Privacy in the Global Village, Part 2
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WHEN YOU WORK in a village, especially a wired, global e-village, the temptation to gossip runs 24/7: There's that bitter email from a client you could forward...if you chose; that industry blogger you could feed...if you felt like it; that list of websites visited by your co-worker, right at your fingertips. Technology has made it easy to become a fishwife. A single click will do it. <p> Lately, I've been reading folktales about gossips from old-fashioned villages. You know, farmers whispering at the town well or spinsters listening at the kitchen window. Medieval villagers devoted a vast literature to gossips– and I can tell you, they always met dark and unexpected fates: found at the bottoms of moats, swept away in sudden storms, or losing key moving parts of their mouths. <p> Me, I remember the first day I dipped my toe in the village moat. <p> In the early nineties, I helped run a small high tech company. The internet was new, and like other managers at the time, we worried that "surfing would kill productivity." So, when we hooked up the T-1 Line, we told the employees we'd monitor their usage, and asked them to sign documents giving up all rights of privacy. <p> It was my job to creep into my office, install the monitoring software, and lock my door. <p> Suddenly, bang, I could call up a window and see all the web usage of everyone in the company. I could punch in an employee, say "Petey," a nice twentysomething geek, and instantly I'd be watching exactly what Petey was watching on his web browser. Like some wingèd demon out of some medieval woodcut, I found myself sitting on Petey's shoulder. I could follow him through dumb joke repositories. I could fly with him as he browsed pages of extravagant pornography. <p> In another window, I could read Petey's email as it passed back and forth across the ether. If I chose, I could track his arguments with coworkers, or his long, bitter dialogs with his girlfriend. <p> Occasionally, I'm sure he did use his browser for work. <p> The web monitor was as fascinating and terrifying as anything out of Faust or Heironymous Bosch, but soon – even though it was my job – I couldn't stand having that much knowledge about fellow human beings. I couldn't meet Petey's eye in conference rooms and forget those flights on his shoulder. After a month, I quietly uninstalled the monitoring software, took a shower, and tried hard to forget about the whole awful, if perfectly legal experience. <p> Since then, technology has, well...improved. Voice software now makes it possible to digitize and catalog employee phone calls. Storage arrays keep every thoughtless comment you ever forwarded from your office computer...forever. In fact, the legal environment makes that almost mandatory. In a recent court case, I hear that 40 attorneys spent six months combing 20 million company emails. I suppose that work cost even attorneys some small part of their souls. <p> In my reading, I discovered that old-fashioned villages had far more sophisticated "information management" systems than us. Jews wrote whole books about who could tell what to whom. Muslims worked out strict codes. Ministers railed. And in Pilgrim towns, the local gossip could find himself fitted with an iron cage over his head for a week. <p> The Urban Man knows there's more than enough Medievalism loose in the world just now. But still, I wonder if soon we'll begin hearing dark urban tales about nosy network managers and internet gossips – fables about dark and unexpected fates in the global e-village. <p> Me, I swear I've thrown away my little demon wings. <p> Copyright © 2004 Marc Porter Zasada, All Rights Reserved. <br>
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