Bartleby, the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, published in 1856, is a short story set in the Wall Street office of a respectable but unnamed New York lawyer, who narrates the story. He is one of those “unambitious” lawyers who, “in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He employs in his office scriveners, copyists of legal documents, the strangest of whom is Bartleby. Bartleby shows himself to be a reliable if odd employee and copyist. But after a time there are unexpected events. Bartleby creates an enclosed place for himself in his employer’s part of the office with a screen, behind which he withdraws. It becomes clear that he is living in the office, because he is always there. Most importantly, when asked to carry out tasks by his employer he responds each time by saying “I would prefer not to”.

His exasperated but not unsympathetic employer does not know what to do in response. He enquires and considers exhaustively about Bartleby, what to do about Bartleby, and his enigmatic responses to ordinary requests. Most interestingly for our purposes, on one occasion, the narrator reflects that he never felt so private as when he was in the presence of Bartleby. Withdrawal, seclusion, privacy.

Bartleby has been interpreted in many ways, but it has perhaps not been noticed that “preferring not to” looks forward to the iconic statement on privacy in the Harvard Law Review by Warren and Brandeis (1890), with its equation of privacy with the right to be let alone. That means, among other things, saying I would prefer not to – or perhaps only establishing one’s preferences on preferring not to?

So what would Bartleby do with Facebook? Would he say, I prefer not to? Or would he join and set his privacy preferences to reflect where he would draw the line on preferring not to? This is perhaps the most baffling and ambiguous privacy issue to work through in relation to ICT’s and the social media. Does preferring not to mean not consenting at all, or consenting on the basis that privacy controls and preferences work and that a line can be drawn?

While the latter option seems reasonable , and the former a turning away from what might be a key feature of contemporary digital reality, isn’t there a sense about the current situation with privacy, reputation and the social media on the Internet that suggests the web and the technology are too strong, evolving too rapidly, and can’t be adequately controlled and regulated? And that the terms have altered decisively against privacy as we have known it? So, if you are still thinking abut Facebook, there might be something to be said for saying I’d prefer not to ?

Bartleby, The Scrivener can be found in Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales: Oxford World’s Classics.

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