How to Stay Human When You Can See Everybody Naked

Image via broombesoom/flickr Image via broombesoom/flickr

By ZACH NOBLE

Short answer: Don’t look.

The problem with modern security breaches (we’re always one hack away from a “database of ruin” being spread around the Internet) is that they enable us all to gawk at friends, celebrities and total strangers in their most compromising moments.

Modern data breaches are a kind of pornography all their own.

Some breaches are actually pornographic – as when hacked celebrity nude photos flooded the Internet in 2014 – and some are more schadenfreude – Ashley Madison in 2015 – but they all contain an essential temptation: Come over here, see the worst, or most naked, or just plain personal thing about someone and, by doing so, stop seeing them as human altogether.

Privacy has positive facets too, of course. It’s not just an issue of protecting dirty secrets. Private spaces to think help us become creative and develop as individuals, in a way Twitter cannot.

But the “negative” aspect of privacy is, in some ways, more important.

“Do you only care about privacy because you have something to hide-“ YES, Google CEO Eric Schmidt. That’s the whole point. To be human is to have something to hide, and yet to be more than that something. To be human is also to resist the temptation to reduce others to a single aspect.

The human thing to do, when faced with a gawking opportunity, is to butt out.

As Fredrik deBoer urged in Ashley Madison’s wake:

“[W]e’ve gotten a social culture that resembles a lifetime in high school, with the internet functioning as the cafeteria where everyone’s every private act is discussed and judged.

[…]

I call on other thinking people, liberal and conservative alike, to rediscover a virtue that’s both liberal and conservative at once: the virtue of minding your own business.”

Is a fix possible?

The (hypocritical, but right-in-this-case) U.N. has declared that privacy is an essential human right and heck, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that it’s in the business of granting human dignity. So maybe governments will be willing and able to step in and protect privacy in meaningful ways.

Or maybe they’ll just spy on us a whole bunch.

Maintaining our ability to treat other people as fully human falls to us, the weak, curious, smartphone-scrolling public.

A human being is more than an embarrassing medical condition.

A human being is more than a private message.

A human being is more than a voting record.

A human being is more than a nude photo.

A human being is more than a mistake.

To use a line often attributed to Pope John Paul II:

“There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.”

If we don’t have time and good reason to see a whole person – and we don’t, not with 8 billion people on the planet and zetabytes of data pouring into our computers – we definitely shouldn’t be rubbernecking at the pornography of their lowlights.

Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog’s retirement party. He’s been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.

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