Gerding: Our inner thoughts being expressed by our computer voices

What difference has technology and the advancement of the Internet been in the day-to-day existence of our lives?

The answer to that question is being played out in an embarrassing context in the U.S. this week, where people sharing their private thoughts on email has shown a loss of anonymity.

And the complication then becomes how legal authorities are supposed to deal with electronic communication. When is it investigating a crime and when is to stepping over the bounds of what is supposed to be private communication?

Where former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used wiretapping resources to gain inside information about people he didn’t like to hold against them, his own form of legal blackmail, today we all do the work for big brother by telling people what we think in the Twitter and Facebook universe without considering the consequences.

The scandal south of the border involves the director of the CIA, David Petraeus. He was a highly decorated general in the U.S. Army, responsible for supposedly cleaning up the Iraq mess and stabilizing the war in Afghanistan. When he was not doing that, we learned this week he used email.

So Mr. Petraeus, after leaving the army to take over the CIA, found himself in an extra-marital affair with a woman, Paula Broadwell, who was the co-author of an autobiographic book titled All Inn. The relationship went on for months until he apparently broke it off last summer.

But then his paramour took issue apparently with the relationship between Petraeus and another woman, Jill Kelley, who works on a military base in Tampa, Fla., and is referred to by some media reports as a military socialite. Broadwell appears to have felt threatened in some way by Kelley’s relationship with Petraeus, and began sending her emails telling her to back off.

Kelley took her complaint about the emails to an FBI agent, and from there the whole situation unravelled into the mess that has played out like a TV soap opera, each day producing a new revelation.

At the heart of it all is this idea in our collective heads that sending nasty emails, posting your thoughts on Facebook or being a twit on Twitter is like being anonymous—as compared, say, to making comments that are published in print—when it is anything but.

As we continue to embrace the virtues of the Internet in our society,  our private thoughts are increasingly no longer private. Why? Because we can’t seem to help ourselves from dishing about ourselves or others.

Where generations ago, people would talk privately about the issues or about other people over a coffee, over a beer in the pub or when gathering with friends, today those thoughts are being expressed freely on the World Wide Web under the notion of anonymity. No such thing. It’s about time we figured out that some private thoughts are best kept wher they belong—in our heads.


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