People say my girlfriend and I are a match made in heaven, and one of the reasons they give is that we both keep frighteningly detailed spreadsheets of various aspects of our lives. “That’s so sketchy!” says one, referring to a spreadsheet of a list of dozens of people’s favorite things, ranging anywhere from favorite cake, to favorite guilty pleasure, to favorite mathematical topic. Of course, I personally have a spreadsheet of every movie I’ve seen and wish to see, every book I’ve read and wish to read, every Star Trek episode I’ve seen, every flight I’ve taken, every national park I’ve visited, every IP address I’ve tracked, and, of course, the infamous spreadsheet of everyone I’ve ever counted as an acquaintance, with birthdays, current locations, how we met, contact information, their associations in terms of schools, companies, etc., and my rankings of them on four dimensions relevant to me when I meet or get to know someone. The details of that spreadsheet will stay hidden for all of time (until perhaps an archaeologist from the far future finds it and decrypts it, and writes a thesis based on the theory that those living in academic communes on the western coast of the California continent–because naturally, California will have become its own continent–in the early 21st century tended to regard each other in a very numerical fashion.)
Why is data regarded as so much more malicious when stored in an easily searchable digital format? If I were to tell someone that for everyone I have ever met, I remembered the person’s birthday, how I met him/her, what s/he does in life, and how s/he appealed to me in the four dimensions most important to me, and that I could easily recall those facts on command, I would probably be hard-pressed to find a person who did not think that I was a thoughtful, sociable human being. But as soon as I change the word “remember” to “store in my spreadsheet,” I suddenly transform into a sociopathic stalker, the types that lounge around in AOL chatrooms and MySpace pages of 13 year-olds and whose vocabulary consists entirely of two- to five-letter acronyms or xoxo. I keep spreadsheets because memories, especially of something as unique as people, are too precious to be tossed haphazardly in the very imperfect storage called the human brain. I am doing nothing more than helping myself remember what would have otherwise taken me much more effort to remember, but I probably would have remembered nevertheless. Even when I search people up in public databases to find a home phone number or the like, I get weird glances as if I had just entered their homes and looked through all their drawers.
I am only 20, but I remember when birthdays were considered private information. Yet, nowadays, I could pretty easily find the birthday of anyone about which I care to have that information. Photography, even painting, was considered an encroachment on privacy at some time in history, but today, there are laws protecting photographer’s and painter’s rights in public. (For example, in the United States, contrary to popular belief, you have the right to take a picture of a person standing in his/her house, so long as you are standing in public property.) Will other information currently considered semi-private, such as work histories, home addresses, our acquaintances, our feelings and opinions of others, become freely accessible by the public in the future? With the internet racing through puberty, complete with legal acne and all, we are becoming more interconnected than ever. Even with people I have never met, I can, with a cursory glance at their Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, blog, and/or other web presence, determine their interests, age or birthday, closest friends, current occupation, and current problems in life, and for most people I know, the fact that other people have can find this information doesn’t really bother them. Why should it?
So why is keeping my own spreadsheet any different than just searching through Facebook or Google?