2014-10-30

Privacy, Or Something Like It

In For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand wrote:
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.
Say what you will about Rand, she had a point. Early society - and modern "traditional" societies - are defined by the extent to which the community is involved in every person's life. We could speculate that this sort of involvement was an early precursor to modern law and order, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that, until recently, the social order of the western world had reached a point where we could go home and essentially not be bothered or "judged" by others. At home, we were mostly free to do as we pleased, without having to involve "the community."

Two things seem to have reversed our course.

One of them is the extent to which large databases facilitate the collection and analysis of data that was previously considered to be innocuous. Modern data analysis, however, has proven remarkably successful at making accurate inferences about very private matters using data that we did not previously associate with privacy. Knowledge, once acquired, is bound to be used, and this knowledge has mostly been used to advertise to us. While many people bristle at the idea that their most personal information is being collected so that products can be sold to them, I rather consider it to be a very good thing. Markets are getting progressively better at serving the consumer, and for the most part data is either fully anonymized, or so vast that no real-world individual could hone in on a particular person and invade their privacy. Exceptions will exist, of course, and they will be rare.

But there is another, more problematic, factor undermining our privacy: social media. These are media through which we voluntarily make our private lives public on an international scale. The more paranoid streak of social media skepticism will suggest that, having volunteered our private lives, governments can now use that information to monitor and/or oppress us. Consider what rock musician Stuart Hamm recently posted on his Facebook wall: "So...I don't post photos or info of my family here. We are PAYING to have big brother watch us now. Suckers" Of course, as a libertarian, I sympathize with that fear. However, I don't consider it the primary danger of social media.

This morning The Atlantic published an article by Robinson Meyer, the closing paragraphs of which read as follows:
Is living such a public life worth the trouble? Is such a life worth being constantly exposed to vitriol and rage and threats from strangers—especially when the patterns of that abuse seem so random? Is the kind of work that would be required to sustain a “good” public, online social network possible? Is asking people to perform that moderating work something we even want to do? 
We often celebrate the social change and faster communication that public, networked life has brought about. But that kind of life—a new one that we’re all still trying out—requires remarkable sacrifice. We would do well to account for that sacrifice, and, at the very least, thank those who have made it.
So the real cost to living so prominently in the social media is not, in my view, corporate intrusions, nor is it government oppression. Instead, social media threatens to invade our personal psychological space. Every status update we post is an opportunity to be judged, or misunderstood, or threatened, or lashed-out at. Now that cameras are all digital and fully integrated with social media, every picture we take seemingly exposes us to other people's opinions about what we're doing.

Here's a picture of my baby - am I a good parent, or bad one? Here's a picture of my dinner - are you jealous, or is your dinner better, or do you think I'm making myself fat? Here's a picture of my band - is that cool, or am I trying too hard? Here's a picture of me wearing workout clothes - am I sexy enough? Here's a picture of my new girlfriend - how do you rate her?

It's interesting that we take to social media for good times, to gain the approval of the people we care about, maybe even to gain the approval of people we don't care about. Meanwhile, we must also accept the downside of this - maybe the people we do and/or don't care about disapprove of our conduct.

This is just the nature of living life as part of any society. The difference, though, is that in the good old days, we could actually escape society for a little while - go home, decompress, get out of the public eye for a bit. That's still possible in theory, of course. You can turn off all your devices and get away from it all, but today the cost of doing so is higher, because so much more of our lives has gone digital. I, for one, email friends and family many times throughout the day; I "speak" to them on Facebook; I share family snapshots with them; yet I live far away from them, thus social media affords us a level of intimacy that we wouldn't be able to experience without it. When I "unplug," I sacrifice all of that. I miss out on things I really do care about.

Sure, find the right balance for yourself. Find a level of connectivity that gives you the most of what you want the least of what you don't. Go ahead, make the trade-off.

But there's a trade-off to walking down the street, too, and walking down the street is not nearly as invasive to our psychological sense of privacy than the kind of information most of us share on social media. So calling for a "balance" or "moderation" is just another easy non-solution articulated to make us feel better. The simple fact is, we've lost a level of privacy that was previously hard-won. To be sure, we've gained something for it, but figuring out how to be authentic without being an attention whore, figuring out how to maintain a sense of privacy without becoming aloof, is not going to be an easy task for any of us any longer.

How will we regain our old-fashioned sense of privacy? Will we ever?