St Vincent—“Save Me From What I Want”
Given the choice between exposing the contents of every email you’ve ever written, or every query you’ve ever typed into a search engine, which would you choose?
Think carefully. How you answer this question amounts to a litmus test on what you believe reveals more about your private self: what you say to others in the (apparent) secrecy of your emails, or what you seek in the (also apparent) secrecy of a faceless search engine.
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The decision might not be as clear cut as first appears. When we communicate with others we’re aware of being judged and appraised, even by our closest friends. In the searches we conduct for ourselves, however, there’s a perceived privacy and intimacy. Google doesn’t judge, right?
I’d argue a fair amount of our actions are motivated by either fear or desire, and that the notion of taboo sits at the nexus of these two forces (so does advertising). I might even go as far as to say taboo can be characterised as fear of desire. So, with this in mind, I think it’s worth asking what our internet searches and click-bait detours reveal about what we really want: from bikini fails to celebrities who’ve aged terribly. So much of the guilty-pleasure crap we’re drawn to reduces down to sex and death, to what we want and what we fear.
In May 2005, way back when 50 Cent was still topping the charts and MySpace was the world’s largest social network, Mac’s Safari browser incorporated for the first time a privacy mode, enabling internet navigation minus the automatic indexing of browsing history. Since then private or incognito searching has found its way into most modern browsers. There are a number of uses this mode is suited to, ranging from website testing to avoiding accidental storage of passwords and personal details, but the most commonly associated use…
Navigate to the Privacy Mode page on Wikipedia, scroll down to the references, and you’ll see that four out of the first five citations include porn in the title. A quick google reveals a number of articles with some variant on, “Five uses for private mode (that don’t involve porn)”. The parentheses are always there.
A preoccupation with sex is as old as the hills, and arguably links us pretty closely with our prehistoric forbears. Try a joint search for ‘Venus of Willendorf’ and ‘seagulls’ for some interesting research which, taken to it’s full extension, might explain why 30,000 years ago hundreds of female figurines with exaggerated sex organs were sculpted across Europe; and why 30,000 years later Kim Kardashian is as likely to ‘break the internet’ as any hacker.
In our modern liberal society sex isn’t really taboo though, right? Sure, we might not want particular search histories popping up in certain situations, but that’s not truly transgressive. Those who feel a need delve further into the dark depths of the anonymised web, into sites such as Silk Road, the world’s most notorious (now defunct) darknet market which supposedly pedalled everything from hard drugs to assassination services. (And in case you get ideas about becoming your own darknet underlord, last year Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht received a sentence of life without parole for his troubles).
Let’s not forget, though, that what’s taboo is always relative, always context-dependent. A liberal parent may have no issues with their child coming out, for example, but might have conniptions if that same offspring voted right-wing. Prior to the last election I overheard someone talking about ‘auditing’ all their friends on Facebook: anyone who liked the page of a particular political party they loathed was immediately excommunicated. We tend to befriend others with similar values and views; couple this with blackbox Facebook algorithms designed to keep giving us what we want, and it’s no wonder there’s talk of a social media echo chamber effect, in which we only get presented with views in keeping with our own. Which, you know, sure—until you start thinking that’s the whole picture and that view ends up distorted and disconnected.
In fact, I’d argue that in a university context it’s important to have ideas challenged, and to welcome that challenge, although this must always be in a safe environment of mutual respect. Being able to effectively justify an opinion in the face of an opposing viewpoint, yet retain the ability to acknowledge when that other viewpoint has superior merit—these are skills that shouldn’t be underestimated. So I’d say don’t defriend someone just because their politics, say, might be taboo in your circle. I’d say do the opposite.