Open Marriage and The Transparent Society

by F.

It’s been about a month since Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan quit John Edwards’ campaign because of some “anti-Christian” posts on their personal blogs:

Both quit thanks to circulation by conservatives of some of these former staffers’ Internet musings. That is to say, in Ms. Marcotte’s case especially: scatological Catholic-baiting rants about “theocracy” marked by leering references to the pope and liberal use of the F-word.

I read their posts and found them quite ordinary. The sort of thing most people say from time to time. Yes, they were a little incendiary–maybe even shrill. But who isn’t that way when, say, having coffee with coworkers or relaxing on the weekend? In any event, I didn’t think these comments were anything out of the ordinary–certainly nothing like racism.

Welcome to the transparent society where, if your old rantings can’t be found on your blog, they can be found using the Wayback Machine or some other archive. I’ve read that most employers now do a Google search before hiring. This has spawned businesses devoted to expunging from the Internet personal information you want to remain hidden. After giving away your privacy, you can buy it back.

This is a social experiment. How much privacy do we want or need? I like transparency, myself. I even like radical transparency, provided it applies to everyone. I don’t see how that could make society worse off, but this may be a failure of my imagination. I guess I draw a crude analogy between market failures due to lack of information (or asymmetrical information) and society generally.

But social experiments, even ones much hyped, can turn out in unexpected ways. Take open marriage, the idea that monogamy is unnatural. In their 1972 book Open Marriage, Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill didn’t focus on sexual openness. But that is the idea most associated with the term. It certainly sounded like a reasonable idea.

So did behaviorism and eugenics and socialism. Will the transparent society go the same way? I suspect that a certain amount of deception and closedness is natural in human relations, and that we want to be lied to about certain things. Some of us may want more transparency than others. But the average person, I would speculate, doesn’t want too much information. While the median amount of information people will be able to accept is going up, there may be a boundary. Where that is we won’t know until we hit it. If we hit it.

I hope there is no boundary.