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Am I The Worst For Looking at Other People's Texts on the Subway?

Q: I Catch Myself Peeking at Other People’s Texts on the Subway. Am I the Worst?

A: Imagine being eaten by a cave bear. Or a saber-toothed cat. Imagine, with that first gash of claw or incisor, instantaneously transitioning from being a person to being food. Imagine what it feels like, the first, dangling bits of you being rent apart, ground up and ingested, while the rest of you watches.

Very unpleasant stuff. And yet for much of human history we lived acutely under such a threat. Just think how hard it must have been to relax! If prehistoric humans were anything like modern animals, one way they fended off predators was by vigilantly monitoring the creatures around them for signs of danger, in case they saw the terror coming a split-second sooner.

There were subtler benefits to watching other people too—particularly when they didn’t expect us to be watching. Keeping tabs on private behavior helped enforce social norms; food hoarding or sexual transgressions could be exposed and censured. In short, spying helped us thrive, and so we became exceptionally good at it, innovating like crazy. (Apparently, the Mehinaku tribe in Central Brazil can tell who had sex with whom by identifying the footprints that accompany butt-cheek imprints in the sand.) We became, as one psychologist has put it, a species of “informavores”—a surreptitiously symbiotic race of hyper-­obtrusives, sucking up information about one another. Our business has always been getting up in each other’s business.

This was all upended 10,000 to 15,000 years ago when human beings started living behind walls. But the impulse to know what was happening on the other side of those walls remained. So we stood outside, under the “eavesdrop,” where rain spilled off the roof, and collected what information we could. We just couldn’t help ourselves. As John Locke, a linguist at Lehman College at City University of New York, writes, “If we are to find out the answer to humankind’s most important questions—who we are—it is necessary to know what others are like.”

I learned all this from Locke’s book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History. Years ago, Locke was editing a draft of the book on a flight to London and a woman nosed over her headrest to ask what it was about; she’d been snooping. Locke met her gaze and explained that his book “concerned the intense desire of members of our species to know what is going on in the personal lives of others.”

At first I imagined him delivering that line as a sick burn—subtext: Mind your own business, lady. But Locke told me he wasn’t particularly put out. The woman didn’t seem all that guilt-ridden, either; after all, she volunteered that she’d been spying on him.

Certainly, some violations of privacy are more aggressive, heartless, and immoral than others. (Reading a text over someone’s shoulder on the subway is different from hacking into their email.) The immorality of eavesdropping also depends on the intimacy of the information you end up gleaning, which of course you have no way of knowing until after you glean it. An excruciating paradox!

And yet, I took the point of Locke’s airplane story to be, as he explained it, that eavesdropping is pretty bilateral—there’s an understanding that “you eavesdrop on me now, I eavesdrop on you later, and neither of us can claim to be innocent.” We grasp that eavesdropping is mostly harmless, because we know everyone is doing it. As the other John Locke is often paraphrased, “We are like chameleons. We take our hue and the color of our moral character from those who are around us.”

So are you the worst? I can only answer by saying you are human like the rest of us. We are all informational predators. We are also all informational prey. I’d only ask that you bear that in mind and be careful not to abuse any power or privilege that the illicit knowledge affords you. Keep your eyes open—fine. But keep your claws retracted.


This article appears in the December issue. Subscribe now.


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