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Social needs trump privacy

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Social needs trump privacy

Jane Stephens observes strangers incidentally and accidentally telling the world their most personal information – and loves it.

It is astounding how much people reveal about themselves: it is as if all eyes are on focused on digital privacy and vigilance has been forgotten where people live and breathe.

People talk intimately to their lovers on speaker as they walk down the street. They give their best contact number to the inquiring customer service attendee at their shop of choice – in clear earshot of all around. The stop-go sign holder has his full name in fat, permanent pen on his sun-safe hat.

Sit next to a stranger on a plane or on a bus and you are presented with material enough for many novels and Netflix series.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a man who was on his way to a high-level meeting in Sydney from Vanuatu. I know this because he texted his contact before we took off and scrolled back through their exchange several times during the flight, all while tilting his phone directly towards me. It would have been rude not to look.

I know his full name, because his printed boarding pass stuck above the seat pocket for the entirety of the trip. I know his date of birth and other essentials because he inspected his passport, helpfully opened to the picture page, in forensic detail. His phone home screen displayed his beaming wife and child.

He was not alone: the lanyard worn by a man on my train recently blared his and his company’s names and included a mugshot that revealed he had worked for the firm for several years. I could tell you his taste in music and that he was going to be a bit delayed for dinner – because he shared these things indirectly.

It is also astonishing what people will say when you offer them a chance. Make eye contact, be polite and inquiring, and off they go, with mouths motoring and hearts on sleeves.

I find it delightful, interesting and heartening. A journalist by name and nature, I have always found that people are bursting to talk if the door is cracked.

I love that.

Aristotle first declared that humans are social animals, born with the innate capacity to form social connections: we like each other. Humans need social and emotional connections for learning and higher-order cognition: we need each other. Privacy fears be damned.

 

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Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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