Privacy Through Technology

Clark Zlotchew

I was walking down the stairs of Thompson Hall, coming from my class on “Happiness through Philosophy,” when I heard, just behind me, a loud and cheery voice raised in friendly greeting. “Hi,” said the female voice. I thought it was a student of mine. Being a polite and gregarious person, I instantly stopped and turned around to return the greeting to the owner of that voice. As I turned I simultaneously opened my mouth to speak, only to discover a student I had never before laid eyes on, seemingly speaking to a disembodied phantom hovering above her head. This sensation lasted only a split second before I realized she had some kind of small black object pressed to her ear and was speaking to this object. I thought this very odd, indeed.

Now, I know that there are people who occasionally, or not so occasionally, talk to themselves. Some people do this because they are unfortunate enough to have no one to talk to or because they have nothing to say to anyone, or because they are extremely shy. But they usually do this in a much more subdued voice. No one wants to be caught communicating with themselves in public. Well, out loud, that is. I am also aware that in ancient times, people worshipped idols and would pray to them. Yet I was pretty sure that no one in twenty-first-century United States carried around a personal minor deity and would speak to it in a loud voice, among a crowd of people.

It took another half second to realize that she was using a cell phone. Now, I’m not sure of the mathematics involved, but if you add the aforementioned, admittedly vague, “split second” to the recently-mentioned “one half second,” it probably would amount to something short of one second. I wonder which is shorter, “one half second” or a “split second?” Is there a recognized definition or measurement of a “split second”? Does the “split” provide an assumption that the second is being split fairly and equally into two halves? Or might it be split into one portion that contains three quarters of the specified second and another section measuring only one quarter? The possibilities are infinite, I suppose. I mention this enigmatic mathematical, or perhaps philosophical or even metaphysical, conundrum only to assure you that my description of this recognition process is taking me a great deal longer to describe than the actual duration of the time expended in arriving at the truth.

I imagine then that you realize the fact is that the cheerful, enthusiastic speaker was not addressing me. She was conversing with some unknown person at the receiving end of a message mysteriously and instantaneously hurtling through the ether. Ah, you say you understood that was the case immediately, and I could have saved myself a great deal of bother by simply stating the facts right at the start? That’s a somewhat brutal way to react to my charming account of a simple occurrence to which we’re all subjected on a daily basis.

Perhaps you haven’t had enough scotch and soda—I’ve only treated you to three, after all—to drain away the stress of the daily struggle to survive in this electronic age of computers, email, and cell phones classified as smart—ridiculous—that can tweet and take photographs and who knows what else. Maybe these cursed things can even magically provide you with the ability to speak Swahili or Basque or to understand Einstein’s theories in just minutes. Or to perform brain surgery through a tutorial.

Well, let me get to the point, then. Of course there’s a point to this; I’m coming to it. What? Oh yes, of course, I’ll signal the barkeep to send over two more scotch and sodas. Anyway, my point is: You’re almost as old as I am, correct? Yes, well then, you no doubt remember the old days, before the advent of the cell phone, and so many other so-called improvements to our way of life, when both in stores as well as on the sidewalks, there were phone booths. Phone booths! Yes, the word booths is key here. Now, why were there phone booths? Yes, that was a rhetorical question. After all, there could have been, at much less expense, simply phones not enclosed in any booth. The reason for them, of course, was that there was a sort of consensus that people wanted to have privacy when they spoke to friends, relatives, lovers or business associates. Yes, privacy. This is a concept which has basically disappeared from public life.

Back in the 1950s, for example, if someone needed to use a phone, but the only phones to be found were just that: phones. No booths. Surely, you remember how we thought in those days. You wouldn’t dream of talking on the phone in public. It would have been as unthinkable as answering the call of nature, shall we say, on a public sidewalk or in the aisle of a department store or supermarket. Well, yes, of course, a person would be arrested. But still, even if it were perfectly legal, no one would do such a thing, even imagine such a thing. Excuse me…? You say I just contradicted myself because I am imagining it right now? Of course. Touché. Well done.

But wait a moment, sir! I said no one would contemplate it back in the Fifties. At any rate, they certainly would not actually do such a thing. Even in today’s overly relaxed, do-whatever-turns-you-on milieu. What? “Not yet, anyway,” you say? Yes, you certainly have a point there. Ever since the “let-it-all-hang-out” culture took root at the end of the 1960s, there has been a veritable cultural revolution. I mean, come on . . . In the Fifties, both professors and students would wear a jacket and tie to class. Don’t get me started on what students wear to attend class these days. Or what they don’t wear in warm weather. Ah, you say you had no intention of getting me started. Right.

