No secrets, no shame: How technology forces honesty

the upside of our eroded privacy polygraph lying
I once saw a human lie detector perform at a conference – one of those guys who can call a dozen people up on stage and match them up with the objects that belong to them, or even “deduce ” their email passwords. He wasn’t doing magic, of course, but simply reading the cues and tells we all give one another all the time. As any gate investigator on Israel’s national airline knows – and its security record attests – our bodies give us away.

If we really do make subtle micro-gestures that betray ourselves to one another, then we must, on some level recognize those signs in others. Sure, some con-men and actors have gotten really good at masking their dishonesty or misdirecting our attention. But many of us have gotten really good at missing the signals we don’t want to see, or lying to ourselves about someone’s truthfulness against our own better judgment.

I can’t help but wonder if the net is simply breaking the illusion of secrecy we’ve been working under all along.

Subconsciously, anyway, we all pretty much always know when the other is lying. At best, all we do by lying is add noise to the signal, trigger alarm bells in the other person’s unconscious defense mechanisms, and push people away from us in the long run. So why bother to lie at all? Whatever it is we think we’re hiding, everyone already knows, at least deep down.

In an age when well-founded fears of government or corporate invasions of our privacy loom, I can’t help but wonder if the net is simply breaking the illusion of secrecy we’ve been working under all along. The abuses of our private information notwithstanding, could we be looking at a larger shift toward greater honesty?

Nothing to be ashamed of

Don’t get me wrong: It sucks that companies and agencies pore through our data, and sort it algorithmically to predict our future choices before we know them ourselves. Our social-media feeds steer us toward the paths most consistent with our big-data consumer profiles, reducing our spontaneity and manipulating us away from individual agency and unpredictable outcomes.

But the other side of the dynamic is that in order to get us to acquiesce to all this exposure, the sorts of things we are ashamed or afraid to disclose become less aberrant. Hell, marijuana is becoming legal. Gay people are allowed to get married. Transgender kids are getting bathroom rights in high school. How many people who were once afraid of what their email archives or web searches reveal to law enforcement or future employers can now say, “What do I have to hide? Pot’s not a crime, anymore.”

And as we’ve been reminded once again over the past few weeks, digital technology exposes abuses by individual police officers as well as systemic bias. There’s just no hiding anymore.

Internet as Uni-Mind

In the earliest days of the net, I remember young ravers telling me that the internet was itself just the clumsy precursor to the real connection we would one day experience through telepathy and other evolutionary advances. By their logic, the exposures we’re contending with today – whether it’s your girlfriend seeing that email to your ex, or your employer finding out you smoke pot – won’t be matters of technological surveillance. That’ll just be how things are when we’re all truly connected.

No, we’re probably not evolving toward an organically shared, telepathic “uni-mind” anytime soon. In fact, what these optimistic young net enthusiasts were imagining may actually be closer to an honesty we experienced long ago – before our media gave us so many opportunities to obfuscate the truth, hide from one another, and lose the intimacy we shared.

mr robot
One episode of Mr. Robot illustrates how a dearth of privacy can actually bring people together.

Before the invention of writing, for example, people could communicate only face to face. To lie to someone in person is a whole lot harder, on many levels, than writing a false note. While communication could be extended through time and space, it no longer had the interpersonal reinforcement of one’s spoken promise. It was more a matter of the law, and how to get around it.

Likewise, the printing press changed people’s once unquestioning relationship to the word of God and the actions of government. Ads on radio and television sold mythologies and pitched lifestyles that were unattainable lies. To accomplish this, these media alienate us from one another and ourselves.

The net offers to do the opposite: reveal truths. And while at first these may be crude truths like political scandals or illegal acts, those might actually be easier to deal with than the personal truths we hide from one another. Think honestly for a minute. How devastating would it be for certain people in your life to know all the secrets your online activities could tell them? And at the same time, this very fear is an indication of just how much we are living our lives in shame, secrecy, and isolation? How much might be released – and gained – if we could break through those boundaries?

Escaping digital loneliness

In one of the most intimate moments of the first season of Mr. Robot, a TV show about cyber espionage, the highly alienated, vigilante hero hacker confesses to his therapist. He spills everything he knows about her from hacking her personal emails, web searches, and social media connections. He knows her heartaches, her porn preferences … her very soul. It’s a horrifying moment, but also the most profound human connection we see our hero make over the course of the series. True intimacy.

As he apologizes, in his way, for the invasion of privacy, he adds, “But I’ve helped a lot of people. I want a way out of loneliness, just like you.”

Could part of the reason why this show is resonating so much with people – particularly those of us who spend so much time and energy on things digital – be that we share some measure of his sense of isolation and despair? Perhaps digital technologies don’t isolate us from one another so much than previous media, but they remind us of how much we do and don’t share with one another. Even the chronic oversharing we see on social media may be one small indication of a repressed, almost bulimic urge to release everything, to everyone.

I would never advocate compromising our digital privacy – particularly in an environment where selective enforcement, illegal government spying, and corporate manipulation are rampant. It’s simply not safe out there. But we must also recognize the value of networked “truth serum” for a society as alienated from each other as ours has become.

Besides, everybody already knows.

Sounds more certain than “guess,” and I think this is what these lie detectors would claim to be doing?

The piece rests heavily on the premise that everyone intuitively recognizes a liar, but that’s going to be contentious. Maybe we could flesh it out more. How do you explain “everyone knowing” when we have con men taking people for thousands of dollars, spouses cheating on each other, etc? Clearly, people still get burned by liars. My guess for an explanation: They know but they want to believe otherwise. If that’s the case, let’s plug it in there to explain.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


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