Headmaster’s Thoughts — August 2015

Since a presidential election is only just over a year away, we are entering into the silly season for phone surveys. They always seem to happen at dinner time. Just when you are about to eat, the phone rings and someone tells you that they are calling on behalf of this or that survey and ask would you please…and that is when I hang up! There seems to be no way to get off their lists. You can register with the National Do Not Call Registry, but surveys are exempt, and so are those “robo-calls” from politicians. Politicians always exempt themselves from any restrictions. Not only do they go on and on, but you have no opportunity to debate with them when they tell you their views. Newt Gingrich was a particularly frequent caller in the last election cycle until he was knocked out of the primary race. I would often pick up the phone and hear, “Hello, this is Newt, and I would like to tell you my views on…” Slam! I hope he lost a lot of votes that way. I wish I could call all the politicians who called me with their “robo-calls”. I would get them just as they were sitting down to dinner with their family and tell them my views, and, if they stayed on the line, I would also go on and on.

It is similar with the torrent of “flakey” (and I am being generous with the use of that word) e-mails. Is it just me, or are there more of them lately? No, I am not interested in having a Russian bride. No, I do not believe you when you write that I have been left 20 million dollars by a person I have never met in Nigeria. No, I do not want a loan or a new car or, in fact, anything that is pushed on me by a blanket e-mail. I categorically distrust something that is sold by e-mail, and wish I could tell those marketers that wild horses could not make me purchase their goods.

I was not surprised that the Federal Office of Personnel Management computer system was recently hacked. Twenty-two million citizens had their personal information stolen by some outside party. I think Jayme and I were included because the hacked information contained the security clearances of those who worked in government, and one of our daughters is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and we were part of her clearance procedure. I am pretty certain I know who hacked into the system. Obviously, it was the very same people who call us on the phone and send me unwanted messages by e-mail. With all this data, they can be more focused in their relentless marketing operations. Now politicians can call us about the subjects that they think we will be interested in…but we still will not be able to answer them back or call them out on their untruths.

We have long lost the war for our privacy. Anyone can get information about you. When I was young, the only time the public found out how rich a person had been was when they died. At least this was the case in England. Newspapers would publish facts on the estates of the deceased in their obituaries. I thought that was tacky, but it is positively primitive compared to the revelations that you now get on the web about the living.

I acknowledge that if you are single, it might help to Google a blind date before you agree to meet, but, apart from that, why do we need all this information about each other? For the record, York Prep does not Google parents of potential students. I do not want to be rude, but it is the students we are interested in, not the parents. And, parenthetically, if you want to e-mail a teacher or administrator, my advice is always to put your child’s name and grade in the e-mail title so that it will be recognized as an important message rather than spam. As a school we remind students that whatever they put on the web will last there forever. That they would think otherwise surprises me.

Cynical as I confess to be, it seems to me that this loss of privacy occurred at a similar time when it became unlawful to ask a potential employee details about their background. So, while an employer cannot ask if the candidate for employment has a criminal past or a poor credit rating, at the same time there is now an established web industry which will get you exactly that information for a fee. Indeed, one of the spam e-mails I particularly dislike asks me if I would like to find out about a person’s past criminal record, who they voted for, and what their credit rating is. They will provide the answer so long as I fill in the information boxes about my credit card so that they can charge me for this service. For more money, they will tell me about someone’s favorite TV shows, their past romances, videos they have rented and books they have ordered. Yuck!

In fact, information is being collected on you all the time. If you search for “sunblock” on Amazon, you will “coincidentally” get e-mails about beach vacations, receive warnings about skin cancer, and find shopping links suddenly appearing for bathing suits. Order a car from Uber, and the driver will rate you as a passenger just as people rate restaurants based on one meal. But each night is a different night at a restaurant and Uber passengers have good and bad days; totally unlike a movie where everyone sees the same finished product. But all that does not matter; your record stays with you, and it can be bought and is certainly being sold.

Thus I am reminded of the famous line by Greta Garbo, the iconic Swedish actress who made great films in the 1930s. She said, in her Swedish accent, “I vant to be alone” And that was at a time before the barrage of intrusive calls, multiple insulting e-mails, hacking of our private communications, and general availability of gossip. People were amused by her remarks then; I regret that amusement is gone. We are constantly tracked wherever we go. It is a new world! So, when it comes to obtrusive dinner-time calls and absurd e-mails, I, too, vant to be alone.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School