September 8, 2014

The Age of Innocence

This past Sunday I was riding in a car on the way home from a longish trip and I glanced at my phone and happened to see a story unfolding.

It seemed, as I slowly learned, that one or more very dedicated and technologically apt people had ransacked the phones of several young girls, grabbed a handful of intimate photos, and put them up on the internet for all to see.

This sentence will likely fill you with disgust. However, the disgusted reaction that one would expect to see in the larger public has been quite tempered, because, it seems, these young girls happened to be famous.

This places a different set of moral strictures upon their persons and properties: the more one is known – and, really, the more one is desired – the less empathy the larger public is willing to grant you. It’s almost out of spite, it seems sometimes, as if we commoners cannot stand to see such a beautiful person doing such beautiful things, and as such we consider all aspects of their lives forfeit.

This has long been known, but as media invades our daily lives, this lack of empathy is being steadily blown up to a grand scale.

But here is the spectacularly shitty part of this, at least for me. Because of the nature of communications these days, lots of awful things become avoidable. For example, Twitter’s “preview” option has forced images of plane crashed and dead Gazan infants into everyone’s timelines whether they want to see them or not.

The internet bends to the story, like light bending around a planet. News, especially bad news, travels via osmosis, invading your pocket and your mind at a slow leak. And as such, whether I wanted to or not – and, more so, whether the young girl in question wanted to or not – I wound up tapping a tweet, and seeing a “preview” of one of these photos.

What I saw was a young girl of about twenty-two or so, wearing a bathing suit and standing in a rather nondescript room, taking a photo of herself with her phone. She was looking into the phone with an expression of such earnestness, and she was really trying quite hard to be sexy, posing with the insecure manner with which the very young attempt a thing they’re not sure they can do yet. And the instant I saw it I became aware that the person she was trying to be sexy for was not me.

It’s tough to describe the sense of violation that hit me. I felt, suddenly, like a giant, and the barest misstep of my enormous feet could wreck a home or a street or a shop. Without even trying, I had elbowed my way into this terribly intimate moment, a very rare and precious young person’s moment where they lay it all on the line, exposing all their vulnerabilities to someone they trust in hopes for a moment of pure connection, this very human, very frightened, and very fragile impulse to be unveiled, and seen, and liked, if not loved.

I shut my phone.

***

The idea of “innocence,” at its heart, is about a lack of knowledge. It is an ignorance that we admire, an ignorance that almost makes that person better, or perhaps makes it easier for them to attain an ideal state, for an innocent person is ignorant of the endless disappointments the world offers, the indifference and casual cruelty with which it operates.

Those who are not innocent often wish they were. They wish they did not know these things. They might not be better off for knowing the truth.

In today’s world, though, where we are steadily emerging into “the internet of things,” and we live with censors and input and output lining our very walls, it is far easier to know a thing than ever before. That delicate wall that maintains one’s innocence is thinner and more fragile than in any preceding generation, capable of being dashed aside with the barest of gestures. And there are people devoted all over the world to doing so, to ripping it aside and plundering whatever they find on the other side, and it is surprisingly, bafflingly easy to be complicit in this theft.

Though I think most people would pause before claiming the past few decades, or even centuries, were an age of innocence, future years may prove us wrong.