Wednesday, January 15, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "The End Of Simple Nor Basically Privacy"

In 1968, I wrote a poem entitled “The Cause Of All This
Precariousness”-- and the next year it was published in my
first book The Rippling Water Sleeve and other poems as
my M.F.A. thesis at the Writers Workshop at the University
of Iowa. The last line of this poem is the title of this
essay. A reader might be struck by the apparent grammatical
awkwardness of the line, and it would seem so if it were
prose, but this was not only poetry, it was written in my
literary style of the time when such departures from
conventional grammar made (and I think still do) some sense
of their own.

In the period when I wrote this poem, and that line, neither I
nor anyone else knew about the internet, the NSA, or any of
the other methods of surveillance which are now seemingly
commonplace, and which seem to make the line an obvious
statement of fact.

I make no claim to being any kind of prophet, but I do suggest
that as a young poet I could sense the then subliminal
gathering of technical forces, and the intensification of political
forces, even in that overheated time, that would make the
conclusion of the poem inevitable.

Remember that it was then the time of the opposition to the
war in Vietnam, and the psyche of the nation, especially of
many in its younger generations, was going through a spasm
of rapid alteration, of protest, of insubordination to the
political and even intellectual establishment. Just before
that moment in time, President Kennedy and Martin Luther
King had been assassinated, the war in Southeast Asia had
become increasingly unpopular, and a liberal Democratic
president was forced to retire instead of seeking a second full
term. Protestors and conscientious objectors filled American

Like so many momentous inventions in history, the internet
was created in a military setting. It became very quickly a
domestic phenomenon that grew astonishingly and globally
in an epically decentralized manner, and has been used
primarily for personal and business use. But its DNA was
from government. So we should not be surprised to see it
become an instrument for government control and intrusion
in the modern democratic state and its society.

Now much older, and less given to the kind of language I wrote
more than four decades ago, I see that it was probably an
inevitable route of human history that what we call “privacy”
should be so altered by our own hand, our own innovation,
our own human ambitions.

Nor was the premonition of the alteration of privacy, especially
through the agency of government, only a phenomenon of fifty
years ago. Twenty years before, George Orwell wrote the novel
Nineteen Eighty-Four about a foreboding, in his case, of
totalitarian mind control, and in the 1920’s, the Czech novelist
Karel Capek wrote R.U.R. in which he invented the word “robot”
and suggested coming robotics, something which also appears to
be a fact of our time.

The cartoon character Dick Tracy in the 1930’s had a watch that
was a two-way TV, a computer and a cell phone. It was considered
then mostly a fantasy for children, as were the interplanetary
travels of Flash Gordon. More than a hundred years ago, Jules
Verne and other science fiction writers created fantastic visions
of the future which are today’s realities. Leonardo Da Vinci, half
a millennium ago, conceived and drew inventions only recently
achieved. There are now ray guns, submarines and airplanes can
be made to be “invisible,” and men have landed on the moon.

We now know that it is physically possible, though technically not
yet feasible, to go forward in time. Only space aliens, and going
backward in time, remain as mere fantasies. (But who knows?....)

I think the key word in the line of my poem is the word “simple.”
The end of “basically privacy” was almost certainly inevitable.
It might therefore not seem to be as ominous as it first seems if
we try to realize that “simple” privacy is no longer possible in
the world we have created for ourselves. Like every other
technological advance in human history, we have had to give
something up to gain the rewards of our inventions.

Privacy, however, is likely to rise to another level, and be just
as valuable and precious as we considered “simple privacy.”
And just as before, in order to reach it and keep it, we will have
to defend it, protect it, and nurture it, whatever it is.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.


For those who might be interested, here is the final stanza
of “The Cause of All This Precariousness” (1968):

Depending on our personal method of routing time,
our lapses, our ejaculations,
in spite of our palindromes,
something is happening to us.
Who is so foolish, so wise,
to think they know what it is?
A motif of histories contrives away
enigmas which annoy us strategically;
impenetrable resources of famous champions,
lists, modes, celebrated measurements, winnings.
What jail for all of us, do we know?
I do not know,
but I dread and welcome,
the end of simple nor basically privacy.

Copyright (c) 1969, 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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