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Hubris meets high tech



Published: Tue, November 13, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON

Think Sophocles in cyberspace.

The fall of David Petraeus is part Greek tragedy, part cautionary tale about the omnipresence of modern technology.

The tragic part is classic: the protagonist who believes himself invincible, not subject to the rules governing ordinary mortals. Hubris is part of the human condition. Each of us is captive to the capacity for self-delusion. Every hero has a fatal flaw, every Achilles his heel. If the hero is a man, it’s a safe bet that it involves susceptibility to the opposite sex.

The technological part is something that we have not yet fully internalized, although Petraeus, of all people, ought to have known: There are no true secrets in the modern world.

Privacy is an illusion that we allow ourselves to avoid the alternative of paralysis. Every communication is potentially public. Like the gift of fire, technology is a magical device that, if not used carefully, contains the seeds of our own destruction.

Path to resignation

At the risk of arm-chair psychologizing, it is easy to imagine the inexorable path to Petraeus’ resignation. He is a gifted man who also possessed the gift of good positioning: the cadet who married the superintendent’s daughter, the young officer with a knack for attaching himself to the right mentor, the general who understood that giving reporters your email address and responding with alacrity could garner good publicity.

How fitting that the consummate networker was undone by another. Paula Broadwell met her fellow West Point graduate at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, when she was among the students invited to a dinner after a Petraeus speech.

“I introduced myself to then-Lt. Gen. Petraeus and told him about my research interests,” Broadwell wrote in her biography of Petraeus. He proffered his business card. She followed up.

In retrospect, how could Petraeus not have been taken with a female doppelganger, a woman who could keep pace with his six-minute miles and match him pushup for pushup? “Petraeus once joked I was his avatar,” Broadwell told The Charlotte Observer earlier this year.

We don’t know who seduced whom, but history suggests that the way to a man’s heart is through his ego. History further suggests that, well let’s call it ego, tends to trump intelligence when sex is involved. Beware the woman who goes on “The Daily Show” wearing a black silk halter top and flaunting her toned triceps. Men should know better, but, it seems, they rarely do.

On the matter of knowing better, let’s talk about technology. Classic tragedy, indeed classic literature, hinges on imperfect knowledge. Oedipus fulfills the oracle’s prophecy and kills his father because he does not realize he is Laius’ son. In the modern world, DNA testing would have solved the riddle.

In a fascinating interview with The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker last year, writer Ann Patchett described how the omnipresence of technology — the constant contact enabled by cellphones and email, the instant knowledge powered by Googling and tweeting — had made it difficult for her to craft convincing fiction. Plot twists fail in a world without secrets.

For the modern public figure, the ubiquity of technology exacts a different toll — not on plot but on privacy. Emails and texts can be forwarded, archived, retrieved. Phone logs are easily obtainable. The veil of anonymity is fragile; as with the threatening emails Broadwell allegedly sent, it can be shredded with a few keystrokes of a capable cyber-sleuth.

Personal interaction

Intellectually, we get it. If you don’t want to see it on the front page of The Washington Post, don’t write it down. Yet in practice, this admonition is almost impossible to observe. So much of what passes for personal interaction has migrated to cyberspace, we cannot stop ourselves from communicating this way.

Former Rep. Mark Foley sent suggestive instant messages to male pages. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner tweeted sexually suggestive photos to Twitter followers. Former Rep. Chris Lee emailed a photo of himself, shirtless, to a woman he met on Craigslist.

We have, so far, been spared details about Petraeus’ foibles; we can hope he was not quite so self-indulgently juvenile. But it is safe to assume he won’t be the last public figure brought low by the seductive twin traps of modern technology and good old-fashioned hubris.

Washington Post Writers Group


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