Privacy Is Dead, Long Live Privacy

Nothing beyond our reach“Americans Say They Want Privacy, but Act as if They Don’t.” Thus proclaims the headline from Claire Cain Miller, writing at the New York Times. Miller is talking about the results of a new survey from the Pew Research Center, finding that Americans do not feel secure entrusting their personal information to digital communication channels. Their distrust is directed at both private businesses and the government.

But, as Miller notes, they keep sharing anyway.

Perhaps the paradox is tied to our evolution, from the time when early man lived in caves, with few walls separating members of a clan; when to the extent anyone had privacy, it existed only because others voluntarily averted their eyes. Perhaps a buried part of us longs for the days when family members slept in the same room, children shared beds and people lived entire lives in the town where they were born.

When we were anchored in communities that bore witness to the minutiae of our lives.

Miller’s headline reminded me of a piece from earlier this year called Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It, by Kevin Kelly at Wired. Kelly reminds us that:

[T]ransparency is truly ancient. For eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets. We evolved with constant co-monitoring. Contrary to our modern suspicions, there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years, and — if truly equitable and symmetrical — it can feel comfortable.

Families and communities knew each other’s business. Privacy was nothing more than an extension of courtesy, the voluntary willingness of others to avert their eyes.

The Industrial Revolution changed that. We moved away from our families and towns of origin. Our houses got bigger, the walls and doors more plentiful, until even the baby had her own room.

Now technology—the same force that once drove us away from our circles of watchers– has delivered new circles and new watchers.

What the Industrial Revolution took away, the Internet gives back. We are no longer six degrees from Kevin Bacon, but three degrees from everyone.

Privacy as we have briefly known it is on its way back out. As Kelly writes:

Most likely, 50 years from now ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm. The internet is a tracking machine. It is engineered to track. We will ceaselessly self-track and be tracked by the greater network, corporations, and governments. Everything that can be measured is already tracked, and all that was previously unmeasureable is becoming quantified, digitized, and trackable.

Why is Kelly so sure? Because governments are abusive and out of control? No. He is sure about us, about the choices we will make:

[I]f today’s social media has taught us anything about ourselves as a species it is that the human impulse to share trumps the human impulse for privacy. So far, at every juncture that offers a technological choice between privacy or sharing, we’ve tilted, on average, towards more sharing, more disclosure.

*     *     *

The self forged by previous centuries will no longer suffice. We are now remaking the self with technology. We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that. We’ve extended our bodies and minds with tools and hardware. We are now expanding our self by inhabiting virtual spaces, linking up to billions of other minds, and trillions of other mechanical intelligences. We are wider than we were, and as we offload our memories to infinite machines, deeper in some ways.

In other words, we want all of the things by which we will destroy our own privacy. We want the ease and convenience of cashless transactions and online purchasing. We want the masturbatory self-stroking of publishing our every whim and thought onto the perpetual web. We want limitless hotspots where we can be permanently plugged into the extended selves our devices allow us to be. We want the security of seeing through clothing and walls and across distances and time.

We don’t just want it. We demand it.

The Pew Research results suggest the future of privacy may be the same as its past. The voluntary willingness of others to turn theirs heads.

To pretend they do not see.

Parts of this post previously appeared on my website LibertyGroundZero.com. The image is via TechDirt.com.

Sarah Baker is a writer, libertarian and attorney, living in Bozeman, Montana, with her daughter and a houseful of pets. She can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

  • Brad Warbiany

    You know, when I first started blogging, for a short time I did so under just the nickname “Warbs”. At the time, I was concerned about privacy, specifically because–as the only Brad Warbiany in the world–my name leads one directly to me in a Google search.

    When I changed to using my full name, there was a part of me that did so because it was generally thought that credibility of using ones actual name was worthwhile. But perhaps another bit was ego–I wanted what I wrote to be attached to me. I think I’m leaving an internet legacy behind. I’m still not sure whether it’s a positive or negative one. ;-)

  • RavenNation

    “because it was generally thought that credibility of using ones actual name was worthwhile.”

    This is definitely one way to look at it. However, there is also a long tradition of writing (political broadsides/editorials/letters), etc., that were published under pseudonyms. In some cases this was done to protect the writer from vengeful authorities. But, it was also done to “protect” the reader from approaching a piece with preconceptions based on what they knew of the author. Certainly a lot of the broadsides written during the American Revolution fall into the former category. But a lot of the documents which came out of the constitutional debates were based on the second idea: to present radical ideas (for the times) without the identity of the author prejudicing the reader.

    Finally: think of some of the great political works that were originally written under pseudonyms: Cato’s Letters and the Federalist Papers being two examples.

  • Sarah Baker

    I don’t want to understate the value of anonymous publication as RavenNation is talking about. It’s clearly vital. But I too like having my writing connected to me. :-)

  • Sarah Baker

    This is a very creepy article from Slate. If you have not seen it yet, RavenNation, I think you will find it as disturbing as I do:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/11/internet_trolls_pose_a_threat_internet_commentators_shouldn_t_be_anonymous.html

  • RavenNation

    Creepy indeed. What makes it more bizarre is Applebaum’s c.v: check out the first two books on her page. You’d think she would have learned…
    http://tinyurl.com/pdm9db9