I was careening downhill from Horsetooth Reservoir on my bike last weekend, leaning into the curve, but maintaining speed to help with the next climb, when a large sign caught my eye. It was plain and brown, declaring that the town I had almost missed at the base of the hill was called Stout, Colorado. More importantly, the citizens of Stout wanted everyone passing by to know that they had a population of 47 and a half individuals. My curiosity was so great, that I braked, losing all that precious momentum, and turned around to go back and look at the sign. What exactly accounted for half a person? Was someone imminently pregnant (or at the very least, twenty weeks of gestation and counting), did the town designate kids of a certain age as only half a citizen, or was it simply some quirk, particular to Stout? Whatever the rationale was, it was obvious to me they wanted people to know about it.
That’s because it is human nature to share what is going on in our lives, the reason why social media websites are incredibly popular. Otherwise, why would I find it so important to post pictures of my new shoes on Instagram, or display a pretty sunset? People don’t live in caves. We are social animals. Where a problem arises is when we believe our privacy is being unnecessarily intruded upon.
My friend Jackie texted me the other day, to pose a question. She was conducting a bit of market research, and was curious as to my choice of phone book.
“I think I know what those are,” I replied. “At least, we used to have a few lying around here. They were near the rotary dial telephone. I might have tossed them.”
She sighed (well, we were texting, but I could tell by the spaces in her response that it was a sigh). The whole point of her research was to help her decide whether or not to advertise her business (dog sitting) in any of the three phone books in our area. She said that the old standby’s, Dex and Yellowbook, were cutting back on residential listings, which was upsetting the residents whose listings were being cut. It used to be, she reminded me, that you had to pay to be unlisted. Nowadays, you would have to pay for inclusion.
When I read about all the recent hullabaloo over the National Security Agency’s massive trawling program to collect the phone records of millions of citizens, all I can think is how privacy went out the window with paper phonebooks, which nobody uses anymore because they don’t provide enough information, you can’t click on them to take you to the next link, and (ironically), are too bulky for easy handling. The concept of thumbing through a phonebook to find an acquaintance’s number has become as outmoded as the rotary telephone.
Back in high school, we had three telephones in my parents’ house. There was the communal one in the kitchen, a wall mount. There was a desk phone in the family room (and it looked suspicious if you took a call in there, because what was there to talk about that couldn’t be overheard), and one in my parents’ bedroom, which was off limits. Jackie had grown up with the same number of phones, and she recalled that if the chord to the wall jack wasn’t long enough, she was stuck in the same room as the phone. I told her how I would wrap the cord around the wall into the hallway, which eventually rubbed the paint off that corner. My mom wasn’t happy with me about that.
These days, there is little privacy online, what with data-mining by our own government, and the cookies collected by Google, Verizon and Apple. That’s only the beginning, when you take into consideration that every purchase we make, every picture we take, is recorded, if not for posterity, then for someone else’s profit. Those Smartphones are smart, because they can track our every move. Researchers in Japan seek to mine our dreams, to make sense of the very most private aspects of our selves, using MRI and EEG readings from machines ostensibly designed to detect medical maladies, and algorithms which spot fraudulent credit card purchases. It’s true that the subjects of this study volunteered their services, and yet, this is one step closer to mind reading. Google Glass is a fascinating new product, but makes me wonder, if I can see the Internet through Google’s glasses, is it interactive? Can the glasses track what I think? And even if this is a sci-fi chimera, there is no question that Glass, which has already been banned in a number of business establishments, bars, and Las Vegas casinos, is incredibly intrusive.
When you think on it, “giving up a little liberty is something we agree to when we agree to live in a democratic society that is governed by laws.” There is an enormous difference between the desire for safety from potential terrorist activities, and the opportunity to video that cute blonde in the cut-out T-shirt while she unknowingly quaffs a pint of Guinness in your local hangout.
We live in a world different from that of Stout, where there were a couple hundred or so men quarrying sandstone in the 1880’s and ’90’s. The stone was used to construct sidewalks in Denver, and in Omaha, Nebraska. It also provided stone for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair buildings. Back then, the town hosted the area’s largest Fourth of July celebration (over 800 present!), and was a seat of education and a forum for robust debate. Stout is now an official ghost town, its consequence a memory. There are still people who live there, who want us to know they exist, that there are 47 1/2 individuals who call Stout home. They officially declare it, on a simple, wooden signpost, for anyone to see.
That sign, the one which made me stop in my tracks, losing all the great pedal power so I could endure a grueling uphill segment of my ride, made me think. It’s not a big deal to have someone watching over you. Unless, you have something to hide.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.