Three views on privacy in the digital age, part 1: the value of the self

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. (Ayn Rand)

In this essay I want to consider three interconnected ways in which we can view privacy: its meaning in organic society; its potential monetisation in a digital era; and the existential threat that the digital state poses to the potentialities of individual value and the concomitant protection of privacy. Privacy rests on the idea of the sanctity of the individual person, whose roots lie in a transcendent concept of human nature, one shared by both religious persons and humanists. However, privacy in the age of the local, determined by historic place and blood relations, takes on a different complexion in a globalised digital age. The concept of privacy is necessarily complex; however, it can be usefully thought of as comprising three distinct but interrelated aspects: the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression, and the nurturing of identity. These all have implications in the dialectic of the individual self and the collective and the boundary between them, which is where the notion of privacy is located and finds its meaning.

Before exposing the concept of privacy to the glare of our increasingly digitised society and economy, it is necessary, and certainly useful, to explore its meaning in simpler, largely unmediated social forms, constituted by physical proximity, shared space, kinship, local knowledge and a predominance of direct address, reading and writing (as simpler forms of mediation). I have called this organic society, although with a different meaning to Durkheim’s use of the term, by which he denoted societies marked by a high degree of division of labour. In the sense I am using it, it does not necessarily imply an earlier stage of development – although it can also be, and often is, that – but a state that continues to coexist, albeit to a diminished degree, with the highly mediated and networked digital culture that we are living in.

Regarding the basis of privacy, philosophers tend to make a distinction between autonomy and freedom. Autonomy is the self as distinct from others, capable of taking decisions. Freedom is either the self freed from constraints on making decisions or the environment in which meaningful decisions can be made. Privacy on that basis can be considered a decision by the autonomous individual about where the boundary between the legitimate realm of the individual life and the life of the public expectation lies. However, like freedom itself, privacy is not a matter of individual diktat, but a negotiated settlement; that is, the decision needs to be mindful of the public sphere.

The public discourse on the self, only on the foundation of which can claims about the meaning and limits of privacy be legitimised, is constituted in the received narratives of a specific culture, yet there is a surprising universality to the mythological, poetic and literary analogues of the self in such cultural narratives: the sacred garden of the Hesperides wherein the gods derived their immortality; the temple of Solomon, with its holy place and holy of holies, of which Jesus said (referring to himself) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19); the Secret Garden of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s imagination, a metaphor for the lost innocence and happiness of childhood. In many such depictions an inner sacred self is separated from a profane outside. In the story of the garden of Eden, which is foundational to the civilisations of the West and the Middle East, the self harbours not only the intimacy of communion with God, but also the guilt of sin, for which the self is cast out into the profane world.

These mythopoeic depictions of the self are pertinent to the idea of privacy, for how can one approach the idea of privacy, which exists solely at a psychological and deontological level, unless it is through a historiography of narratives, both sacred and secular. The genesis of privacy is in the self and sense of identity and is projected out into the surrounding sphere of possession, so that it encompasses all (and everyone) that one ‘touches’ that are considered belonging to oneself and creating the larger context of the value of the self. It is more than that identity, though; it is the protection of that self and its possessions from jealousy, avarice, theft and murder, both literal and symbolic. For this reason, the narratives of the self depict a protective boundary – a wall or supernatural deity, such as the Hesperides or the Cherubim – between the self and a hostile ‘outside’. Indeed, this narrative becomes tangible in our decision to live our lives behind walls, the walls of our homes, that extends the very meaning of privacy.

What is it that privacy protects? It is not essentially the differentiated self, even thought it is also that, for the individuated self is difficult to separate from that which it perceives and dwells among. It is most pertinently the realm of intimacy with those with whom we share our relative isolation. All of us have lives in which we want to preserve the most precious and sacred things from the public gaze. What constitutes the sacred will be determined by culture to some extent, though in the end each person makes a determination of what that actually is. For many people and cultures it centres on the sexual act, which is carried out beyond the prying eyes of the world. Family life, as a place of intimacy, also largely takes place beyond the gaze of the world. In the family we can be most ourselves without fear of public judgement. The most intimate and sacred place, though, is our own mind; our thoughts, memories and deepest held beliefs are often not on display to the world; they are masked by the face we show to the world, what Jung termed our persona.

Ironically, the concept of intimacy has a strong relationship to the concepts of disgust and shame. There are areas of our lives – bodily functions spring to mind – that we would rather people not know about, and certainly not witness, though they are perfectly natural and about which we might not ourselves feel disgust to the extent that we imagine other people might do so. That association extends to family life. In the family there are many instances of bad behaviour, by adults as well as children that we may feel ashamed of and wish to remain private, hidden from the judgmental eyes of public view. The same is true of our thought processes; we entertain thoughts which we would not like to be known to others, even those closest to us. Disgust and shame, and their association with intimacy, tell an important truth about human life: that the sacred is contiguous with the profane, not merely the opposite of it.

Beyond disgust and shame, transgression must not be hidden merely for the sake of propriety, but from the judgment of social norms and the law. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, transgression and the sacred are closely associated. This association is indicated in the myths of every culture, most prominently for us, of course, in the myth of Adam and Eve, wherein their transgression was followed by knowledge ‘of good and evil’, shame and the concealment of their nakedness and concealment from divine sight. They withdrew from God, so to speak, into the realm of their own privacy. A cynical reading of the tension between the sacred and transgression would be that religions set up impossible ideals, effectively turning everyone into hypocrites, pace Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”. Yet secularists are no less committed to preserving their privacy and the concealment of their moral transgressions.

