The Geek’s Handbook of 1001 Privacy Formations

Douglas Adams got there first, of course. He usually did.

In a universe where past and future lost their rigid meanings, and time was as capable of twists and reverses as any spatial dimension, Adams gave us Dr Dan Streetmentioner.

The good doctor realised the limitations of conventional grammar in describing these temporal quirks, so produced the Time Traveller’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations – an exhaustive treatise on how to describe them properly.

It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up: and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

I’m reminded of all this by something I read tonight about Lord Winston’s response to a noisy passenger on his train. I’ve done a few notes previously in similar territory of what is and isn’t (or might and might not be) ok when private things happen in public.

The concepts of “public” and “private” spaces simply aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be: social platforms enable all sorts of breaches in traditional conventions about what constitutes fair game in terms of the public gaze. How public is public, anyway? Local to a train carriage, to the audience of a prominent media figure, or to those with special interest in a particular hashtag?

The vocabulary just doesn’t exist to describe the nuances of things that would previously never be seen, but now are.

(I toyed with the ugly term “broad-availabling” when I first saw what happened when you brought together a search function and a Twitter account with only a handful of followers. In no way could our cellar-dwelling ranter be said to be broadcasting, but given a certain level of energy and enthusiasm, his reckons could find themselves as amplified as anything traditional media might emit.)

So we need a Dr Dan for the new realms of the publics and the privates, and all the lands that lie between. Might go a bit like this:

He’s been sharing details of our purribrate life with his mates again! – [Translation] My paramour told his friends what that gesture I do in my insta selfies really means.

Problem with the railways is everything goes to shit when they’re run by companies in the pubravaging sector. – [Translation] My train is late again because it’s operated through such a convoluted structure of joint ventures, subsidies and overseas quasi-governmental entities that nobody really knows who’s in charge.

If they dare to search my privennials before my job interview, I’ll report them to the ICO, so I will. – [Translation] I am concerned that my social media trail may have unforeseen repercussions.

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