Friday, September 28, 2007

Any Words Leave You Silly or Sore?

I can sum up my last six weeks by something my husband said at the beginning: "The word 'NICU' should never be in anyone's vocabulary." Our son, now home and healthy, was born seven weeks early and spent a month in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

The nurses and doctors were beyond amazing; they make me believe in humanity again. But my reaction now to the word NICU is an interesting one--half shrinking, horrified fear, and half grateful, hopeful desire.

There are other words or names that have these sorts of effects. There are two particular male names that make me almost physically ill, due to the manner in which I encountered them in childhood (no, not the way you think). The words "guppie" and "mug" always bring a smile to my face, evoking as they do my first year of college and my beloved, crazy roommate. "Perspicacity" brings to mind, simultaneously, tentative ambition with the memory of a strict and admired high school English teacher, and slight shame, as it came up in a bad Piers Anthony novel that shouldn't have interested me so much.

If I dredged my mind, I'm sure I could come up with plenty of other examples--words with such strong emotional impact that they almost count as a significant relationship. Anyone else find their reaction to various words less than objective?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Stealing Publicy

Everybody knows about privacy. Privacy is the ability to keep things private. It is the thing you respect when you do not talk publicly about things that were done privately. Public and private are, in this context, opposites. So what should publicy mean? Does a swap do it?

Nobody knows about publicy. Publicy is the ability to keep things public. It is the thing you respect when you do not talk privately about things that were done publicly. No, a swap makes things muddy.

Because we adopted the wrong statements about privacy?

Privacy is the ability to control what things about ourselves are private. It is respected by not usurping the control of the private space from the individual. Public and private are, in this context, very similar. Now what happens with a swap?

Publicy is the ability to control what things about ourselves are public. It is respected by not usurping the control of the public space from the individual. A swap now works.

A definition of publicy has already been offered, going back as far as 1998: "the response from public institutions a private person is able to elicit." M. Veldboer is credited. Doc Searls took a crack at it, starting by wondering what the opposite of privacy would be. He talks of private enterprise of private ownership, of public spaces, of commons. All very good. And private and public have these connotations in some contexts, so fine. But the context I have given is fundamental to the contexts that Searls gave. His public spaces are European coffee shops and pubs, where people have public life.

How fundamental?

I grew up in New England. Oh, yes, the dreaded place of puritans and witch trials, of blue laws and dunking stools. But also the place of commons, of commonwealth, of town meetings. Of the publicy that Searls dreams. Think about what people did in those days to enter the public space: They dressed according to the way they wished to be perceived (in early New England days, that would be brown, grey, white, or black, anything else was indulging in the pleasures of the senses). They would go to the public forum at which they wished to be perceived, the commons, Buckman's tavern, the church, the market. They would say what they wished to be heard, a speech, a sermon, a raucous discussion, a sales pitch.

They participated in the public space, they had a public aspect, they controlled that public aspect. Without that control, their participation in public activity would be difficult, and lead to detrimental results. This happened in Salem, where rumors became edits on the persona of people in the public space, where past actions were replayed with new meaning, and finally, where people were hung.

So before you can have a functioning commons, a public space where people have publicy, as Searls and Veldboer define it, you need publicy as an aspect of an individual that is controlled by that individual, and respected by others.

The first people whose publicy began to be infringed were the Hollywood stars. And you can see very important aspects of the concept in the long-term study of their public persona: They exist at many different public ages simultaneously: We can watch Road To Perdition, and then Cool Hand Luke, and Paul Newman has two simultaneously different ages and appearances. In real life this would bother us immensely (look at what we think of, say, Count Dracula), and it still has remnants of this uncomfortableness when you see a picture in the obits of a person in their prime that you knew more recently. They can't transform: Marilyn Monroe is believed by many to have commit suicide over being unable to shed a sexpot image and be appreciated as a serious actress -- regardless of, say, the difficult role played in "Some Like It Hot", or her association with the power elite. They have no privacy: They are public figures, so hanging around their backyards with cameras is tolerated at the supermarket checkout counter. They can cheat aging by dying: Monroe, but also JFK and Jimi Hendrix, are forever young because no new pictures can be taken, and they are picture people. This last dates back a long way, Abraham Lincoln has only two ages, with and without the beard.

But the same is true in these figures as of the puritans at Salem: infringement of their right to publicy resulting from restructuring public facts to support rumors or to support slurs, or to alter the impression they would make in a public space, can build to a maliciousness that destroys them, destroys their careers, in some cases destroys or ends their lives.

Now to datamining. As our own lives, those of ordinary citizens, those of We the People, become more and more like those of celebrities of the 20th century, infringement becomes more useful, becomes more general, and begins to look like the things Magna Cartas and Constitutions were fought for. A new concept appears, necessary to the world of Doc Searls, the world of the European café. Before everyone in the world becomes a public figure, and all information is fair game, it is time to talk about the equivalent of Fourth Amendment rights for the public space. The right to reasonable protections against infringements of our publicy. At the very least, it should, when placed back into the world of our ancestors, become the protection of one's ability to present the image they wished to present in public -- even if the public refused to accept that image or called them out on it in public.

In the 18th century, you had the right (unrecognized because it seemed inevitable) to put on the clothes you wished to be seen in, check yourself in the mirror, head out the door to the place you wished to be heard, pick the kind of soapbox you wished to stand on in the commons, and deliver the speech you wanted to deliver -- regardless of whether you got drunk twenty years before. Only after you had been granted that right to non-infringement of your publicy did public criticism, laughter, derision, tomatoes, eggs, and the rest follow.

In the 21st century, you have the right to put on the clothes you wish to be seen in, check yourself in the mirror, write the resume that highlights the accomplishments you wish to be examined, practice your responses to questions and your explanations of the ideas you've had, go to the interview -- and find you have been datamined: that the human resources department has called people it Googled on the Internet, not the references you gave them, that they know how much your medical expenses cost in the past ten years, and have a picture of you at a party when you were in high school. Your publicy has been infringed, because nobody knows you have such a thing, and nobody worries about infringing it.

So I am stealing publicy. It makes more sense as the basis for a right to publicy, paralleling a right to privacy, than as an opposite, defining an effect. And the enshrining of this right, preferably in the same document as the right to privacy, would make possible the world that Doc Searls envisions. Because people have a hard time participating in the public life of a café if they can't be certain who they are when they walk in.