A Violin Requiem for Privacy

October 07, 2010

By all accounts, Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers freshman who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate streamed a video of him having a sexual encounter with another man, followed appropriate—in retrospect, perhaps old-fashioned—dorm etiquette. To avoid surprises, the shy music major would ask to have the room to himself for specified blocks of time when he planned an intimate meeting. But etiquette, or even Netiquette, is overrated in our digital culture, and a promise of privacy holds no water if you live in a post-privacy world. "Roommate asked for the room till midnight," Dharun Ravi, the roommate, tweeted before streaming the first video live. "I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Two days later, Ravi's 148 followers on Twitter received another message: "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again."

The exposed young violinist was made suicidal because of a critical byproduct of our time: The small inviolate zone of privacy that we all need, and that is absolutely crucial to our psychological equilibrium, has now become virtually impossible to maintain. The greatest minds in the field of human development have stressed the importance of individuation, a process by which people achieve and maintain psychological stability by separating themselves from others. Erik Erikson placed individuation ahead of social success as a barometer of health. For him, mature involvement with another person can happen only when someone is comfortably autonomous and happy in his relationship with himself.

Carl Jung saw individuation as the person's fortress against the weight of group mentality and group demands. It is at least as important to be oneself—that is, to be separate—as it is to belong: Individuation is, in general, "the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology." Jung went on to describe individuation as "a natural necessity inasmuch as its prevention by leveling down to collective standards is injurious to the vital activity of the individual."

That "natural necessity" assumes certain safeguards that protect confidentiality, such as the basic assumption that a private sexual moment will not be easy to tape, and, if it is taped, will not be easy to broadcast. Psychological autonomy means being able to keep your personhood to yourself and dole out the pieces as you see fit, sharing yourself with people you think are worthy and with whom you want to form a special bond. It has been said that privacy is in part a form of self-possession. You don't truly possess your "self" if you don't have custody of the facts of your life, whether your Social Security number or your salary and sexual biography. Yet, with so many of our "facts" now readily available online for anyone to Google, then cc and bcc around or stream live, control over our personal business has become a chimerical goal—and so, perhaps, has that important task of individuating.

Nothing is confidential in today's world. Parents regularly invade their children's Facebook accounts (often for good reason); children read their parents' e-mail (my 8-year-old niece easily figured out that her nickname is her mother's Hotmail password). Our genealogy is public knowledge—just bring up your family tree on Suspicious spouses install "keyloggers" on their partners' computers to track their keystrokes, and, therefore, their Web whereabouts. Blind dates are no longer blind, because they involve the requisite pre-date Google search, And the boss has access to everything that goes through the server at work. Everybody is, or everybody can easily be, in everybody else's business. To Erikson and Jung, this would look like development in reverse.

Possessing personal information is a source of power. When Clementi lost the right to withhold that information, he was weakened in the eyes of his roommate and his roommate's Twitter followers and Facebook friends, who now possessed it against his wishes.

One can make a long list of the ways in which the virtual revolution has made us feel empowered. At the top of that list is probably the ability to quickly gain access to information about anything or anyone. But if we pause—even briefly—between searches to consider how we no longer control our own personal information, we may feel distinctly disempowered—and that realization can be tragically destabilizing. Tyler Clementi paid the ultimate price, but none of us are immune to the ravages of being forced to live a public life.

Elias Aboujaoude is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University. His next book, Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, will be published by W.W. Norton in February.