Review: On The End of Privacy by Richard E. Miller

On September 22nd, 2010, a student from Rutgers University logged onto Facebook and wrote what would later become the most widely read suicide note of all time:

jumping off the gw bridge sorry

This is where On The End of Privacy begins. Not only with the tragic story of Tyler Clementi whose words traveled out into the world, amplified by the limitless power of social networks after his death, but of his roommate, Dharun Ravi, who used a webcam to spy on Clementi and another man, inviting anyone on Twitter to do the same; an act that many argue spurred Clementi to step off into the dark.

Richard E. Miller, a professor in the English Department at Rutgers, first set out to learn about the world his students are living in, a screen-centric one. The result? An entire book diving into the corners of the internet, demonstrating the differences between similar events in history and the results in a paper-world vs. the one we’re living in now. With Clementi and Ravi as a starting point, Miller uncovers what it means to be living in a world where anyone can hide behind a screen but anything, once written on a screen, can’t be hidden.

In a style mimicking the way information is actually conveyed on the internet, with paragraphs and snippets jumping back and forth between events happening simultaneously or somehow connected through time, Miller takes his readers inside what shaped our very recent history: Abu Ghraib photographs, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, Gawkers’ rise and fall, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, Monika Lewinsky, TIME’s 2010 person of the year: Mark Zuckerberg, WikiLeaks, Chatroulette, Julian Assange and more. Approaching such a wide breadth of topics with incredible attention to detail and the minutia that may be forgotten, Miller demonstrates that nothing is lost anymore. Each event that comes and goes is somehow connected through the strings of the web, solidified there, and perhaps always will be.

At one point, Miller introduces a term used by Freud often equated with being curious or becoming an onlooker: “shaulustige”. In other words, someone who doesn’t turn away. And while this book points a finger at our voyeuristic culture, underlining all of the places where people like Clementi’s roommate, Ravi, should have looked away, it also draws us in and turns us into participants in the culture of “shaulustige” ourselves. There’s something incredibly eerie about seeing copies of tweets, chatroom dialogue, text messages and other digital communication recorded on screens surrounding all of these historic events laid bare on a paper page. We can’t look, but we can’t look away.

Miller found that even Zuckerberg was surprised at first with how far the curiosity of a human being could take someone. After creating facemash.com, a website placing Harvard student photos side by side with each other and even animal photos, giving others the chance to vote on who is more attractive, Zuckerberg was interviewed to see what he learned from this idea, even though he was forced to shut it down by the school. What he discovered was this: “People are more voyeuristic than what I would have thought.”

My guess is you’ll be reading this review on a screen which is the same way I wrote it. It may get shared on Facebook, Twitter, even Instagram. My name will be attached to it all and, at first, it seems not to matter. I’m simply writing a few words and sending them out into the ether to either be read or ignored. Yet, The End of Privacy makes me consider what I’m connected with, what my name is attached to. It is a call to action to think a little bit more carefully not only about what we are putting out into the world around us, but how we are letting it shape us in return.

Miller says, “What it means to be human is changing because everything that can be seen and everything that can be put into words can now be instantly shared on screens the world over.” It’s undeniable: the presence of pixelated ideas. Now we just have to learn how to operate within this realm, what thoughts to share and what ones to keep in our head, and how to continually push into the unknown through creative methods when it seems that everything is known, sitting just a click away.

 

About the author

Charlee Dyroff is a writer from Colorado pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia.

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