One of the most fascinating episodes of House — “The Social Contract” (S05E17) — tells the story of Nick Greenwald, a well-respected editor at a prestigious press who suddenly loses the ability to tell lies. He simply cannot help but tell people precisely what’s on his mind. And the results are disastrous: he insults his boss and tells a bestselling author that his new book sucks, seriously endangering his career; he tells his wife that her interests are silly and she’s not that smart, seriously endangering his marriage; and he tells his little girl that she doesn’t have an auditory-processing disorder, she’s just below average (like her mother), seriously endangering his relationship with his daughter.
If Nick hated his life, all of this truthtelling might be for the best. But he doesn’t. All to the contrary, he loves his job, he loves his wife, and he loves his daughter. It’s clear that he’s horrified, genuinely horrified, by the stupid shit coming out of his mouth, and he’s deeply saddened by how much his words are hurting his loved ones. But he just can’t stop.
Dr. Gregory House wryly promises to fix Nick Greenwald and return him to his “happy hypocrite” existence in no time. And House delivers. But we can see, from the awkward manner in which Nick and his wife make up after the surgery, that things are never going to be the same between them.
I couldn’t help but think of this House episode as my friends and I discussed whether or not couples should have each other’s passwords. Some say, like the NSA, that if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, whilst others say that people, even married people, have a right to privacy. As for me, well, I couldn’t help but remember something Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in The Bed of Procrustes (2016): “One of the problems with social networks is that it is getting harder and harder for others to complain about you behind your back.”
We need to be able to complain about the people we love in peace. This is probably a human right and definitely a human necessity. Back in the day, of course, all of this bitching and complaining would have taken place in person. It could be overheard only by someone within earshot (hence the term “eavesdropping”). When things went to the telephone things got a little trickier. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s overheard a telephone conversation you wish you hadn’t overheard. Even so, if you could find a safe place to chat (and your phones weren’t being tapped), a telephone bitch-fest was usually every bit as safe as the old-fashioned face-to-face variety.
But alas, all of this has changed with the advent of texting and email. Ava Gardner was horrified to discover that her billionaire boyfriend Howard Hughes was reading transcripts of all of her conversations. The scene is dramatized in The Aviator (2004): Ava Gardner: “You listened to my phone calls?” Howard Hughes: “No! No! No! Honey I would never do that! I’d never do that! I . . . I just read the transcripts, that’s all.” It’s sobering to note that we all have access to those kinds of transcripts now.
“You better watch out / You better not cry / You better not pout / I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is coming to town . . . . He’s making a list, / Checking it twice; / Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. . . . He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake.” — John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1934)
“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has got to be the creepiest, as well as the most morally confusing, Christmas carol. In one verse, kids are told that they’re supposed to be good because this dirty old man is watching them, NSA-style, 24/7; in the next, they’re told they’re supposed to be “good for goodness sake.” And we wonder why they’re so confused. Am I supposed to be good for the reward (that is, the presents)? Am I supposed to be good to avoid punishment? Or am I supposed to do good stuff simply because it’s the right thing to do? I was horrified by the idea of an omniscient Big Brother Santa when I was a kid. I remember asking my mom: “Can he see me when I go pee-pee?” As you may or may not already know, Santa’s not real; but it looks like his powers may soon be real.
We may soon live in a world wherein parents have access to godlike powers of omniscience. This is the theme of the second episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror: “Arkangel” (directed by Jodie Foster). The episode is set in a future wherein helicopter parents can have chips implanted in their children’s heads which track their movements and control what they see (by pixelating anything violent, sexual, or potentially upsetting). Among other things, the “Arkangel” technology allows parents to see whatever their kid is seeing at any given moment (on something that looks like a big iPad).
This godlike power proves irresistible to a single-mother, Marie, when her teenage daughter, Sara, is late coming home one night. She turns on the device just in time to watch her daughter having sex with her boyfriend for the first time. As you might expect, Marie meddles in her daughter’s life to a scandalous extent. Sara eventually figures out that her mother is spying on her. The power of the Arkangel technology ultimately destroys Marie’s relationship with her daughter. The episode ends with her daughter running away from home. Alas, the dystopian parable’s message is clear: omniscient power corrupts relationships.
We need to return to the simple wisdom of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923): “let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.” In this brave new world of ours, letting “there be spaces in your togetherness” means respecting the privacy of the people you love.
A few years ago I was asked to buy a t-shirt. It was part of a fundraiser for a local philosophy department’s student association. The slogan blazoned across the chest read: QUESTION EVERYTHING. It made me smile, the way that cheesy Hallmark cards often make me smile.
We simply don’t have the time or energy to question everything. We all rely upon people and things we don’t understand. We trust the people on the highway not to veer into oncoming traffic. We trust that the food we’re eating isn’t poisoned. We trust that the people we leave our children with aren’t going to hurt them. We trust that the money we use has real value. We trust that the people who say they love us actually love us, despite the fact that we can never really be sure. We can never really know another person’s heart, not with certainty. And so on and so forth. We are swimming in a sea of trust each and every day.
People who’ve had their faith in the world profoundly shaken by a psychotic break, a horrible accident, or a devastating betrayal — people who actually question everything — are broken, profoundly dysfunctional shells of their former selves. At Projet PAL in Verdun, I worked with people who were recovering from severe mental health problems. What’s hardest for many of these people is that they feel like they can no longer trust their own senses. They’re tormented by questions such as: Am I really talking to you? Are you really real? Is this really how I feel? Can I trust my feelings?
The same is true of those who’ve lived through a devastating betrayal. We’ve all known people who’ve been cheated on and habitually lied to. But imagine what it must be like to be Paula Rader, the woman who discovered that the man she was married to for 34 years, Dennis Rader, the father of her children, was the notorious serial killer known as the BTK killer. She thought her husband was a good man. They went to Christ Lutheran every Sunday morning. He was even elected president of the church council.
How hard it must be for Paula Rader to trust people now. How hard it must be for her to trust her own judgment. She must be tormented by questions such as: How could I have been so stupid? So blind? Hard as it must be, the Paula Raders of this world won’t be able to resume anything like a normal life until they begin to trust again, until they learn how to have faith again. Because faith isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.
How does your spouse know what kind of ice cream you’re likely to get in the ice cream parlor before you place your order? Do they have a crystal ball which allows them to see the future? Nope. Can they read your mind? Nope. Your spouse knows what you’re likely to order because they’ve observed your behavior for a long time and deduced some patterns. They know which flavors you like, which flavors you hate, and which flavor you love.
Likewise, how does your best friend know who you’re likely to vote for in the upcoming election long before you cast your ballot? Do they have a crystal ball which allows them to see the future? Nope. Can they read your mind? Nope. They know who you’re likely to vote for because they’ve observed your behavior for a long time and deduced some patterns. Whatever self-knowledge you have (or think you have) is of a similar stamp. You can predict what ice cream you’re likely to order, or what candidate you’re likely to vote for, because you’ve observed your own behavior for a long time and deduced some patterns.
The sophisticated algorithms that were weaponized by Cambridge Analytica are no different. If they can predict (and, if need be, manipulate) your future behavior better than anyone else, if they know your hopes, dreams, and preferences better than anyone else, it’s only because they’ve been paying closer attention. If self-knowledge is knowledge deduced to a large extent from our imperfect recollection of the past, imagine what an algorithm, that sees all and never forgets, can deduce. If these algorithms don’t already know you better than you know yourself, they will soon. If that doesn’t terrify you, you’re not paying attention.