by Lizzie Skurnick
In 1956, the great science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov published “The Dead Past.” In the story, scientists and the government clash over the Chronoscope, a machine that can let a viewer see as deep as the ruins of Carthage, but is restricted for mysterious reasons. (Reader, halt. If you’ve yet to work your way through Asimov’s oeuvre and would like to absorb the climactic twist of this story on your own, skip down.)
Ah, but you are on tenterhooks! Here we go. A scientist pushes to access the Chronoscope. Access denied. He proceeds nonetheless. His act of defiance wins the day, but destroys society as we know it. Why? As a bureaucrat bitterly clues him in, a machine that can see into the very distant past can — idiot — also see into the very recent past: say, one millionth of a second ago. What our scientist has done is set free the ur-security camera, one that will allow us to track each other anywhere, at any time, for all time. “Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone,” our hero of a bureaucrat hisses at the scientist-villains. “May each of you fry in hell forever.”
Well! As usual, Asimov got the dangers right, but the means and motivation wrong. He rightly predicted that our future would produce an unheard-of level of exposure, but did not predict we would be the means. We do not need an ur-security camera when it’s we ourselves who leave a littering of video, blog post, credit-card records and Google search strings for corporations and individuals alike to raid. Our very human desire for contact over isolation, convenience over difficulty, and declaration over circumspection would provide the means for our —
I’m sorry. I briefly forgot that I am not David Starkey. But gigantic digital footprints notwithstanding, we’re not yet absorbed into Asimov’s great Multivac as a bodiless synaptic web. We’re still here in corporeal form, and one can, if one wishes, approach us as human, question us as to our circumstances, then jeer in our face and depart.
So why do we hate-search? That is, why do we trawl the internet for information about people we dislike? I call this activity “smearching,” and it often overlaps with hate-reading, which is what happens when your hate search becomes part of your daily routine.
In an effort to answer these questions, I’ve tried to lay out the main types of smearching, as well as recall what we did before the Internet, though I am a poor fool and remember little of this dark time. I am also but a lone woman and not even on Tumblr so I will rely on you to provide additional means, methods, and motivations for smearching, which is by its very nature a solitary activity, cloaked in shame, called “stalking” at best, and thus not wholly to be understood by even the most inveterate smearcher.
1. IT IS BY ITS VERY NATURE A SOLITARY ACTIVITY, CLOAKED IN SHAME, CALLED STALKING AT BEST, NOT EVEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD BY THE MOST INVETERATE SMEARCHER
Humans are dumb, and one of the main ways in which we are dumb is we don’t like anyone to know that we care about them. In love, we generally get over this fear because a host of “no thanks” eventually renders our affections but a dry husk of a once-flowering bloom. But in hatred, we never get over the fear that someone will know they got to us — because to declare we are threatened means to declare someone our equal, exactly the opposite of what we wish them to be.
Here’s where smearching comes in. Those unable to bear the stink of superiority of that guy tinkling the ice of his bourbon in your face can content themselves with his Amazon ratings (10 1-stars! 10!) or his pudding-faced child. (Facebook.) That these are all, in fact, signs of success — having anyone rate a book on Amazon, having had sex, having the time to use Facebook — mean nothing if they can be quantifiably reduced. This is not jealousy but a kind of back-door pecking, reducing one’s enemy to a reasonable size so that you can tinkle your glass back with your sad idea of parity.
What we did in the old days: The best illustration of pre-smearch pecking comes, I believe, from the end of Broadcast News, when Albert Brooks asks his child if he knows who William Hurt is. The child replies, “The big joke?” Yes. In the old days, we relied on our children to reliably pass, in the playground or elsewhere, information back-and-forth we were not willing to say to someone’s face! Take that, Attachment Parenting!
