When Mister Litlove got in from work last night, he found me deep in George Orwell’s 1984. Our son is reading it for his exams next summer, and I decided to keep him company, having never read it myself. Mister Litlove was already familiar with the novel.
‘How are you getting on?’ he asked
‘I’m not sure what I think at the moment,’ I replied. In all honesty, I’m not that far through. So far I have been introduced to the main protagonist, Winston Smith, living a life of mental torment as he silently rebels against the totalitarian state he finds himself in. Watched at all times by Big Brother, Winston fears that a visit from the Thought Police is only an involuntary twitch or unfortunate expression away. And he knows how absolute is the control that the state operates over its citizens; his job is to falsify, or rather, correct, old documentation, newspaper articles, reports, and so on, when the predictions they contain are not borne out by events (or at least the ‘events’ that Big Brother deems necessary to have occurred). The past is endlessly rewritten to erase the discontinuities of history, and to make Big Brother seem perfect and omnipotent.
Well we must have been in one of those faintly abrasive marital moods, as we bickered a bit over whether 1984 was or was not a response to the threat of Communism as it appeared when Orwell wrote the novel in 1949. But then Mister Litlove said,
‘That reminds me about a thing I heard on the radio about Facebook and that privacy issue….’
‘You’ll have to back up a bit,’ I said. ‘What privacy issue?’
‘Like the fact that you can type into google ‘Bored with my wife’ or ‘Looking for fun’ and you’ll come up with Facebook entries.’
Personally, I felt that if you were stupid enough to update your status to: Bored with my wife and looking for fun, you deserved all the foreseeable consequences. But I said, ‘I’ve never once had a reference to Facebook turn up in a google search.’
‘I’ll send you the link to the article about it and you can see the search results for yourself,’ said Mister Litlove, in that way that arguments so often miss the point of the matter. ‘But Facebook isn’t as private as it looks.’
‘Okay, so what’s the problem with that? If you write things on Facebook, then surely you have to be all right with people knowing about them?’
‘But you might have something in your past that you don’t want a potential employer to know about.’ I began to protest but Mister Litlove cut me off. ‘No, the programme was talking all about this. It said that not everyone has a coherent life. That some people go through distinct stages, and change and become very different people.’
‘But that still wouldn’t be healthy at all, to cut yourself off completely from the past. That would be like saying: “That wasn’t me. I didn’t do that.” And it would be sort of scarily dissociated.’
‘But you might have something like a prison record. They were saying that employers hardly ever choose to take someone on if they have previous convictions.’
‘The problem of getting employment after serving a prison sentence predates Facebook!’ I protested. ‘And in any case, if you’ve done something really wrong then you have to integrate it into your life. It’s massive, having been in prison, and the only way you’d prove you’d changed for the better would be to accept responsibility for what you’d done along with the consequences.’ Thinking about it, I had to laugh. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘we’re taking up the opposite positions to the ones we should. You have a perfectly blameless past, whereas I’m the one with the big blot on my record. I could easily lose any job I went for because of all the years with chronic fatigue, which I’ve spoken about readily online. But if someone didn’t want to employ me because of that, then I wouldn’t want to work for them, either.’
‘They called that the benefit of privilege,’ said Mister Litlove triumphantly. ‘You’re privileged enough to be able to pick and choose like that.’
‘Oh nonsense,’ I replied. ‘We both know that if we needed money, the easiest thing for me to do would be to pick up a job behind the bar in one of the pubs or shops in the village and there would be no questions asked. Sure the money would be bad, but it was no better as an academic. I don’t know, this all sounds a bit crazy to me. We all have limitations, there are always things we can’t do and can’t have, even though we want them, people will always have prejudices and make assumptions. And we can’t pretend that things we’ve said and done didn’t actually occur because it suits us. You’re only on this side because you’re manic about your privacy. I’ll bet you’ve never updated your status once on Facebook.’
‘Certainly not!’ said Mister Litlove, shocked to the core.
‘It seems to me that this is a problem that comes with living in a highly visible age,’ I said. The more we put ourselves on display, the more we risk disliking the image that gets reflected back to us – unless we control it stringently. ‘If Orwell’s novel shows anything, it’s the unhealthy possibilities of being seen too much. Either we end up like Winston, terrified to move a muscle in case it betrays something about himself that mustn’t be seen. Or we end up abusing power like Big Brother, and altering everything we can in the past so that we always look like we’re perfect. Surely the only sane, healthy way forward is to accept our mistakes and our bad bits and integrate them into our lives?’
‘Hmmm, maybe,’ said Mister Litlove. ‘Or maybe the way we react about our privacy depends on the way we relate to authority. You expect to have to account for yourself, and I don’t.’
On which note we agreed an honorable truce and went to cook dinner, passing our son en route who was on Facebook, reading up about his friends, having also never updated his status at any time himself. You can see who he takes after…