Life before a watching world: introduction

You might think, given the title of this post, that I am about to write something about Christians living a visibly upright life. And that idea will come into play at various points along the line. But what leads me to write this post is a more general thought, namely that in this modern age it has become dramatically less likely that any of our actions or conversations will remain private. Stated so bluntly, that thought may be a scary one. But I think that is because we haven’t reflected much on privacy or its importance in our lives, and so I’d like to raise a few questions about privacy that have lately occurred to me. It will probably take me a few posts to cover them all.

Many of the questions spring from the reigning ethic of the moment: let no thought go unblogged. Or, more generally, anything you say or do is of potential interest to the world and as such should be recorded for later consumption by the public. Blogs started it, but the idea has spread in tandem with the technologies that make it possible, podcasting and YouTube and Flickr and MySpace and Twitter and Facebook. I’m having a hard time zeroing in on what motives unify this development, if any, but one practical result is that we are now engaged in crafting online versions of ourselves for others to consider.

In itself, I suppose there is nothing wrong with this. I’m not impressed with the idea that we have a true or natural self that is separate from the different public (and even private) selves we exhibit in different situations. I think that idea is generally used to deflect responsibility for the things that those constructed personas (personae?) do and say. Better to see those selves as just one self behaving differently in response to the circumstances at hand. And so an online persona would be just one more persona, deliberately constructed and shaped according to one’s online circumstances.

But as we construct a persona there is always the temptation to misrepresent for the sake of various unworthy goals—to make ourselves more attractive, to chuckle over the gullibility of others, to gain some advantage real or imagined. We have enough experience with people’s real life behavior to help protect us from these things in that arena (and these are definitely learned skills—I spend a lot of time teaching my own children about them as we discuss the behavior of people we encounter), but cyberspace has put a whole new set of tools at our disposal, tools whose use we aren’t all that familiar with, tools that can easily be wielded against us because lack of experience with them makes us credulous.

There is also the danger of doing damage to the reputations of others, intentionally or not, by publishing information about them that could be misinterpreted or misused. The techniques for controlling the spread of information that work in real life do not work very well on the internet, and in fact new techniques may be needed to speak kindly and thoughtfully in the new social contexts that the internet has created

As fraught with danger as cyberspace can be, I am strangely encouraged by the challenge that it presents to Christians, because I see it as an opportunity to set a thoughtful, coherent example for others. If it is true that Western civilization is livable because of its Christian foundations, because Christendom produced and stored up ample seed corn that a declining culture continues to sustain itself with, then perhaps Christians might minister to a fallen world by figuring out what it means to be civil in cyberspace, what protocols and habits and kindnesses are needed that online neighbors might live together peaceably. For if not Christians, then who?

As I’ve thought through various questions about how to live a visibly righteous life in cyberspace, I’ve come to a few conclusions, some more tentative than others, none of them definitive, all of them personal. In subsequent posts I will describe some of the ways I try to behave; I offer them not as standards I think you should adopt, but as examples that might spur you to think further about the issues they address.

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