Invisible Walls and All-Seeing Eyes

Technology is radically changing what is private and public in our daily lives. Our personal, professional, and financial interactions increasingly take place online, where almost everything is archived and thus is potentially permanently searchable and publishable. Cameras are ubiquitous in public plazas – our strolls are recorded by store-owners, government agencies and, of course, our friends who post and tag pictures of us.  We share our location both deliberately via updates to locative social media and inescapably via our location-aware telephones.

Historically, human interaction was local and ephemeral; it was heard only by those nearby and the words, once spoken, disappeared in the passing of time. Today, however, our interactions, and other’s observations of them, can reach across space and persist in time. Surveillance cameras open seemingly private rooms to distant and unseen observers; archives retain casual conversations and out-grown profiles, forever enabling their out-of-context and possibly inopportune re-display.

These technologies make distinguishing between what is private and public difficult.  We are often unaware of the recording of our words and actions, and do not intuitively grasp that casual interactions, once fleeting and ephemeral, are now permanently etched digital artifacts .

Privacy is about maintaining control of information about ourselves.   This can include what we are thinking, what we said to another person, what we did last night, our undressed body, our favorite book, etc.  Privacy is contextual – I may discuss my family problems with one friend, but not another, and I certainly would not want them to be publicly broadcast.  I may be comfortable naked with my spouse, but not my co-workers.  Privacy varies from situation to situation and culture to culture.  I can freely share my taste in books if it is innocuous, if it is congruent with the mores of my community, or if I live in an open and tolerant society.   But if my taste reveals my deep religious commitments in a vehemently secular context or, vice versa, proclaims my atheism in a religious world, I may prefer to keep my reading habits more private – not necessarily secret, but limited to the people who I feel are accepting of my beliefs.

Privacy is important because access to private information about us by the wrong person or agency can be harmful. The direst concern is with an intrusive and repressive government – the Big Brother of 1984 and the spies and agencies of recent and on-going totalitarian regimes.  Even for those of us lucky enough to live in a more open society, history shows that governments are in constant flux, and there is no guarantee that today’s democracy will be free forever.  The data that is now collected for innocuous reasons may be used tomorrow by a less benign authority.

There are also concerns about employers and insurers who can hire, fire, and deny services based on information that have been able to glean about us.  More insidiously, there are people and institution that may not directly harm us, but whose motivations do not align with our own.  Marketers, for example, are among the most voracious amassers of information about what people do and say online.  Are they working for us, helping us find the goods and services we need?  Or are they working against us, manipulating our tastes and values to make us believe we have a ceaseless need for new purchases?

In these examples, we are concerned about protecting our privacy from outside agencies, from governments and corporations that seek to constrain and influence our beliefs and behaviors.  But there is another, social, aspect of privacy.   We need privacy in order to maintain a variety of relationships with diverse people (Rachels 1975).  I may tell an off-color joke or use profanity in front of my friends, among whom it is an accepted way of speaking.  But I would not use this language in front of my great-aunt, who would be shocked, or my children, to whom I try set an example of model behavior, or my colleagues, who I want to think of me as composed and dignified.  Thus, I would be quite discomfited to find that a recording of my friends and I joking around in this manner was circulating among my relatives, kids or co-workers.

Until recently, it was unlikely that such a recording would exist.  Today, camera-equipped phones, designed for easy and instant publishing of their content, are present in most social situations, making every acquaintance a potential paparazzo.  Dinner party attendees post live updates from the table about the conversation and the food.   Both online and off, it is becoming harder to discern who is privy to one’s words and easier to promulgate conversations and other activities to people outside the intended audience.  Technology is eroding our ability to keep separate the different facets of our lives.

Yet while privacy is important, more privacy is not always better.  We can protect our privacy by saying nothing and leaving no traces.  Taken to an extreme, a very private world is anonymous, lonely and anarchic.

We need to have public realms, where we encounter new people and new ideas and where self-imposed constraint on actions, rather than the absence of watching eyes, maintains privacy. Vibrant public spaces are of great value to a community.  Public spaces are for celebrations and protests, for commerce and socializing; by being out in public, we see how others appear and act.  There is an energy that comes from being seen by others and making the effort to act in our public role.

In some ways, technology is making our world more private.  It was not so long ago that one could easily see the entertainment choices of one’s fellow subway riders: their books and magazines were clearly visible.  Today people read or listen to digital media, and tiny screens hide their choice; a small but significant loss in the social vividness of the city, for taste in books and music is one way people define their social identity.   Many work places have become eerily silent, as employees who once gathered to chat at water-coolers now stay in their offices (or even at home), communicating mostly online.  The sociability that was once available simply by being in a public space is diminishing.

In other ways, technology is creating new public spaces.  The internet provides numerous platforms for public speech: we can voice our opinions, display our photographs, and publish our songs to a global audience with unprecedented ease.  What we do in these new, mediated public spaces is much the same as what we do in traditional public spaces[1] – we seek out entertainment, support political causes, meet new people.  But mediated public spaces are significantly different: words and images persist indefinitely, audiences are often invisible, and people’s identities range from wholly anonymous to extensively documented.  These new forms of public information can help re-invigorate public space – and they can also be a nightmare of violated privacy and repressed behavior.

Privacy and publicity are complementary and need to be in balance.  A world in which everything is private, in which you see little of your fellow inhabitants, is a world without society.  It is a world where people act in isolation, one where social mores have no place to develop.  A world in which everything is public is one where social control is overwhelming, where every act and expression is open to scrutiny.  We need public space, where we can encounter the new and unexpected, where we can see and be seen by others.  We need private space, free from the constraining norms of the greater world, in which to act as an individual and with a smaller group.

Indeed, public and private form a continuum.  Many of our actions are public to some group – our family, our co-workers, our fellow cross-dressers or cat-fanciers – but private to our other social groups and the rest of the world.  The street is obviously public, but even one’s family, in “the privacy of one’s home” is also a public, with its own set of rules for how one behaves: danah boyd notes that teenagers think of the family as public space and their friends as the private world, whereas adults perceive the opposite (boyd 2006).  How much control you have over the norms of a situation affects whether you perceive it to be public and controlled by others, or private and controlled by you.

Tolerance affects our need for privacy. The drawbacks of a highly public world – intense social control, endless scrutiny – are ameliorated in a society that accepts and protects diversity of opinions and behaviors.   We need to balance the public and private, the collective good and personal liberty.  When the public sphere is liberal and gives people much freedom, there is less urgency for privacy….

<full essay here>


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