My younger brother said years ago that he thought that the fewer people who knew he existed the better off he was. That meant that he wasn’t planning to sprint to the top of his profession — university professor — and go on the national lecture circuit, taking part in scholarly panels on educational television.
He does have a presence on the internet, though. I googled him and found his name among those who also teach in his department, along with a short academic bio. Nothing personal; but I did turn up several websites that promise to give me both his current address and criminal record, and what could be more personal?
Me, I began getting famous at 17, when as a college student I went to work for the town newspaper. When you’re getting bylines for your clever reports on the weekly doings at the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions club meetings, thousands of readers must be cheering.
For several years, at two other newspapers after college, I basked in my small byline celebrity, then got promoted into an editor’s position and the days in the limelight ended. I was behind the scenes, anonymous unless mistakes were made.
I got to thinking about all that this week, what with all the reporting about governmental surveillance and the possibilities for infringement of individual privacy. It’s not all that worrisome, I think, being way past the age to make a fool of myself or become a security risk on my cell phone or on other electronic gizmos that I might have (and don’t).
I didn’t join a Tea Party, so the IRS won’t be after me, and I don’t tweet, twitter or skype, not just because I lack the tech expertise, but because at this point in my life I don’t feel driven to share the minutiae of it. Had the PC and cell phone come along in 1953, the year of my graduation from high school, it might have been different. I might have tweeted or e-mailed my Texas friend Beth every time a cute boy looked my way.
But there’s another kind of surveillance I’m getting tired of, and that’s what I’ll call commercial nosiness. If you think Big Brother is on your tail, just consider what Big Business knows about you: how much income you have, what your preferences are in automobiles, even what size shoes you wear, what you read.
Amazon knows what books I’ve bought for my Kindle, so almost every day there’s an e-mail offering reading materials of the same genre; websites for shoes know I wear a size 10 narrow, and up come the ads for my kinds of footwear.
And Big Business knows how many birthdays you’ve celebrated. We still have a landline in our home, and it rings only to inform us of deals that we, as seniors, should jump at. The callers — mostly computer-generated voices — want to tell us about the medical alert systems that have supposedly been already ordered on our behalf, the products that can make my life as a diabetic (I’m not one) much easier, the electric chairs with which we can traverse grocery stores and shopping malls, etc. Somebody out there knows we’re on Social Security, and Medicare and that our health insurance is age-related.
On my computer, I’m bombarded with offers of products for the elderly; is it because I’ve pursued senior discounts for airfare and hotels on-line? Or is it because I write this column, and the accompanying mug shot is of a woman decidedly over-the-hill?
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.