This column is about privacy, a common enough topic but one to which I don’t think we’re paying enough attention. As a culture we may be losing it at a greater clip than we’re noticing, and that loss will have implications both political and, I think, spiritual. People don’t like it when they can’t keep their own information, or their sense of dignified apartness. They feel violated when it’s taken from them. This adds to the general fraying of things.
Privacy in America didn’t fall like the Berlin Wall, with a cloud of cement dust and cheers. It didn’t happen over a few days but a few decades, and it didn’t fall exactly, but is falling. If you’re not worried about that, or not feeling some nostalgia for the older, more contained and more private America, then you’re just not paying attention.
We are all regularly warned about the primary threat of identity theft, in which technologically adept criminals break into databases to find and use your private financial information. But other things, not as threatening, leave many of us uneasy. When there is a terrorist incident or a big crime, we are inundated on TV with all the videotape from all the surveillance cameras. “We think that’s the terrorist there, taking off his red shirt.” There are cameras all over. No terrorist can escape them, but none of the rest of us can either. If you call 911, your breathless plea for help may be on tonight’s evening’s news, even though a panicked call to the police is a pretty intimate thing.
Do you want anyone who can get your address on the Internet to be able to call up a photo of your house? If you don’t, that’s unfortunate, because it’s all there on Google Street View, like it or not. Facebook has apparently taken to changing its default settings so that your information—the personal news you thought you were sharing only with friends—is available to strangers and mined for commercial data. And young people will say anything on networking sites because they’re young, because no one has taught them not to, because they’re being raised in a culture that has grown more exhibitionistic.
In the Oxford English Dictionary the first definition of privacy is: “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” The third definition casts some light on how our culture is evolving: “Absence or avoidance of publicity or display; secrecy, concealment, discretion; protection from public knowledge or availability. Now rare, or merging with sense 1.” You said it, OED.
We increasingly know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know. And of course technology is not the only force at work. An exhibitionist culture will develop brutish ways. And so candidates and nominees for public office (and TV stars) are now asked—forced is a closer word—to make public declarations about aspects of their lives that are, actually, personal, and private. “Rep. Smith, 45 and unmarried, has refused to answer persistent questions on whether he is gay. But bloggers have revealed that he owns antiques and has played badminton.” Those who demand that everything be declared see themselves as street fighters for the freedom in men’s souls. But they’re not. They’re bullies without boundaries.
“The private life is dead in the new Russia,” said a Red Army officer in the film of Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago.” There were many scarifying things in that great movie, but that was the scariest, the dry proclamation that the intimate experience of being alive would now be subordinate to the state. An odd thing is that when privacy is done away with, people don’t become more authentic, they become less so. What replaces what used not to be said is something that must be said and is usually a lie.
When we lose our privacy, we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God. We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. People who now have no faith in the security of their medical and financial records, for instance, will have even less faith in their government. If progressives were sensitive to this, they’d have more power. They always think the answer is a new Internet Privacy Act. But everyone else thinks that’s just a new system to hack.
At technology conferences now they say, “Get over it.” Privacy is gone, get with the new world. But I’m not sure technologically focused people can be sensitive to the implications of their instructions.
We all think of technology as expanding our horizons, and in many ways of course it does. How could we not be thrilled and moved that the instant transmission of an MRI from New York to Mumbai can result in the correct diagnosis that saves a child’s life? But technology is also constricting. It can restrain movement and possibility.
Here is a fanciful example that is meant to have a larger point. If you, complicated little pirate that you are, find yourself caught in the middle of a big messy scandal in America right now, you can’t go to another continent to hide out or ride out the storm. Earlier generations did exactly that, but you can’t, because you’ve been on the front page of every website, the lead on every newscast. You’ll be spotted in South Africa and Googled in Gdansk. Two hundred years ago, or even 100, when you got yourself in a big fat bit of trouble in Paris, you could run to the docks and take the first ship to America, arrive unknown, and start over. You changed your name, or didn’t even bother. It would be years before anyone caught up with you.
And this is part of how America was born. Gamblers, bounders, ne’er-do-wells, third sons in primogeniture cultures—most of us came here to escape something! Our people came here not only for a new chance but to disappear, hide out, tend their wounds, and summon the energy, in time, to impress the dopes back home. America has many anthems, but one of them is “I’ll show ‘em!”
There is still something of that in all Americans, which means as a people were not really suited to the age of surveillance, the age of no privacy. There is no hiding place now, not here, and this strikes me as something of huge and existential import. It’s like the closing of yet another frontier, a final one we didn’t even know was there.
A few weeks ago the latest right-track-wrong-track numbers came out, and the wrong-track numbers won, as they have since 2003. About 70% of respondents said they thought the country was on the wrong track. This was generally seen as “a commentary on the economy,” and no doubt this is part of it. But Americans are more interesting and complicated people than that, and maybe they’re also thinking, “Remember Jeremiah Johnson? The guy who went off by himself in the mountains and lived on his own? I’d like to do that. But they’d find me on Google Earth.”