2. WE HAVE FORGOTTEN THERE IS ANOTHER WAY TO LEARN ABOUT PEOPLE
The other night, I attended a party of a bunch of twentysomethings and was immediately struck by the oddity that no one would tell me what they did when I asked them, “What do you do?” Remembering my youth, I naturally thought this was from shame. But further prodding revealed a well-known videographer, a clerk at the AG’s office, and several others more impressively employed than some people I could name.
I asked them if this was modesty. But their bristling refusal to acknowledge how they spent their days did not bespeak modesty. I asked if they hated me. They claimed no. Finally, a young man with his face half-hidden by a tie-dye baseball hat told me it was like asking someone what courses they were taking in college.
This made me feel my mortality more than I enjoy on a Saturday night (COLLEGE!!!) but it answered my question. It was neither secrecy nor modesty on their part, but the idea that this information — what they did — was so freely available on Facebook, Google and Tumblr to ask them about it was doing was akin to asking someone if their hair was usually brown. Intimate information — that they played Catan last night, that the Deerhoof show had been really good, that I needed to make that ex-girlfriend who’d come to the party go away, somehow, just go away — was for in-person. LAWYER. That was like asking what college courses they were taking.
I pondered this new intimacy. Then I took all the good champagne and drank it, because they are in their twenties and can’t tell the difference.
What we used to do: We used to ask people what they did. Sometimes, if we responded, “Poet,” they said we were brave, and what they meant is we were poor but it was nice someone had loaned us a dress so we could leave the house.
3. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO LEARN ABOUT PEOPLE
Try to find out what my brother does. Try to find out what my sister does. TRY TO FIND OUT IF I ACTUALLY HAVE A BROTHER AND SISTER.
YOU CAN’T, because they’re not on the internet. (This may or may not be in response to the information dump of their sister, but I can’t ask even them, because they’re not on the internet.)
I am on the internet, however, and my information dump — as well as yours — has rendered us the point persons for tasks that used to be filled by phone books, encyclopedias, newspaper films, phone operators, and other objects you could throw across the room with a hard thump.
These operators are gone. Now, any dunderkopf is granted a smorgasbord of information, and who in their right-click could not spiral? I have told a friend about an upcoming date and had an astrological chart of the gentleman in question sent to me ten minutes later. I have gone through the wedding photos of complete strangers and found I had enemies I didn’t even know, just from their centerpieces. I have judged hairstyles, children, countertops, motorcycles, blog names, avatars, jobs, even email names — simply because the person was not in the position to refute my judgments with their presence. One whois query led me to find an ex’s wife makes jewelry for Garnet Hill and I ALMOST BOUGHT SOME.
What we used to do: Once, King Henry VIII would send around his lords to tell everyone who the queen was that year, and you would have to sign that she was the true queen and there was no other. Sometimes, when questioned, if you forgot and said “Our Lady Catherine, God Bless Her and Keep Her” instead of “Anne,” you were hanged at the crossroads. But you could luck out with “Katherine” a lot of the time.
4. THE WEB CAN TELL THE TRUTH IN THE WAY A PERSON CANNOT
When I say the web can tell the truth, I don’t mean “the truth” in the sense of “I googled your mother’s boyfriend and need to tell you that he has three very rich ex-wives, all dead,” or even, “the subject’s pattern of credit-card use indicates the subject is involved in prostitution and money laundering.” (Though Spitzer was hate-searching par excellence.)
What I mean is the web you present contains, like the nervous sweat you sport when you swear you’re fine, a truth greater than you intend. Like all presentation, what we do on the web involves a degree of (increasingly crippling) self-consciousness, and it is only through pre-self-deprecation that we can get past the points we missed, the jokes we lost, our flat-footed delivery, our — TOPIC. What I mean is, though it is true you can, in truth, not tell anything about someone’s life from her Amazon reviews (One 2!!!) you can tell a great deal from her unconscious clues. Is she maniacally liking and commenting on everything on your page? Has she set the photos of her baby shower private? Does he delete Tweets that are not favorited in good time? Does NO PICTURE OF HIM EXIST ON THE WEB?
