»  The Straggler, No. 88

March 22nd, 2010

   No Hiding Place

My breakfast-time reading matter of choice, the New York Post, has regular stories about long-separated friends, lovers, and family members who find one another via Google. Here's one: High School Sweethearts Rekindle Romance After 50 Years. The boy and girl were parted by a ruse of their parents, who disapproved. Half a century on, he widowed, she divorced, they are exchanging vows at last.

Who can resist such a story? Yet you can't help but reflect on what must be far commoner than these joyful reunions: unwelcome e-mails from life segments long since consigned to the "best forgotten" bin. A sixty-something friend, tame and settled now but quite the boulevardier in his younger days, grumbles about girlfriends and mistresses from the remote past sending him e-mails: "Their husband dies, and first thing they do is get on the Internet looking for old flames."

To me a boulevard was never much more than a paved surface to be driven along, but even the most retiring and least courtly of us have past connections we would much rather not be reminded of, and domestic circumstances we have no wish to see disturbed. Since hearing my friend's complaint, I open my e-mail window with trepidation. So far there have been no unpleasant surprises, but I suppose it can only be a matter of time.

Most of my out-of-the-blue e-mails have actually been from classmates at my secondary school. Strange it is to see these names in the inbox. I remember them clearly: Life is never so vivid as in those teen years, though perhaps this is more true for products of the English single-sex school system than elsewhere. Cyril Connolly passed the definitive comment: "The experiences undergone by boys at the great public [i.e. private boarding] schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives." Mine was merely a provincial day school, but it was a good one, with a pedigree going back to Henry VIII, and strove to emulate the ethos of the great schools, with some of the same results. We boys, at any rate, knew one another better than we have known anyone since, family excepted.

A name I was particularly glad to see appeared in my inbox a few days ago. We were best friends from the second form to the fourth (ages 12 to 15). Together we tested the limits of our very constrained school environment, sneaking into a low-life "out of bounds" coffee shop in the town after school, accumulating detentions for offenses against the dress code, idolizing the upper school's most egregious bohemian. (Who has since, I see, attained immortality on Wikipedia as "an English journalist, author, broadcaster and gay rights activist." He wrote an autobiography at age 23 — there's self-regard for you!)

My classmate's father was a fan of folk music and R&B, with a fine stock of records purchased by mail order from the U.S. When I saw that name in my inbox, in fact, the first thing that came to mind was Muleskinner Blues, which I heard sitting on the sofa in his family living room. How strange it sounded! — wellnigh extraterrestrial. Thus I caught some tail-end flavor of what music historian Greil Marcus called "the old, weird America" that was even then being nagged, shamed, bullied, legislated, and paved out of existence. A couple of years later we were at Sea Cadet camp together when we heard the news of Eddie Cochran's death — clearer in my memory by far than the death of Buddy Holly a year earlier.

Now here we are at the other end of life, survivors somehow in a world not much more hospitable to the bohemian temperament than that school of ours, but with many more places to escape to. And we are the same people, of course; nobody changes much. "Still feel that I'm only passing for a grownup," he remarks in that disarming way I remember, "but I won't tell if you won't." I guess I just did, but … no names, no detention.

An odder case first appeared in my inbox five years ago. He'd got to thinking, he wrote, and Googled around … Did I remember the walks we had used to take at lunchtime, talking juvenile metaphysics? Of course I did, and sent him a long reply … to which he never responded. A couple of years later the whole episode repeated: e-mail from him, my reply, nothing further. Then a few weeks ago, a third repeat. Does he just get drunk and maudlin, think of his schooldays, fire off e-mails, and then in the morning feel ashamed? No way to know.

There is no hiding place for me, in any case. I have written too much on the Internet, posted too much reminiscence on my own website. No hiding place for my friend the ex-boulevardier, either. He is an academic, and they are the easiest of all people to find —through their published papers, their college websites.

What has been true of us for ten years or so is fast becoming true of everyone, though. Last week the Stragglers attended an event at our daughter's high school, an evening of advice to get us started on the college-application process. Amongst much else, we learned that 10 percent of college admissions officers acknowledged looking at social-networking sites like Facebook when evaluating applicants, with negative consequences 40 percent of the time. No hiding place for the kids, either, then, since they all seem to patronize these sites.

I used to worry that my chauffeured, play-dated kids might never understand true liberty and independence. Now here is a second worry: that they will never know real privacy. Like the people in Zamyatin's dystopian novel We, whose houses are made of glass so that unauthorized activities can be observed, their lives will be open to anyone who cares to inspect them — with the twist, of course, that the exposure is voluntary on their part. With closed-circuit TV cameras, and the "data miners" scrutinizing their every candy purchase, what will they know of secrecy, silence, self-restraint?

I am glad to have connected with old friends; I am happy for those long-separated sweethearts; I only wonder if these may be slight and incidental benefits from a phenomenon that will soon stifle Privacy — Liberty's quieter, more studious twin brother.