Privacy Is Dead, Long Live Privacy

Nothing beyond our reachThis post was first published at The Liberty Papers on November 17, 2014.

“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 from our private moments.

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 avert their eyes from our private moments.

 

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