For the past decade, experts have been absorbed in a debate about the impact of digital technology on the brain, child development, education, commerce, publishing, the arts, law -- in other words, in nearly every corner of human experience. As a psychologist and novelist, my own concerns have centered on the concept of privacy: how the combination of social media -- Facebook pictures of births, Instagram photos of drunken teens, tweeted insults and arguments -- and a memoir-centric culture alter the boundaries between public and private realms, making porous the depth metaphor used to distinguish outer and inner lives, a distinction that a generation ago was a cornerstone of what it meant to be human.
In a recent essay in a New York Times column titled -- ironically, to my ear --"Private Lives," a woman discussed her "virginity" at age 35:
"I like being naked with boyfriends. I've happily taken on a dominatrix role, and men have enjoyed it."
She's had orgasms, she writes, flown to Chicago for a weekend with an ex-boyfriend that "was richly romantic and sexual, but masochistic in so many ways... I never wanted someone so badly..."
Shocking as this bodice ripper account would have been to readers of a serious newspaper just 20 years ago, it has become our cultural bread and butter, all of us now acclimated to accounts of the sexual exploits of our politicians, bare-all reality shows, tabloid covers about celebrity cellulite.
On closer look, though, what the essay underscores is how something that seems so elemental about human psychology -- the very notion of privacy -- is utterly conditioned by historical and cultural contexts. Victorian inhibitions and mores may loom as the embodiment of a distinctively different past, but, in fact, for much of history and indeed for a great many contemporary peoples, families have lived in one room without indoor plumbing. What does privacy mean for adults who have intercourse in the same room where their parents and children are sleeping? What do "private parts" mean in cultures where bodies are largely bared? What does privacy mean now when anything can be found on the cloud or in print?
Infants, current theory and research suggest, cannot reliably distinguish between internal and external stimulation, between self and other, or between fantasy and reality. The capacity to keep a secret, to tell a lie, to feel shame are in contemporary Western societies viewed as important developments in the first three years of life. This development made sense in the world in which I was raised in the '60s with a ladder between public and private. For children of that era, there was information we could tell anyone, and then information that was "private," not to be shared outside the family. There were goings on that were kept from the children, and goings on shared just with a best friend. As an adult, there were thoughts and feelings told only to a therapist, and then thoughts and feelings deemed too shameful to share with anyone. For the shrinking number who still read literary novels, the depiction of a topography of human interaction is prized: that which is said vs. that which is thought, that which is enacted vs. that which is felt. For those who still abide by psychoanalytic theory, there are experiences we don't even allow ourselves to know: repressed events and forbidden thoughts that transform into symptoms.
Before cellphones, a walk in the park traversed an intermediary realm between public and private -- an opportunity to pursue one's own thoughts, but with the small smiles and nods that create moments of connection with a passerby. Now, with half of passersby talking and gesticulating into the speakers attached to their earbuds, a walk in the park can feel like the obliteration not only of privacy but of humanity -- the creation of an as-if world, as if we, the fellow occupants of the pathways, don't exist, don't hear the fights and love affairs broadcast around us, as if we are indistinguishable from the benches and lampposts.
This lament is not intended as a knee-jerk critique of technology or wet-eyed nostalgia for a mythic golden age when grandpa was as laconic as a doorpost or grandma too prudish to discuss anything beyond her needlepoint. When my grandfather left Eastern Europe at 15, he never again saw or spoke with his parents or any of his siblings. Now, migrants from all over the world can talk or Skype with family members left behind in villages that don't have running water. Political movements can ignite with nary a dime. What is history but the story of countless consciousness-altering changes, technological and conceptual: the printing press, the sail, the steam engine; democracy, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis? Whatever term we use to describe human experience -- inner life, the subjective world -- in reality, it has changed not only vis a vis the concept of privacy but is in every way always in flux.
Still, I can't help wondering what will it will feel like to be human a century from now. Will we cease having secrets, cease feeling shame? Will technologically driven changes in human consciousness liberate us or push us towards an Orwellian world? Will there by secret subversives who handwrite their private thoughts in diaries with little silver keys rather than storing them in the cloud? Without a ladder between public and private life, when every impulse and feeling is blogged and tweeted, will novels still have interior monologues, will neuroses exist?
What I do know is that I remain grateful to walk across the park without anything piped into my head, to have a ladder between public and private, a cache of thoughts and experiences sequestered to the most private rung, not published or broadcast or deposited anywhere.