A while back, a friend of mine handed me his phone to look up directions to a pizza place. When I went to Google, a prior search appeared on the drop-down window. That search was “adult videos.” Thus I was plunged into the 21st-century version of an age-old conundrum: Should you point out an embarrassing situation, like a zipper at half-mast or a protuberant booger? Or do you avoid the awkward confrontation and pretend you didn’t notice? I think a good friend should tell his buddy that Google searches don’t evaporate when you’re done with them. So I steeled my resolve, gave him his phone and told him we were three miles from the pizza place. I’m not that good of a friend.
Another phone debacle nearly unfolded when a friend of my wife passed her phone to a guy at a party to show him a photo. The guy with the phone started swiping through the album, and suddenly a look of horror flashed across the woman’s face. She lunged over and snatched her phone away. “A girlfriend of mine was saying I’m too skinny,” she explained, “so I took a naked photo when I got out of the shower, to show her I’m not too skinny.” She declined multiple gallant offers of a second opinion.
Phones aren’t the only means to electronic gaffes—you’re leaving a digital trail every day and in ways you probably don’t even think about. For example, the other day my kid requested some dumb cartoon on Netflix that he hadn’t watched in a while. Before too long the “previously viewed” list presented a cluster of movies that were queued up nearly a month before, and they definitely weren’t about Transformers.
One night’s screenings included three lesbian-themed movies, one of which was called Room in Rome. The IMDB listing for that one warns, “The two actresses are nude for almost the entire film, and the camera revels in showing off their slender, naked bodies, their breasts, buttocks and genitalia.” Room in Rome is not rated, although from the sounds of it I’d rate it A for Awesome.
My first thought, of course, was to accuse Heather of queuing up some racy lesbian skin flicks. Which I did. She issued a denial on the grounds that if she watched Room in Rome, she’d admit it. Besides, another movie viewed that night was The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia. And I have a hard time imagining that she’d waste her time on a horror movie with a 19 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating.
The conclusion, evidently, is that one of our baby sitters has an appreciation for foreign cinema. I don’t know which one it was, and I don’t care. What was really none of my business only came to my attention because Netflix is a total narc. And that’s just symptomatic of the wholesale privacy intrusion that constitutes modern life.
Think about it: You can use self-checkout all you want, but the grocery store knows what you just grabbed from the pharmacy aisle. So does your credit card company. So does Google, Comcast and probably Apple. Facebook knows who you’re with, and the Mass Pike knows where you went. Amazon knows you bought a slutty Halloween costume—in February—and Bank of America is up to speed on that 2 am withdrawal at the ATM in New Orleans. (You know, the one that wasn’t anywhere near a bank.) Nearly every single person on the street carries a camera that can instantly disseminate images worldwide. And you’re worried about the NSA? Please.
Of course, you might try to minimize the potential embarrassment of your digital breadcrumb trail. Say you have a butt rash: Instead of Googling “butt rash,” you type in “butt r” and hope it auto-fills the rest so you don’t have to actually search for it.
Now, does that technique keep “butt rash” out of your search history? The hell if I know. Probably not, but you’ve got bigger issues to worry about, like that butt rash you’ve been Googling.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a few other guidelines for minimizing your electronic exposure. For example, don’t sext—draw a picture and mail it. Don’t send hasty emails in the heat of a moment. Instead, save them in your draft folder and eventually forget you wrote them. When Skyping, sit in the shadows like those people who were ashamed to tell Tony the Tiger that they enjoy a kids’ cereal, even though Frosted Flakes are the taste adults have grown to love. And don’t tell me your ATM pin code, as Sam Adams founder Jim Koch did one day over lunch at the brewery. I hope he’s changed it since then.
Alternatively, you can quit being uptight and just live your life without worrying about what people think. After all, who cares? Just don’t hand me your phone.