For today’s post, I wrote a bit of an essay on the idea of privacy, its origins, role, historical and modern context, how it is evolving in the face of modern culture and technology, and why it is important. As usual, this is your disclaimer that the essay reflects my own opinions, in case you didn’t come to a publishing website for an essay on privacy. We’ll be back on Thursday with our regularly scheduled book review, and of course you are welcome to check out all of our original works and past posts. If you do decide that this post sounds worth your time, then I hope that you find it interesting.
What separates human beings from other animals? What makes us distinct, different, unique, what traits do we alone have who have done things that no other species has on Earth? For that matter, what is different between a person hunting for subsistence and a person settling the Fertile Crescent? Questions like these have fascinated people for centuries, perhaps millennia, and depending on who you ask (and when), you’ll get all sorts of answers: intelligence, curiosity, tool-making…I could go on, but that’s not really this post’s topic. Blindsight makes an argument that one uniquely human trait is self-awareness (and further that such introspective tendencies might be a evolutionary dead-end and a significant waste of resources, a quite different perspective from the many non-fiction books advocating for increased self-awareness).
This post is not intended to weigh into the argument of the utility or purpose of self-awareness, but I would go so far as to claim that self-awareness gives rise to another, derivative, uniquely human trait: privacy. Ayn Rand once described civilization as being the ascent to a state of privacy, and regardless of what you might think about objectivism as a philosophy, this idea has significant merit. While the meaning of privacy has evolved dramatically over the millennia and the diverse circumstances of human existence, it was no less a consideration four thousand years ago than it is in today’s discussions of cyber-related technologies and data.
Before we begin our serious discussion of privacy, it is worth establishing the basis by which I claim privacy to be a uniquely human trait. There are certainly other creatures that favor solitude, that isolate themselves in various ways from their fellows, and that even erect shelters in which to obscure themselves from inquisitive (and possibly hostile) eyes, noses, ears, and other sensory organs. What makes the human notion of privacy unique is precisely this self-awareness upon which it is predicated. In humans, privacy has become untethered from the survival advantages with which it is associated in other species, becoming an ends rather than a means. This premise could certainly be debated further, and perhaps should be, but it is with this lens that I intend to examine the topic in the subsequent paragraphs.
Human privacy is a peculiar phenomenon precisely in that it seems to run contrary to immediate survival motives. Psychologists and paleoanthropologists in the last century have reveled in informing us of, veritably bludgeoning us with, the notion that humans are by elementary nature communal creatures, that our tribal tendencies are unavoidable and unmitigable, programmed into our genetic makeup by the survival advantages imbued by the group, by cooperative functioning. In the hunter-gatherer paradigm that is presumed by most to be the most basic level of human existence, any opportunity for privacy would also be an opportunity for losing the benefits and protections of group membership. How much this view is influenced by the extrovert ideal that has dominated for more than a century now is open for debate, but again will serve as a suitable premise from which to proceed.
Deprived of obvious evolutionary advantages, privacy as a fundamental aspect of human nature appears to derive from our sense of self-awareness. Without awareness of the self, privacy has no meaning; what should be kept apart from others if there is no delineation between others and self? Thus, self-awareness, and the associated drive to distinguish oneself from one’s peers, are the underlying basis for all cultural interpretations of privacy (which of course are myriad and as diverse as the cultures from which they arise), from clothing, to bathroom stalls, to curtained windows, to property ownership.
As civilization separates us from our basic and immediate survival concerns, it enables such traits as privacy to become both viable and advantageous. In competition with nature for survival, distinctiveness, which can be read as the opposite side of the privacy coin, is immediately disadvantageous, but with increasing civilization comes increasing competition with our fellow humans with concomitantly decreasing competition from nature. This is the basis for Rand’s previously cited claim that civilization is an ascent to a state of privacy, although this would perhaps be better phrased as an ascent to a state of choice in privacy.
Like so much else, modern conceptions of privacy in the West can be traced primarily to the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and of the Enlightenment. In our modern culture, our implementation and interpretation of privacy are inextricable from our concepts of the individual, of property and ownership, and of freedom. While the US Constitution does not specifically enumerate a right to privacy amongst its explicit protections for the individual against the dangers of tyranny from both the minority and the majority, several of the amendments in the Bill of Rights do touch on privacy concerns, such as the protection against unreasonable search and seizure. I would go so far as to claim that the Constitution and its amendments imply collectively a fundamental, individual, constitutionally protected right to privacy, but that is a subject for another post.
Tracing privacy back through the millennia is an interesting exercise, and a helpful one for establishing the legitimacy of this human trait as something fundamental (and do not allow my focus upon Western culture’s privacy evolution and characteristics to eclipse the fact that privacy has taken different but entirely legitimate and recognizable forms in other civilizations throughout the world and throughout history), but does not in and of itself provide more than a starting point from which to begin a discussion of privacy in the modern context. As civilization, culture, and technology evolve, what is considered privacy changes, and the types and forms of privacy valued by the individuals of whom our society is composed will necessarily transform in tandem. A useful lens through which to examine these developments is the legal standard of a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” and how that standard has been implemented in case law, but again that is a significantly larger topic than this single essay. Suffice to say that, in your own research into this topic, it would be a very interesting place at which to begin.