Back to cell phones. People just don’t care about privacy anymore. I think we’ve become an exhibitionist society. People actually want the public at large to know what they’re doing, no matter how personal the subject. They seem to feel that everyone else is intensely interested in their affairs, presumably because they are convinced they are such fascinating people. Amazing, isn’t it? Perhaps they feel they’re in some sort of reality show, which of course would turn them into instant celebrities.

You know, the other day I was on the treadmill when some man, about 30 years of age, I’d say, mounted the treadmill right next to mine. He was going at a very slow pace; only the first row of lights lit up to show the difficulty level. He wasn’t even working up a sweat. But he was on the cell phone, talking to some friend or associate about some business deal. He was conversing about picking up some auto part and discussing what price he was willing to pay for it. The object was to install the part into an old car and then sell the car at a good profit. The whole conversation dragged on for fifteen minutes, with a great deal of repetition, and he was handling this business deal in a booming voice. He was shouting into the phone at the top of his lungs through the entire dreary conversation. I’m convinced that everyone in the health club could clearly hear his words. It was as though he were talking through a bullhorn. Unless his associate happened to be in China or Australia, I believe this man didn’t even need the phone for his business partner to hear every word he uttered. And I happened to be on the treadmill right next to his. I thought I would lose my hearing.

Now, I ask you, why on earth was he bellowing into the phone like that? Hmmm…? Oh, yes, of course. Another rhetorical question. I beg your pardon. I think he felt he was some kind of wheeler dealer engaged in an important transaction, or perhaps just wanted everyone in the health club to think so. Mercifully, after fifteen minutes of the ruthless attack on my auditory nerves, he finished his thunderous monologue, and descended from the treadmill. Oh, you say it wasn’t a monologue; it was a dialogue. Well, perhaps. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there was actually no one on the other end of this deafening rant. I suspect he was pretending to be talking to a real person on the phone, but was really addressing himself to everyone at the health club. He was playing a part in some imaginary reality show. What? Oh, of course, that would make it an unreality show. I guarantee you, however, he would have been voted off the island, so to speak, or at least ejected from the health club for causing severe cases of hearing loss to the members.

And, you know, it’s similar to the person driving a car with the windows wide open and his cassette player (or would it be a CD or DVD nowadays?) emitting the sounds of punk rock or heavy metal, turned on with highest volume possible, the singer actually shrieking the incomprehensible words, the bass booming away so that you feel the vibrations reverberating in your head, your skeletal structure and your vital organs. And I’m convinced they do this because they feel their musical tastes are so superior to everyone else’s, and they want to display this superiority to the world at large. Why? No, no, not an actual question. I’ll tell you why. So they will be admired for their avant garde taste in music. All right, all right… Too many concrete examples. I’ll get to my point immediately. What’s that you said? It sounded something like “That boat has already sailed.” Oh, you were just clearing your throat. I see.

Well then, to the point. My question is: Why do people not have any sense of privacy anymore? I’ll tell you why. Well, yes, it was just a rhetorical question. Yes, again. Yes, I realize I tend to do that. I think they feel superior to everyone else and want to display this imagined superiority in order to be admired by one and all. And why, you ask, do people today have that desire when people didn’t use to. It’s because of having been subjected to overdoses of self-esteem indoctrination in school, both primary and secondary schools.

“Why am I telling you all this?” you ask. Well, because you’re the editor of Profound Thinking Review, and I would like to know if you’d be interested in publishing an article of mine on this very subject. I think I have some really ice-breaking, revolutionary, cutting-edge, seminal, insightful thoughts on our changing culture, and I would like the public to know about it. Well, of course, they would then know me and admire me for my penetrating analyses on this all-important subject. It would be only natural, their admiration for me, that is.

Ah, I see you are standing. Oh, you have to be leaving now to make your commuter train. Well, you’re perfectly welcome to the drinks, I assure you. It’s a pleasure to be talking to the Editor-in-Chief of such a prestigious journal. Why are you putting those headphones on?


Clark Zlotchew is Emeritus Professor of Spanish-language literatures.  He has had 17 books published, but only three of them are his own fiction.  His short-story collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties, was one of three finalists in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2011.  Newer stories have appeared in Scrutiny Journal and in Jotters United in 2016, while another story was one of three winners in a contest of Baily’s Beads, literary magazine of U. of Pittsburgh, and was published in that journal in January 2017.   Another story is scheduled for April 12 in Sick Lit Magazine.

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