Privacy Is Not Dying, We’re Killing It

I’ve been thinking again about how the virtues we claim to desire are so often undermined by the technologically-mediated practices in which we persistently engage. Put very simply, what we say we value is frequently undermined by what we actually do. We often fail to recognize this because we tend to forget that how we do something (and what we do it with) can be as important, in the long run anyway, as what we do or even why we do it. This is one way of understanding the truth captured by McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message.”

The immediate catalyst for this line of thought was a recent Kara Swisher op-ed about Jeff Bezos’s leaked tweets and the “death of privacy.” In it, Swisher writes, “The sweet nothings that Mr. Bezos was sending to one person should not have turned into tweets for the entire world to see and, worse, that most everyone assumed were O.K. to see.”

She concludes her piece with these reflections:

Of course, we also do this to ourselves. Not to blame the victim (and there are plenty of those in this case, including Mr. Bezos), but we choose to put ourselves on display. Post your photos from your vacation to Aruba on the ever-changing wall of the performative museum that is Instagram? Sure! Write a long soliloquy about your fights with neighbors and great-uncles on Facebook? Sign me up! Tweet about a dishwasher mishap with a big box retailer on Twitter? Wait, that’s me.

I think you get my point here. We are both the fodder for and the creators of the noise pollution that is mucking up so much, including the national discourse. That national discourse just gave us Mr. Bezos as one day’s entertainment.

Are you not entertained? I am, and I am also ashamed.

It was refreshing to read that, frankly. More often than not in these cases, we tend to focus on the depredations of the tech companies involved or the technological accident or the bad actors, and, of course, there’s often plenty to focus on in each case. But this line of analysis sometimes lets us off the hook a bit too easily. Privacy may not be dead but it’s morphing, and it is doing so in part because of how we habitually conduct ourselves and how our tools mediate our perception.

So we say we value privacy, but we hardly understand what we mean by it. Privacy flourishes in the attention economy to the same degree that contentment flourishes in the consumer economy, which is to say not at all. Quietly and without acknowledging as much, we’ve turned the old virtue into a vice.

We want to live in public but also control what happens to the slices of life we publicize. Or we recoil at the thought of our foibles being turned into one day’s entertainment on Twitter but, as Swisher notes, we nonchalantly consume such entertainment when someone else is the victim.

Swisher’s “Are you not entertained?” obviously recalls Maximus’s demand of the audience in the film, Gladiator. It may seem like an absurd question, but let us at least consider it for a moment:  how different is a Twitter mob from the ancient audiences of the gladiatorial spectacle? Do we believe that such mobs can’t issue forth in “real world” violence or that they cannot otherwise destroy a life? One difference of consequence, I suppose, is that at least the ancient audience did not bathe itself in self-righteousness.

Naturally, all of this is just an extension of what used to be the case with celebrities in the age of electronic media and print tabloids. Digital media simply democratizes both the publicity and its consequences. Celebrity is now virality, and it could happen, potentially, to anyone, whether they want it to or not. The fifteen minutes of fame Warhol predicted have become whatever the life cycle of a hashtag happens to be, only the consequences linger far longer. Warhol did not anticipate the revenge of memory in the digital age.

9 thoughts on “Privacy Is Not Dying, We’re Killing It

  1. From Zygmunt Bauman, Moral Blindness (2013):

    “As for the death of ‘anonymity’ courtesy of the internet….we submit our rights to privacy to the slaughter of our own will. Or perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange. Or the pressure to deliver our personal autonomy to the slaughterhouse is so overwhelming, so close to the condition of a flock of sheep, that only a few exceptionally rebellious, bold, pugnacious and resolute wills will earnestly attempt to withstand it. One way or the other, we are however offered, at least nominally, a choice, as well as a semblance at least of a two-way contract, and at least a formal right to protest and sue in case of its breach: something that in the case of mechanical drones that spy on us without asking our permission is never given.

    “All the same: once we are in, we stay hostages to fate. The collective intelligence of the internet’s two billion users, and the digital fingerprints that so many users leave on websites, combine to make it more and more likely that every embarrassing video, every intimate photo, and every indelicate e-mail is attributed to its source, whether that source wants it to be or not….Everything private is now done, potentially, in public–and is potentially available for the duration, ’till the end of time, as the internet ‘can’t be made to forget’ anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. “This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web hosts, an perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private” [quoting Briant Stelter]. All those technical gadgets being, we are told, ‘user-friendly’–though that favourite phrase of commercial copy means, under close scrutiny, a product incomplete without the user’s labour, after the pattern of IKEA furniture. And let me add: with users’ enthusiastic devotion and deafening applause. A contemporary Etienne de la Boetie would probably be tempted to speak not of a voluntary, but DIY servitude.”

      1. Yeah…I think of this often and debate with myself as to whether I should curtail as much of my non-work digital presence. This also reminds me of Junger’s The Forest Passage.

  2. I appreciate you (and the Swisher article) calling us out. We inveigh against the big companies, governments, tech, etc., but however much they deserve it, the (increasingly large) elephant in the room is how much this surveillance culture is doing for everyday people in their “private” lives, even beyond this kind of seedy entertainment.

    Remotely, we now watch our pets, our babysitters, our customers and employees, our kids, our parents, our driveways and doorways, and on and on. We have the expectation of being able to observe and manage everything and everyone in our lives. At the same time, we must try to put out of our mind how we ourselves are being similarly watched and managed. It’s an under-examined part of the privacy phenomenon.

    1. Thanks for bringing all the explicit surveillance gear that has become just another part of our furniture to bear on this. Exactly right. Just another component of the larger picture.

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