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There’s a woman I often see at the local Starbucks. The first thing I noticed about her was her sleek pocket­book, and how well it went with her erect posture and long, straight hair. Once or twice she was with a man who I assumed was her partner or husband, because they were hold­ing hands.

One night while watching TV, I was surprised to see this man in a commercial. He said his name and, since I was multi­tasking at my computer, I did the natural thing: I Googled him. Within seconds, I discovered that the woman was indeed his wife. I also learned her name and profession, and that they lived in Manhattan. My speed at obtaining this infor­mation was both thrilling and creepy. I stopped the search.

A few weeks later, I saw her on the street a block away from my apartment building. As she passed, I smiled at her as though she were an acquaintance. She looked puzzled—remem­ber, this is New York and people don’t tend to smile randomly at strangers—but she nodded back politely. Her hair was in tight curls, and I remember thinking, “I liked it better when it was straight.”

Then it hit me: I had crossed the line from innocuous observer to borderline voyeur.

There is a sweet innocence to watching the world go by, sitting at a sidewalk café in a grand plaza, taking in the population’s beauty, drama and diversity. The scenes are compelling and entertaining, without requiring real attention. You can watch individuals without being intrusive.

When does that change? What defines the line between harm­less and threatening? It is when the anonymous becomes specific; when the accidental becomes intentional.

I was telling my crossing-the-line-search story, along with my concerns, to a woman I met recently at a party. After listen­ing to her insightful questions, I was not surprised to learn that she was a professor of psychology. She responded to my story by focusing on new technology, and how it is making us all more voyeuristic. She summed it up this way: The inter­section of personal curiosity, plus the ease and omnipresence of technology, equals the seduction of pursuing more (and more and more).

I thought about my secret “relationship” with my neighbor. The simplicity with which I could find out more about her, especially in the privacy of my own home was, indeed, seductive. But it was not only my curiosity that I was feed­ing, nor was it just the customary nature most of us have of immediately employing a search engine for any question that pops into our minds. The temptation was also in my urge to meet a challenge. How talented am I at searching? Am I good at advanced searches? Hmmm, let’s see if I can track this down, if I am clever enough, if I work the magic right and then, Aha! I strike gold, there he is, and there’s his wife’s name, and then I find her Web site, and her picture, and so on…until I have clearly crossed the boundary.

There is a confluence of tendencies that compel us, not as ill-intentioned cyber-stalker bad guys, but as good, smart people: the challenge of the search as you see your skills increasing, the feeling of being on a treasure hunt, all mixed with the very human emotions of empathy, curiosity, envy and hope. I can’t speak from the perspectives of stalkers or true voyeurs, but I can speak from the point of view of a typical urban dweller who shares both city and cyberspace with her fellow citizens.

For me, these treasure hunts are worth noting, because they reveal something about who we are as participants in a con­temporary culture. We are magnetically drawn to the easy, abundant, free activity of personal fact-finding, an increas­ingly habitual game at which we are becoming quite skilled.

I’m not talking about our activities on Facebook or MySpace or other social networking sites, where people knowingly contribute to, or are at least aware of, the dissemination of the details of their personal lives. I’m talking about the vast amount of random personal information about each of us that, when carefully pieced together, can paint a picture we never intended to present. And conversely, I’m talking about the voyeuristic painter in each of us, captivated by a hobby that we never intended to pursue. ca

© 2008 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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