The Rutgers tragedy and privacy and technology

Last night, I went to CBS to record an interview with Katie Couric about the Rutgers tragedy, privacy, and technology.

Couric asked me the same question a half-dozen ways — old reporter’s trick; I’ve used it; I teach it — trying to get me to give her the answer she wanted: that the internet makes this different, that this is a teaching moment, and that we should give our children instruction about the dangers of the internet. I wouldn’t agree that technology makes the essence of this story and its sin different. The lesson is the same as it has always been: the Golden Rule. The sin could have been committed with a Kodak camera or a telephone or a letter, for that matter.

I do agree that the internet adds speed and reach and permanence to a mistake — that, as someone has said, it is a tattoo. But what this story really brings out is a timeless ethic of privacy (which is how I am framing the topic in Public Parts): Privacy is the responsibility of the person who receives information about someone. Once you know something about me, the weight lies with you as you decide how to use that information, whether to spread it, in what light. That came as close as I would to what Couric was aiming for and so this is the clip that made it onto the show.

I also said society bears responsibility in this story. That today anyone would still feel shame about being revealed as gay — full stop — and then would make such a tragic decision is our failing. I told Couric that the gays and lesbians who have summoned the courage to leave their closet and privacy behind to stand before the homophobes — saying, “Yes, I’m gay, you have a problem with that?” — are the heroes who used their publicness as a weapon against bigotry. I made clear to her that I am not suggesting people should be forced out of their closets. But I do believe that the people who have chosen to leave have operated under an ethic of publicness. If the weight of the ethic of privacy lies with the recipient of information — you know information about me — then the weight of the ethic of publicness lies with the originator of information — I know something and must decide whether it would be of benefit to others to share it.

As I left, I tried to tell Couric that media too often look at technology and change and see only danger. This is how the invention of the Kodak camera was treated in the 1890s. More than 500 million people choose to share on Facebook because they see benefit in it and more do so on Twitter and in blogs and YouTube…. Media constantly looks at the edge, the dark edge, jumping on a story such as this to seek out the perils technology brings. Couric protested that they do lots of stories about good things in technology. Every time Steve Jobs does anything, we cover it, she said. But that’s not understanding its value, I argued. I urged her to do a story in which young people who use and understand Facebook explain it to their elders.

We can’t pretend to give young people lessons in the internet if we don’t understand how they see it. For example, I’ve learned lately that young people use Facebook’s Wall to hold conversations in public while people my age use it — with media reflex — as a place to publish or broadcast. Same platform, different uses, different worldviews, different impact. When I was in Berlin talking about publicness and privacy, Renate Künast, head of the Greens in Parliament, said she talked to a young person who took a cooking course instead of an a computer course because in the latter “what the teachers wanted to teach me was something I learned five years ago.” We have things to learn from children about the future, for the future is theirs and they’re building it right in front of us.

But in enduring morals and ethics — the Golden Rules — we parents remain the teachers and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for teaching and our children enough credit for learning well. Those rules pertain no matter the medium or the technology in which human interaction occurs. The Rutgers story is not a tale of technology creating tragedy. It is a story of human tragedy.