As I work my way through the pre-2016 TBR, it’s inevitable that I find links and connections between the books that are vying for my attention. This post finds two books highlighting the perils of our digital age – it doesn’t get more zeitgeisty than that.
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve been Publicly Shamed was the first book I bought during the 2015 TBR Double Dog Dare, with the intention of reading it immediately thereafter. …. One year later and here I am. Just consider this a slightly more timeous review of the paperback release. (31.12.2015)
Now, while I love my little corner of the internet, it is because I keep myself very much in that bookish corner. I decided when setting up this blog, that the remit of my internet presence would be literature and nothing but. And so it has been for nine years now (give or take a couple of minor slips), and I don’t regret that for a minute. I can be a pretty plain speaker in real life (I’m Lancastrian, after all) and, I do sometimes land my un-PC foot in hot water (particularly in e-mails where my tone and black humour are not always discerned by the reader.)
If that were to happen on the internet, it would be like having a cauldron of hot oil poured all over me.
Ronson also uses a medieval analogy: punishment in the stocks – a public, but localised shaming. The stocks, he argues, have been replaced by the internet, primarily twitter. However, the ramifications of an ill-advised tweet or selfie cannot be compared. A tweet like that can go global in a couple of hours; vitriol, scorn and hatred heaped upon the tweeter and, depending and whether one’s employer feels that they are sullied by association, livelihoods can be lost. The damage to one’s reputation and the psychological scars from the fallout can take years to heal.
Ronson demonstrates with two recent and very well-known cases. In both instances no defense of the initial tweet/selfie is possible. But can the resultant hounding by anonymous on-line bullies and the inevitable shattering of reputations and confidence be justified? Thankfully, because, in my opinion, no-one deserves that for a single moment of lunacy, both ladies have since regained a measure of self-worth, sufficient to allow Ronson to use their cases in his book. Their rehabilitation, however, needed legislative support through Right to Forget, and the technical expertise of internet gurus to reprogram their internet personas. Their experiences have made Ronson rethink his own online behaviour – he freely admits to having participated in such virtual lynchings in the past (although he’s not specific about which ones.)
Ronson’s scope is greater than I have indicated. There are examples of professional fraudsters, uncovered through internet research and some very seedy goings-on on the West Coast of America. The genesis of the book came when Ronson’s identity was spoofed on twitter and he couldn’t persuade those responsible to stop it – not until he harnessed the ire of the twitterati to fight and win his cause for him. Public shaming isn’t always bad, then , and we can all name cases when public institutions have changed course, once the public have responded en outraged masse to their nefarious decisions.
And yet, for individuals, danger and harm can be just a tweet away.
Food for thought, isn’t it? Be careful what you post, tweet and, if you’re being silly, make sure there are no smartphones around. And yet, is discretion enough in our post-Snowden world?
Patrick Flanery’s third novel I am No-One answers that question with a resounding negative.
Professor Jeremy O’Keefe teaches history at Oxford. His divorced wife and daughter remain behind in the States, and, he never really integrates into the academic life of his environment. His relationships with other women are fleeting at best. He’s a bit dull, if truth be told. Then, one day – out of the blue – he is told to ensure that a certain candidate is accepted into the college. It turns out that the candidate stands on her own merits – or, at least he kids himself that she does. The episode serves to show him that other forces and agendas exist outside his own intellectual bubble, and it is the beginning of a series of events that brings O’Keefe to the attention of the security forces.
Not that O’Keefe realises. He remains oblivious through his Oxford years. The rude awakening arrives, once he has returned to the States, when he receives boxes of paper records detailing his phone, email and browsing histories. At the same time, there are multiple chance, but uneasy, encounters with a man who claims to be an ex-student. Professor O’Keefe has no memory of the man and begins to doubt his sanity. So does his family.
At this point he begins to write his story, this narrative, trying to work out what he did to warrant this gross invasion of his privacy? It’s not a quick read because the Professor is a pedant and he loves long, complex sentences full of erudite literary and historical references. It takes concentration and lots of patience to stay with him but eventually he divulges his secret. Is it something that deserves what appears to be an over-reaction on the part of the intelligence services? Not really, and yet I understand why it does.
The irony is that O’Keefe specialises in East German history and cinema. Having spent years studying a communist surveillance state, he now finds himself victimised (?) by Western surveillance. I question the word victimised because at one point a suspicion grew in me that O’Keefe was being selective in his telling. Then I was persuaded to take his narrative at face value. In the first instance, by the title. While I wouldn’t describe O’Keefe as an average Joe, he is an ordinary man, living a private existence. Flanery’s point about the paranoia of Western governments and the naïvety of their citizenry would be lost were O’Keefe something other than that. Then there is the decision on the final page. He is about to go public with the skeleton in his closet.
In view of the experiences in Ronson’s book, I fear for him …….