Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic tale of deception vs. truth. The title character spends the entire play attempting to ascertain if his uncle did indeed kill his father, who appeared to Hamlet in the form of a ghost to relay this information. Hamlet does a lot of badass stuff in his quest for the truth, including feigning madness and committing the first recorded act of identity theft, then relating all he was doing to his trusted pal Horatio.
Admittedly, the story of Hamlet is fantastic, but conceivable in its time. But what would it look like if it happened today? Let’s assume that ghosts are real: so Hamlet’s dad appears to him and says, “yo Ham! Your uncle put poison in my ear. He’s an asshole!” Hamlet might exhume the body to look for residual poison (as was recently done with the remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat). He also might go through his uncle’s iPhone and email (Hamlet seems like a hacker type) instead of staging some stupid play to determine his uncle’s guilt. But actually Hamlet probably wouldn’t even have to do any of this because, as a head of state, his uncle Claudius already has an army of Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdens waiting patiently in the wings for the slightest miscalculation. The murder would have been in The Guardian before Hamlet’s dad even had the chance to appear. So a ghost deficit is one unfortunate byproduct of our modern society.
But even if the play were allowed to progress as it originally did, and no matter how trusty Hamlet’s confidante Horatio is, another party would still have complete knowledge of Hamlet’s antics: Facebook. This will come as a surprise to no one, but Facebook got a little too real for me this week when it apparently seemed to know things about my innermost dialogues that I most certainly did not put in my newsfeed. It took things out of private messages I wrote and made freakily accurate assumptions about my deepest, darkest secrets. Which are shockingly stupid, but still.
If Hamlet’s meandering soliloquies were instead immortalized on Facebook–which is itself a modern-day monologue of sorts–it would be a lot harder for him to keep a lid on his “clever” plans; even if he put them all in private messages or on his ultra-verbose WordPress blog, there they would be for the enterprising hacker to find. And sell to the Toronto Star. (I couldn’t resist!)
And if Facebook knows about Hamlet’s plans, then it goes without saying that the NSA knows too. And hackers in China. And on and on.
Even the super-secretive Stephen Harper is having trouble keeping a lid on things lately. Part of his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership was published today by Wikileaks along with a warning that the agreement would threaten civil liberties in the 12 signatory countries. The document was classified, and agreements were being held behind an inky cloak of secrecy.
Another obvious example of failures in secret-keeping are the ongoing revelations by Edward Snowden that most countries in the world are spying on most other countries in the world. They are also spying on their own citizens. Also pretty much every high-ranking government official has access to Angela Merkel’s mobile phone records. Because she sends some effing hilarious cat GIFs. LOLZ.
On a personal level too, secret-keeping is getting harder. Take the characters on Gossip Girl, an asinine American series that has been off the air for a year now. A typical storyline consisted of the characters engaging in some downright Shakespearean schemes, usually in order to take down another character for deep-seated and deeply stupid reasons. The scheme would inevitably backfire when someone’s phone was stolen, or a sexy/incriminating video/picture was uncovered and either revealed or used to blackmail the schemer in question. If this failed to happen, Gossip Girl was always there to reveal everyone’s secrets in her poorly written blog.
While it’s true that the strategic concealment and subsequent revelation of information has always been a central component of dramatic tension (and life), the delay time between these two events is shrinking dramatically. Hamlet can run as long as five hours, while a typical episode of Gossip Girl will irrevocably rob you of about 45 minutes of your life. I am guessing that its present-day equivalent would be a lot shorter.
Take our beleaguered Mayor Rob Ford’s case for instance. It took me about two minutes to learn that he had confessed to smoking crack, and the better part of the saga leading up to his revelation happened through technology: the camera on a drug dealer’s phone, the Gawker online news outlet that broke the story, and endless comments from the Twitterati. Crazy news travels fast, and now even nations like Saudi Arabia are having trouble keeping deeply ingrained repression a secret in a world teeming with uncontainable methods of information transmission.
It all comes down to gossip. People love to do it, and if there’s a way to do it quicker, then they will find it. And as our access to information becomes more and more communal and uniform, we come that much closer to sharing one single Cloud-mind in which there are no secrets–like a real-life Borg species. In a way, we are all Gossip Girl now. From a literary standpoint we are lucky that Hamlet did not have Facebook or Wikileaks and instead had to rely on evocative rhetoric and ingenuity in his quest for the truth–both seem to be in short supply these days.
Full disclosure: I have seen every episode of Gossip Girl. Twice.