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The Silicon Valley of the Squinting Windows

Wednesday, 26 February, 2014

It’s 1918 and The Valley of the Squinting Windows, a novel by Brinsley MacNamara and set in a fictional village in Ireland, is published. It tells of status anxiety, secrets, privacy and the power of gossip. The reaction is swift. The author’s schoolmaster father is boycotted and has to emigrate; there’s a high-profile court case brought by those who thought they had been described in the work and the novel itself is burned in public.

It’s 2014, and Nick Denton, the founder and owner of a string of gossip websites called Gawker Media, sits down to talk to Playboy. At a time when parents are spending sleepless nights worrying about what their kids are posting on Snapchat, when the NSA is said to be hoovering up all our data, when German newspapers are using Nazi-era caricatures to depict Facebook, when surveillance appears to be omnipresent, this is the right moment to talk about paranoia. Snippet:

DENTON: You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.

PLAYBOY: That doesn’t jibe with your other theory about how we’ll judge one another more kindly when we have no privacy. Human history is not a history of tolerance for deviation from the norm.

DENTON: You don’t think there was a kind of peasant realism? You hear these stories about a small town, seemingly conservative, and actually there’s a surprising amount of tolerance. “So-and-so’s a good guy. Who cares if he’s a pig fucker? His wife brought a really lovely pie over when Mama was sick.”

Denton is right, of course, in saying that small-town life is an open book, but he’s wrong in thinking that it’s available for all to read in the public library. Seen from the vantage point of the West Village, gossip is good, especially when it makes one rich and famous; seen from point of view of the normal villager, privacy is still worth protecting because life must be lived forwards, as Kierkegaard put it, and a lot of ugly stuff from the present and the past can get in the way of the future. Ours is now a global valley of squinting windows, but that does not mean that Nick Denton has the right to decide what should be public and what should not be private.

Note: Pope Francis has given his new cardinals a code of conduct that differs radically from the Denton principle: “no intrigue, gossip, power pacts, favoritism.” AP

Bavarian windows


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