My last post was on the virtues of an open Web within institutions. I was going to touch on the value of openness and sharing information for people and institutions – governments, organisations, etc. – but it didn’t seem to fit. Which is a shame because one of my favourite sections of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on this very subject. It’s about overprotectiveness of personal information and asks what is wrong with sharing information? Online or offline, what does it matter how much of one’s life or one’s thoughts are shared? Why should we greedily hoard the personal details of our lives? Why shouldn’t we share everything? Giving out information and being open – within reason – loses us nothing.
What am I giving you? I am giving you nothing. I am giving you things that God knows, everyone knows… It seems like you know something, but you still know nothing. I tell you and it evaporates. I don’t care—how could I care? I tell you how many people I have slept with (thirty-two), or how my parents left this world, and what have I really given you? Nothing. I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers, but what do you have? You have nothing. They all granted permission. Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers. It seems precious for one, two seconds. You have what I can afford to give. You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup. I can afford to give you this. This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have. I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories that I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on my walls I can show them to you without diminishing them. I can afford to give you everything. We gasp at the wretches on afternoon shows who reveal their hideous secrets in front of millions of similarly wretched viewers, and yet.. .what have we taken from them, what have they given us? Nothing. We know that Janine had sex with her daughter’s boyfriend, but...then what? We will die and we will have protected... what? Protected from all the world that, what, we do this or that, that our arms have made these movements and our mouths these sounds? Please. We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something, that, like a primitive person fearing that a photographer will steal his soul, we identify our secrets, our pasts and their blotches, with our identity, that revealing our habits or losses or deeds somehow makes one less of oneself. But it’s just the opposite, more is more is more—more bleeding, more giving. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see. What does he care where it is, who sees it, this snake, and his skin? He leaves it where he molts. Hours, days or months later, we come across a snake’s long-shed skin and we know something of the snake, we know that it’s of this approximate girth and that approximate length, but we know very little else. Do we know where the snake is now? What the snake is thinking now? No. By now the snake could be wearing fur; the snake could be selling pencils in Hanoi. The skin is no longer his, he wore it because it grew from him, but then it dried and slipped off and he and everyone could look at it.