The relationship between transgression and privacy is more complex than the moral tales derived from biblical or other sources would suggest. Adam and Eve hid themselves, but Milton’s Satan defiantly declared that it was “better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven” and made a virtue of his transgression. We have this expression ‘hiding in plain sight’; many transgressors openly proclaim or display their transgressive behaviour, seemingly attempting to normalise it in the eyes of the public. But a normalised transgression is no longer a transgression and the transgressor craves above all the thrill of transgressing the norms of the society, so must secretly affirm those norms and desire their being continued to be upheld in order to continue secretly, but openly, transgressing them.

Each of us in some way is a transgressor, both metaphysically against a supposed divine order, but more prosaically against the conventional rules of the collective of which we are a part, and we conceal our transgressions in an existential hide and seek in order to avoid punishment. This is not merely an observation of some contingent fact; it is also a claim that such transgression is fundamental to our nature and our true social functioning. For Kant we are ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. We like to believe we are gods and portray ourselves as such to the world, but we also have the demon in us and take refuge behind the walls of our privacy to conceal this fact. Part of our transgressive nature is also our hypocrisy in calling out and exposing the monstrosity in others. In such a way we maintain the social order in which our own transgression is embedded.

I am not quite claiming that transgression is acceptable, nor that the collective does not have a right to punish us for our transgressions. Nevertheless, it is normal to infringe the rules of society from time to time; it is what makes us human. We should not be surprised or indignant, though, if we are found out and punished; ultimately, that is what makes human societies just. Having said that, while it may look as though it is the right and duty of society to punish wrongdoing, there is no absolute moral pivot upon which social order turns. Instead, there is the continual struggle of human societies to solve the problems of continued existence in a fundamentally hostile world and adapt to change. All dramatic breakthroughs, whether in science, culture, politics or in social justice, come from transgression of the established rules. To transgress the moral rules and laws of society is liberating and a source of joy for the individual, and arguably necessary for human sanity. However, the rules exist for a reason –  the common good – and must, therefore, be preserved – paradoxically also for the continued possibility of transgression.

In transgression can be seen a fundamental dialectic at the heart of privacy, between concealment and exposure, between the power of the individual and that of the social collective, between the preservation of rules for the common good and their flouting for the individual benefit. But concealment also confers a power for strategic self-exposure of transgression for the common good, although this is a strategy with considerable risk. Privacy is the realm of the secret, one of life’s currencies that the wise spend with discretion.

Ayn Rand suggests, in the quotation given at the head of this essay, that civilisation is in part the process of moving from societies in which every aspect of our lives is public, to those in which we are granted increased levels of privacy. I think this is open to question, depending on how privacy is defined. In the past, in what I have termed organic society, people undoubtedly lived their lives more publicly and their identities and actions were relatively known and observable; however, the public realm was much smaller than it is now. Outside of immediate family and the immediate vicinity little was known about persons. Communication was limited, slow and largely unmediated. Therefore, one could argue that, by comparison with today, there was a relative contextual privacy. There was a limited state and a correspondingly underdeveloped bureaucratic machinery and, therefore, little requirement to be registered; a person could live their entire lives without being known to the authorities (this was still possible in most countries until about 100 years ago).

As the state and its bureaucratic requirements have grown, and now especially with the development of digital technology, so the concept of privacy has also changed. Where once identity was a matter of visual recognition and reputational transmission, now it is a complex process of substantiation by documentation and a record of accessing the state’s services, increasingly digitised. In organic society privacy meant hiding in some manner, physically placing a barrier or distance between oneself and others. In a world of state intrusion, whether overt or covert, intentionally or incidentally, into the lives of citizens, the meaning of privacy has shifted – and has necessarily had to shift, to forms of resistance such as non-compliance. Moreover, as technological advance has yielded an increasingly digital economy, new layers have been added; privacy has become increasingly commodified, an issue that I want to explore in the second part of this essay.

So, what is the baseline view of privacy, if we strip away all the accoutrements of modern society and the contemporary treatment of this as an ‘issue’? For Wittgenstein it was the experience of an interior monologue, essentially a private language, and “The essential thing [being] … not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else”.1 Wittgenstein himself hints at the problematic nature of such a private language: “sounds which no one else understands but which I ‘appear to understand’ might be called a ‘private language’”.2 There is, in my estimation, no such thing as a private language, only a shared language; for either we share it and explain the ruminations of our interiority, in which case it is not – or no longer – private, or we keep it private, in which case whether we can speak of language or not is ineffable. We can, though, speak without contradiction, I believe, of a ‘shared experience’, one that comes to us through universal narratives.

While the experience is purely part of our interior world, our subjectivity, we are able to communicate the experiential nature of our reaction through shared language and through shared cultural symbols, which are embodied in the narratives of our cultures. The critical myths are those through which we imbibe our understanding of the value of the self. There is, in fact, no other way to experience the self and to understand the nature of the self than through these narratives. Privacy, essentially then, is the protection of the value of the self established through such cultural narratives. Such protections are already encoded in the allegorical appropriation of existing modes of protection (such as walls and weapons) and then reproduced and reinforced through cultural transmission, adding the value of a received mythologised tradition to such mundane devices.

Notes

  1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, note 272.
  2. ibid., note 269

 

Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958). Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Vladimir Propp (1984). Theory and History of Folklore (translated by Ariadna Y. Martin et al). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carl Jung (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rod Barnett (2007). Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes. Landscape Journal, 26 (2), pp.252-269.

Sir James George Frazer (1925). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: MacMillan and Co.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza & Marcus W. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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