The death of shame

By Jeremy Wilson on June 7th, 2012

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
— Alexander Pope Eloisa to Abelard

I’m not, like, that smart. I, like, forget stuff all the time.
— Paris Hilton law enforcement interview

Shifts of attitude are as de rigueur for society as it is for retrospective analysis to not properly separate the symptoms of these shifts from their causes. The sexual revolution, feminism, rampant consumerism: they are each the crystallisation of a national consciousness slowly recalibrating, one individual and one belief at a time. The phenomenon we now find ourselves in is a somewhat rarer cultural shift: a radical change, driven by technology. It is not the loss of privacy, a mere a facilitator in this story; it is the death of shame.

Shame is an emotion brought about by the process of self-critiquing one’s behaviour and being aware, or caring about others’ perception of this behaviour and, by extension, their perception of you. For a generation entering a world with a default attitude of apathy towards privacy, this awareness has, to a large degree, degenerated, if not broken down completely.

The result? Two new types of behaviour: freely exposing personal content and curating an idealised online image. Both feed off the results of the other in a narcissistic cycle of exhibitionism. A typical example might be uploading photos of a drunken party, warts and all. This normalisation of sharing everything allows the more cautious mind, after editing out the vomit, to upload their own party pictures – which in turn legitimises the banality of exposure and perpetuates a notion of living without a private life.

Think back to your darkest moment of angst-ridden teenage despair. Now imagine that moment had manifested itself in a status update with all the subtlety of an Adele chorus. This is a very real scenario, playing out regularly among today’s online generation. It serves only to bring trauma to their future lives. Coping with loss, pain and heartache is a complex process, during which our brains apply an anaesthetising veneer to memory.

There’s an evolutionary reason we can’t just access any part of our memory; forgetting is a function our brain performs to protect us. Yet we’re building artificial reservoirs of readily accessible memories that are not simply limited to unwise outpourings of emotion. Our online world is becoming a dreadful memoranda of things that did exist but which we’d be better off not remembering. How can we have closure and move on when deeply personal things are etched onto our virtual timelines?

The internet’s version of memory is very different to the way the brain works. But the conversation is only just being had about how best to make technology work for us as human beings. One of those throwing their hat into the debate is perennial harbinger of impending tech doom Andrew Keen, who advocates for technology that functions in a more human way: technology that forgets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the applications that provides a glimpse of what a more human-centric technological world might look like happens to be particularly conducive to exchanging risqué photos of an anatomical nature.

Snapchat is a photo-sharing app with a twist: it allows the sender to impose a time limit on the photograph’s visibility once it has been received. The death of shame isn’t the rise of improper conduct; it is a change in the perception of that conduct. The loss of privacy doesn’t encourage people to exchange pictures of their dicks; it just desensitises them to the fact they’re not doing it entirely in private.

Given the choice, people would rather swap dick pics inside a walled garden with a time limit. The appeal of sexting, free from the threat of online immortality, is obvious, but can any other type of human-centric technology gain traction when it is going directly against the grain of Zuck’s Law? We would need convincing that that our privacy has value; new products offering a better value proposition, combined with a growing realisation that we are the social networks’ product, could be just the combination to trigger a necessary shift.

When future biographers of our age search for our Rubicon moment, I fear they may identify the online dissemination of a hotel heiress’s nocturnal endeavours as a prime contender. The aftermath of Paris Hilton’s embouchurial exploits exposed a new attitude towards exposure of the private and laid the ground for a perverse new attitude towards self publicity.

That the incident didn’t damage Ms Hilton’s reputation was remarkable; that it generated colossal publicity is unsurprising. But it was the cachet of power and control it afforded that caught the attention of a new generation of narcissists. Whether whoring out your emotions in a blog or literally whoring out yourself on a shaky night-vision camera, selling your vulnerability now brings you power over the internet’s legion of voyeurs.

The jump from accepting a life without privacy to seeing one’s life as a commodity isn’t as great as it at first may seem when seen through the prism of eyeballs growing up glued to reality television. The reality cameras of the early naughties served less to capture reality than to broadcast the manufactured personas of a band of increasingly astute egotists prostrating before the altar of exposure.

Just as the line between being unaware of the camera and playing to it has become blurred on television, online behaviour has changed too, as people begin to perceive an audience for their performances. Even for those not of an exhibitionist disposition, the spectre of being watched has wormed its way into the psyche. It looms particularly largely over social networks and often tinges the digital life with a touch of self parody, a conscious or unconscious awareness of playing to the crowd.

Entering public life makes it fair game for others to define you, so it should be some relief to the current crop of public servants that vast archives of their past behaviour don’t exist. One product of public figures having a cloak of privacy over their early life is the curious way in which an individual can become inextricably tied to a single image of them dug up from their past. The photograph of an aloof David Cameron posing like an overdressed spaniel in a Bullingdon Club photograph has done more to perpetrate his arrogant posh boy image than any number of opinion pieces from Oxford contemporaries.

There was a point at which Mr Cameron had to fend off accusations that he taken cocaine before he became involved in politics. The accusations didn’t stick, but imagine if there were photos of a young Cameron engaged in a narcotically-fuelled evening with accompanying tweets like “wicked night on the charlie, LOL!” things would be different. Right? Well, perhaps not, if the rest of the populace is in the same boat.

I spent university either asleep or watching neighbours, but by taking a quick trawl through my online history it wouldn’t take the most talented hack to pin me down as debauched miscreant. Fortunately, I’m unlikely ever to be elected to public office, but you can see the problem. Besides a particular type of megalomaniac who censors their online life from the age of 12 in preparation for becoming Prime Minister, no-one will pass the current level of press scrutiny.

An essential tenet of public life has been that it should to a reasonable extent exist be seen as distinct from a past private life, but with a lack of privacy eroding private lives, I predict one of two things will happen. Either society will accept that the constitution of a person’s character shouldn’t be judged on party photos, drunken tweets and pouty smugshot profile pictures taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, or there will come a tipping point, where privacy increases in value, sharply. I suspect the latter.

There are some universal behavioural patterns that have served humans pretty well, perhaps the most most basic of which is the path that transitions us from childhood into adulthood. It goes something like this: Make mistakes, learn from mistakes, move on. The death of shame is part of the current process of mistake making, but it is a major hindrance to moving on.