Like these referenced legal standards, the expectations for and interpretations of privacy that people have are strongly influenced by their larger civilizational context. Modern biographers of Abraham Lincoln, for instance, have often used references to his sharing beds with fellow lawyers to be evidence of homosexual relationships, but a more immersive reading of the historical context reveals that nothing of the sort was likely to have occurred; it was simply that a different standard and expectation of privacy existed at that time. In the mid-nineteenth century, sharing a bed with a traveling companion or professional colleague was quite unremarkable, and indeed a matter of routine, while today it would be considered quite remarkable between all but the closest of friends. Alternatively, in that time period a man and a woman sharing accomodations without rigorous chaperones, intimate family ties, or a bond of marraige would be considered decidedly inappropriate, while today it would be the subject of little note. Similarly, Americans today are often taken aback by the lack of personal space considered acceptable in many places in Asia and Europe; this arises because persons in the US are accustomed to much larger, more open spaces than are their Asian and European counterparts. Thus, it is clear that privacy is closely associated with both the culture, the circumstances, and the mores of the times under examination.
To turn our attention now to our modern times, consider how the ubiquity of recording technology, and the proliferation and cheapening of the means to store the resulting information, have affected our expectations of privacy today. It was not so very long ago that the idea of cameras recording us in our daily lives was the subject of science fiction and spy thrillers; it is now an accepted reality; I no longer assume that I am at any time not being recorded if I am in public, and even in my own home maintain a certain degree of suspicion. One of the more fascinating phenomena of our so-called Information Age is the penchant of people to voluntarily spend significant sums of money to surround themselves 24/7 with privacy eroding spyware, and furthermore to prolifically and consciously share what I would consider intimate details with the entire world.
Some of this can be blamed on a lack of understanding of the underlying technologies that power so many modern conveniences. Any “free” consumer service, for instance, is highly unlikely to be truly free; they are instead commoditizing the user, to the point that I would argue that the product in the case of something like Alphabet’s Google search engine is not the search engine itself, but the users. Alphabet’s business model is to commoditze the users of its search engine and profit from them by selling their information to their true customers: advertisers. Technology like smart speakers and digital assistants record, analyze, and save enormous quantities of data about their owners in order to function, regardless of the carefully worded assertions made to the contrary. In all of these and similar circumstances, it is most advisable to live by the following assumptions: no information that is stored or associated with a device that can connect to the internet is secure, anything with recording capability may be recording and saving data on you at any time, anything done in public or on the internet is recorded and saved unto perpetuity, anything free and many things that are not are collecting and commoditizing your data, there is no such thing as a truly anonymized data set, and there is no such thing as a truly secure wireless system. Some of these points may sound paranoid, and could again be the topic of their own post; I will for now contend that the more knowledge you gain about these systems with which we surround ourselves, the less you will trust them.
Returning more directly to the topic of privacy, most of the modern debate over privacy is tied up in technology, and the resulting tectonic shift now in process to our understanding of what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy. What is most fascinating about this, besides the general sense of observing this evolution in real time, is the way the debate is being shaped. Increasingly, a segment of the population (which tends to be some combination of young, politically left-leaning, and involved in profitting from consumer data) argues that privacy is a misplaced ideal and not something to be sought at all. They are countered by another increasing segment of the population (which tends to be some combination of older, politically right-leaning, and removed from the material rewards associated with the creation of data sets) which argues that the individual right to privacy is at least as fundamental to the health of civilization itself as traditional constitutional rights like freedom of speech.
For myself, I believe that privacy is important, and that Ayn Rand’s assertion with which we began this discussion, that civilization is an ascent to a state of privacy, is a worthy maxim. However, I also recognize that what we mean by privacy is a complicated question. Every time we step outside or associate with anyone else, we are, in some respect, sacrificing a degree of privacy, and yet total isolation is unviable for all but a very few of the population (my skepticsm of the extrovert ideal aside, I recognize that only a very few people are inclined towards a complete hermit-like existence). Just as our expectations of privacy have evolved from what they were fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years ago, I expect that they will continue to evolve, and that the technology of the Information Age will be a major driver of that shift. At the moment, the pendulum is swinging against privacy, but there are some signs that it is beginning to swing back. Where it will settle remains an open question.
Privacy matters because it enables the best in humanity. It is not about hiding ourselves away or concealing our activities in order to get away with something; rather, it is about distinguishing ourselves from those around us, maintaining a sense of individualism, and creating mental space and sanctuary in which creativity, imagination, and self-reflection can occur. These are necessary to both the betterment of the self, and to the overall improvement of the human condition. Furthermore, privacy is most fundamental in protecting the minority, especially the smallest minority of the individual, from the tyranny of the majority. This last, more than any other reason, is why privacy is fundamental to the healthy functioning of a democratic government, for without privacy, we will revert to a state of savagery – not literally, but in a survivalist sense – in which only the needs and wills of the group are respected, and the individual is lost. Protecting privacy is not about secrecy, crime, guilt, or amorality. It is instead about protecting the individual. In a culture, a society, a world that is fundamentally composed of individuals, that is of the utmost importance.
That concludes my essay on privacy. I do hope that you found it interesting. I would be very interested to know your thoughts on privacy (if that’s not too invasive a question) – please let me know in the comments below. If there’s anything in this essay that you would like me to elaborate on further, or if you have questions about anything that I mentioned herein, I’d be glad to engage with you in the comments. Otherwise, let’s go read a book.