We see this unconscious truth sniffed out by no greater force than the commentariat, who, though they know the writer not, correctly pinpoint his or her weakness, hypocrisy, pretension, error, and split infinitives, like holy fools in a court of cowards.
I don’t mean you guys are holy fools. Or that I am King. That is just a metaphor.
What we used to do: Those of us known as “empaths” would know there was something wrong and say so on the way home from the party. Our companion would tell us we were wrong and always overthinking everything. If he or she were a therapist, they would possibly say we were “catastrophizing” or “projecting.” Later, we would say, “I told you so.”
5. TO SEE IF THEY ARE FAT OR THIN
I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I do this all the time.
What we used to do: Other people used to volunteer this information, first thing.
6. WE LIKE TO TOUCH A HOT STOVE
In the not-too-distant past, I related to my therapist that a nighttime spiral had led me to the following informations: One ex had inherited an apartment in Paris; a friend had married a Hollywood director; another ex was selling felted items on Etsy. She paused — I am not sure she has, as we once called it, “the internet” — and spoke. “You know, Lizzie, it sounds like torture,” she said.
Yes. Yes, it does. And it’s divine.
When one’s general experience on the internet involves paging through emails for your boss to prove you did in fact say the meeting was 1 p.m. on Thursday, not 2, though she will have moved on to some new gross negligence by the time you find it anyway, or spending three hours finding the drivers for your LAN that iTunes latest update broke (call me) so you can get back on the internet in the first place, the idea of submitting to an unholy alliance with the subconscious can seem a welcome palate-cleanser. Felted Etsy-ware is pain, yes, but is pain not life? How else to dim the experience of the Excel file than with the terrible news that, three years later, that boss was hit by a bus? (True story.)
And yes, though it is “torture,” cannot we then argue smearching is a sign we truly have no desire to have, in fact, this horrible person in our lives, and a healthy reminder of the pain they caused is but a self-administered preventative, the wee bit of virus that immunizes? Would we not, were we truly unhealthy, call these people and hang up; drive by their houses; actually send them emails? I would tell my therapist this but she will just ask me why I am being so analytical, like that is not MY JOB TOO.
How we used to do this: We used to drive by their houses. Call them and hang up. Drop in on them in the library. Leave secret mixed tapes.
7. R U THERE?
A friend recently explained my propensity for using Apple TV to play podcasts because my TV is next to the radio with the theory that technology is often ahead of what people actually want. “They thought we wanted phones with video screens,” he said. “But then it turned out people actually wanted to tap out tiny messages in Morse-like code.”
Dick Cheney and Dharun Ravi notwithstanding, our smearching is much the same. We do not stalk the symbols of our discontent in their actual habitats, but prefer to piece together a portrait using the web’s fragmentary shards, mixing a running roster from 1998 with an abandoned Facebook profile with a Pinterest page of the new love interest as if this were the same as sitting across from them as they ate their eggs.
On the one hand, yes. We acknowledge this means we have lost. There is no them, and no eggs. But on the other hand, we have won. This person is lost to us forever, and our proof is that we are alone, late at night, learning all we can about them, and they cannot see us either.
THE TRUTH IS
Asimov was right. The bureaucrat of his story had nothing to worry about. We all need the danger of chaos, the satisfaction of knowing someone is fatter than us. But we don’t, as he feared, need it in real-time. To hate-search is to seek our cave painting, our fractured bit of tile, our ancient Carthaginian. In “The Dead Past,” the scientist wanted to use the Chronoscope to see if Carthaginians actually sacrificed their children by fire. We, too, want to know if anyone is immolating anyone, self or otherwise. We want to see the fire, but from a healthy distance. We don’t want to taste those ashes on the wind.
Lizzie Skurnick writes That Should Be a Word for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City. You can follow her on Twitter. Photo by David Mican.
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