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What I would love to see is art that explicitly addresses not personal intimacies but anonymous intimacies, the vast collections of facts about you and me that now exist in giant server banks. (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/REUTERS)
What I would love to see is art that explicitly addresses not personal intimacies but anonymous intimacies, the vast collections of facts about you and me that now exist in giant server banks. (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/REUTERS)

The cyberstalker: a case where I wish a person had less privacy, not more Add to ...

I know someone who has a cyberstalker. The anonymous stalker, who is obviously very deeply disturbed, sends quite unbelievably hateful messages that almost always conclude with the suggestion that my friend kill herself.

Once the person added “and if you won’t do it, I can help you,” which is close enough to a death threat for me, but perhaps not for the police, who are deluged with such cases. I suspect the stalker is a suicide fetishist, one of those people who tries to cause others to harm themselves, and so could one day do real damage.

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But it’s hard to track these people, as they can mask their IP addresses, unless you have some serious hacker spies on your side. Here is a case where I honestly wish a person had less privacy. I deplore the Internet’s anonymity. I wish the government could find people like this quickly and easily, and so make my friend a little safer.

The stalker’s secrecy is unfashionable. He or she is probably not an aficionado of contemporary art and literature, where confession and openness about every detail of one’s life is de rigueur. If you are a young artist, you not only use yourself in your stories and photos, but you use all your friends’ real names and photos and confessions in your collaborative half-documentary, half-fiction (see Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Sheila Heti).

You have no fear of appearing naked, physically or emotionally, in your fictions (see Lena Dunham, Cat Marnell). You do not even see yourself as an individual artist, but as part of a collaborative community or group of friends whose social relations constitute the art itself. (See Broken Social Scene and the other beard bands; see the constant questionnairing and surveying of friends’ tastes among online literati.) You have no fear of creating a public personality for yourself that reveals intimacies, yours or anyone else’s, in your daily blogging and tweeting. If you go on a date with a guy who offends you, you publish a caustic account of his failings the next day. This is part of being a writer now.

Then you writhe and recoil at the idea of governments reading your e-mails, because governments are bad.

Have you noticed the people most likely to be up in arms about governments apparently spying on us tend to be the most non-private people you know? The people launching petitions and wailing about Big Brother and data collection are most likely to be the most constant self-presenters.

Their complaints come in social media, surfing merrily on their waves of holiday snaps and sex memories.

We’re a society with no secrets. We love it that way. It actually makes us safer, in a sense – for what can the government do to us if we’ve already blogged that we did poppers and mushrooms last night, if we’ve already described in withering detail the penis size of our most recent date? What secrets could a hip artist possibly have? That the RCMP will find out I look at a lot of naked ladies on the Internet? Too late – I already wrote a novel about that. That they will find out I have a prescription for antidepressants? Too late – the girl behind me in line at Shoppers just tweeted it (and the tweets were part of an installation on “deconstructing/distancing public spheres”).

What I would love to see is art that explicitly addresses not personal intimacies but anonymous intimacies, the vast collections of facts about you and me that now exist in giant server banks. Here’s an example of what it could look like: A U.S. musician called Vienna Teng has composed and recorded a song called The Hymn of Acxiom, a melancholy, almost liturgical choral piece, about data collection. Its point of view is that of the giant marketing database company Acxiom, the U.S.-based multinational that stores personal information about millions of people. Its lines – sung by eerily machined voices – include: “Somebody hears you. you know that ... Someone is learning the colours of all your moods, to (say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood. Here you’re known. Leave your life open ... You don’t have to hide. Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these mindless decisions and moments you long forgot. Keep them all. Let our formulas find your soul ...”

That’s art that’s rhetorical rather than confessional, and yet it too is about the sharing of secret behaviours. It is not about nefarious secret police but about the transactions that we all consent to, eagerly, daily. And the openness that is the hallmark of this age, a transparency that is shared by a lot of good people, just not by the genuinely destructive stalker, who thrives in darkness.

 

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