsky’s Demons. She’s a Democrat.”

Knock yourself out.

If only we could turn back the clock. How far we’ve come from those days when every liberal group, from unions to anti-war protesters to environmental activists, worried about a hostile co-worker’s eavesdropping or FBI infiltration.  Now we are trusting and post everything online.  Timothy Leary’s hipster philosophy in the ’60s was:  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  I would revise that to “Turn off (your phones), tune in (to reality), drop out (from the electronic-fantasy community at least a few hours a day).

If I were an advice columnist,  I’d emphasize the following private-life-enhancing “Do’s and “Don’t’s”

  • Do read many, many novels (a study at Emory University found that reading fiction improved brain function and empathy)
  • Don’t read only on tablets or computers (devices with access to the internet and email are distracting)
  • Do take social media breaks (a study shows that comparing yourself to  Facebook friends causes depression).
  • Don’t delude yourself that your “followers” are your best friends, because only those annoying people in real life will be there in an emergency)

Every age has its bête noire: in the mid-20th century, it was TV, not the internet.  I grew up in a TV-centric household:  we watched soap operas, football games on Thanksgiving,  and I can still sing the Patty Duke Show theme song.  My husband and I watched Seinfeld  so many times we know the dialogue.  He was allowed to watch very little TV when he was growing up, but bizarrely he knows more TV trivia than I do.

Most of what I know is gleaned from novels.  I am a great fan of novels.  I don’t care much for following the news; I want to know how people think and feel, and fiction writers capture that much more veraciously than  journalists.  And novelists know the issues.  I was fascinated by Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the last novel in her Children of Violence series, when the heroine Martha Quest muses on how TV has changed the oral narratives of working-class Londoners, who used to tell stories instead of sitting passively in front of TV.   Now I can’t say TV stopped any of the women in my family from chatting, in person, on the phone, in letters, or on Christmas cards.  It was chat, chat, chat, chat.  But I am sure TV did something to our brains.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t influenced by silly trends in non-electronic culture.  I briefly adored chanting “Power to the people” at protests–and then I learned that People, once they got Power, were no better than Politicians.  I once bought a pair of ostrich cowgirl boots at Banana Republic, which were useless in the snow, and didn’t go very well with my office dresses either.  And I tried to memorize The Mikado before a headmaster’s party where the posh teachers sat around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  Resentfully, I did Gilbert and Sullivan homework for these excruciating parties.  May I  say that nothing in my reading life or TV-watching life prepared me for it?

All in all, I agree with Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.  She  left her bourgeois banker husband for Christian, a rebellious aristocrat and communist, and though she loves him dearly, she finds the communists very tiring and serious.

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

I am happy to say that being a Democrat is restful, too.  I take it up at certain hours, right before I go voting, and then forget about it.  I would be much more anxious if I voted for the Green Party, because I’d agonize about wasting my vote.

Well, we must blend our electronic life (and not spend too much time on it) with our private life (to which we must devote more time).

What are your pet peeves about our electronic age?

Do We Need Privacy?

Desperately Seeking Susan, a slightly subversive women's starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

“Desperately Seeking Susan,” Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive women’s movie, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

We love our privacy.  It is a right we take for granted.

The right to come home from a bad day and relax in a bubble bath with a soggy science fiction novel.

The right to work out to those old Madonna tapes you secretly enjoy.  (Especially “Into the Groove” from Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive women’s film, Desperately Seeking Susan, in which a friendship originates from a personal ad.)

The right to ride your bicycle for transportation without being labeled unAmerican for not buying gasoline.

Even before WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we knew our privacy was gone.  Haven’t we known since the ’90s that every article we read on the internet and every item we shop for at Amazon are recorded?  It’s not just the internet:  malls record our movements and shopping tastes, too.  And apparently spies must sift through some of these records.

Although I don’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, I am a heavy user of WordPress.

This blog is not very personal, but there is a wealth of information.

I used to keep a journal; I wrote almost daily.  I wrote less coherently but more emotionally.  Here I write mostly bookish posts, and, since I have an instinct for self-preservation, I am brisker than I am in real life, where I always seem to be a beat behind. Yet, while scanning recent posts, I was startled to see an account of the decline of my “bad cold” into bronchitis.  I wrote it was “just a bad cold”; yet I was too sick to go outside much and “looking wistfully out the door.”  If I had written about this in a journal instead of at a blog, would I have written more intensely about my illness, been less stoic, and noticed that I needed to go to a doctor?  I wonder:  to what extent do we create our own emotions by writing publicly on the internet?

Am I Kat? Or am I “Kat?” It’s a strange question.  And if I’m not exactly “Kat,” then is the internet really destroying my privacy?

In an interview at The Guardian about his new novel, Amnesia, which is inspired partly by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Peter Carey discusses the importance of privacy.  He says,

Privacy should be a fundamental human right. We’ve been tricked out of it to a great degree by giving up little bits of it along the way, because it’s easier to give some information to Amazon or to Walmart or to whatever it is. So the water is getting hotter and hotter. We are used to being in the warm bath. We are putting up with it. But it is sort of evil, I guess… We should be able to keep our information, our conversations private.”

Oh, dear.  It is gone.  Though we book bloggers may seem to lead a surprisingly dull life, we do record some, if not all, about what we like to read.

Today I finally caught up on all the stories about the terrifying ebola outbreak. And because I have read too many dystopian novels, and, by the way, enough with them, it takes an ebola epidemic to  make me imagine a world where we fear ordinary contact with human beings, where we wear protective suits and gloves, and where our health status is furiously tracked,.  I suddenly imagined having to check in daily at a website with a health update…

Is that Kat, or is that “Kat?”  It’s probably Kat.  Kat can get a little wild in her speculations, while  “Kat” says, There’s no need to panic.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy our online writing.  Privacy is gone,  but we’ve made a few friends, too.

And so let’s relax and celebrate friendship by watching Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive 1985 screwball comedy about women’s friendship, Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

Here’s Madonna’s “Into the Groove” from the movie: