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With tech fix, privacy obsolete

I was awakened this morning by the sound of someone knocking down boxes in my closet. This is the District of Columbia, so I lack a handgun. (They’re not illegal; I just don’t know where to buy one. This is also what keeps me off bath salts.) Instead, I came out of my bedroom brandishing a set of DVD adaptations of the works of E.M. Forster.

“Shoo!” I said. “Or Helena Bonham Carter’s performance will break your heart.” The stranger, entangled in Christmas garlands, looked plaintively up at me. He seemed as startled as I was.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Oh dear, oh, oops.”

He sighed and put a high-res camera back into his bag. I caught a glimpse of a familiar logo.

“You’re from Google?”

He nodded bashfully. “Google maps,” he said.

“Why didn’t you say so?” I said, embracing him warmly. “I thought you were a person; I didn’t realize you were a faceless multinational company. I keep nothing from faceless multinational companies. Google knows things about me that even I don’t know! What are you doing here?”

He sighed. “You know how it is. Apple at WWDC just unveiled a new, cool version of maps with crowd-sourced traffic, flyover, 3D and turn-by-turn directions that everyone will want, and we’re trying to be proactive.”

“Say no more.” I put down the DVDs. “Here, let’s go through my personal items and take detailed photographs.”

That was when we heard the other crash. Another man with a camera, wearing a turtleneck, came tumbling through the kitchen window. He landed on the floor in a beautifully designed aerodynamic sprawl.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Apple maps?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Come right in.”

Several hours later, they had captured images of every object in my apartment and unearthed several sets of keys that I had misplaced under various couches, and the Apple guy had inserted a small camera into my inner eye to capture my soul, over the strenuous objections of his Google counterpart.

Hey, if it hasn’t happened yet, it soon will.

It’s not just that the face-off between the two tech behemoths has brought us New Maps and all kinds of hidden bonus features we had not dreamed of in our philosophy.

We have all kinds of cool stuff now. Magic is routine. I have a cellphone that at a touch will give me videos, stories, email, music – and my friends’ first response was, “Yeah, but why haven’t you upgraded to the 4 yet?” Companies of all kinds compete to know what we want before we want it. And this competition is getting more personal all the time.

“My smartphone comes equipped with Big Brother!”

“What is it?”

“It’s a cold, unblinking eye that stares fixedly at everything you do.”

“Oh dear,” we say, rushing out to get the upgrade. “I can’t believe I was missing out on that feature.”

One of the most famous lies of our era is “Yes, I have read the user agreement.” Yes, we say. Give it to us, quickly. It is shiny and new and will do all kinds of things, and we will worry about the cost later. Of course there is a price. As Drummond says in “Inherit the Wind”: “Progress is like a storekeeper. You can have anything you want, but you have to pay for it. You can have the telephone, but you will lose some of your privacy, and the charm of distance. You can have the airplane, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

We know, we say. And soon we will sit down and worry about the Implications. But for now, this new thing is just cool.

Do we still need privacy? Privacy is so vague and spongy. It’s the sort of thing your grandparents had in the 1930s, along with polio and croup.

Bertrand Russell had that old question about what stage of starvation you have to reach to prefer a bag of grain to a vote. But I don’t have to be starving to prefer turn-by-turn directions that take traffic into account to - well, whatever privacy is. If you have privacy, that’s just a kinder way of saying you aren’t a celebrity.

So please, Apple, Google, come on in. Bring your cameras. Keep anticipating my every need. Everything’s a luxury until you have one. Then it’s just your iPhone, and how did you ever survive without it?

Alexandra Petri is a member of the Washington Post’s editorial staff.

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