overhaul / undertow

Thursday, August 15, 2002

There is an ongoing dialogue in the world of the net, one that I keep seeing pop up over and over, with no clear answers yet--only questions. It regards the notion of "privacy" in the digital era, the information age, whatever you want to call it. "Whatever shall become of Privacy?" bemoan a segment of the argument, while others thrill for the day when there is no privacy, since as we all know (right?) privacy is largely a space we engineer in order to behave dishonestly.


Here's a classic but well-written discussion on it, at the overwhelmingly pleasant read docrpm, a beautifully designed and intelligent blog referred to me by a friend. If you'll check out the comment posted, you'll see the common refrain that Privacy Is Bad.

For the most part, I think people only have three major reasons to be alone and have privacy.

1. Because they have the belief--consciously or otherwise--that something thay have done is wrong or damaging to another, and they wish to escape blame.

2. Because they believe--again, consciously or otherwise--that they have committed some act or display some quality that makes them undesirable or bad.

3. Because they have the wish to explore inner psychological / emotional phenomena which are necessarily interrupted or made difficult to examine in the presence of others (the “I need some time to think” thing).

While it's all well and good to call for a society free of the first two points, I worry about a privacy-free culture. No way are we going to be comfortable when our intimate acts of unkindness, callousness, overt agression, or just plain grossness are laid bare for everyone to see. And I think that having no privacy, no safe and quiet space to think alone, in peace, is a very big problem.

But wait! you say...We can just go camping or for a drive or something, and then we'll have that time alone without having to argue for privacy.

I guess that's true. But there's a more subtle form of space that we need. It's the silent space formed by being disconnected from the blaring siren of popular culture and commercialism, the sense of calm that comes when you know that your interactions--should you choose to have them--are unmonitored, unfettered, and unjudged; it's apparent in how I feel nervous every time I sign up for a new email account, and why I often throw in false information when asked for my birthdate, the place where I live...

If we live in a world where anyone--with the right technical knowledge--can have access to my intimate information, the basic numbers and measurements that identify me as me--we may be able to drive to the mountains, go decompress in a high desert hotel for a few days, whatever--but there will always be that buzzing hivelike feeling in the back of your head, reminding you that people know who you are, know things about you. Sometimes we don't want to be known. It's a kind of freedom. One with imprecise and blurred boundaries. That sense of self. Where do we begin and end?

I'm all for honesty, and I think the idea of a utopia where we all fully know and accept one another's true selves, unadulterated by the brick walls of Privacy, is a beautiful idea. What warmth, what understanding, what fullness, what acceptance.

But as we all know, utopias really don't happen.

If a shift is coming in the way we relate to the concept of privacy, I suspect it's a long way off, and it will likely have just as many problems as our current ways of being.


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