Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”


I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.


This paragraph is from yet another Thomas Friedman op-ed gushing over the revolutionary, disruptive, transformational possibilities MOOCs present:

“Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.”

Okay, now read the same paragraph with one tiny alteration:

“Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material [from books] at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.”

So what am I missing? Or, is it retrograde of me to ask?

It seems to me that the cheapest, most effective tool to fulfill the model he envisions may still be the book, not the MOOC.

“Many books are read but some books are lived”

Just a quick post to pass along a link to a wonderful essay that appeared recently in The New Republic. Leon Wieseltier’s “Voluminous” is a smart, evocative reflection on the meaning of books and a personal library that is Benjamin-esque in its effect. Here are a couple of excerpts.  Do click through to read the rest. I trust you will find it worth your time.

“Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory.”


“My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows.”

This is one of those pieces that resonates deeply with me for how well it puts words to my own sensibilities (even if I might not strike quite so adversarial a tone toward digital media). I hope you’ll enjoy.

Many thanks to the reader who took the time to email me the link!

Making Sense Out of Life: Early Modern and Digital Reading Practices

When I wrote the About page for this blog I cited an article by Alan Jacobs from several years ago in which he likened blogs to commonplace books. Commonplace books, especially popular during the sixteenth century when printing first began to yield an avalanche of relatively affordable books, served as a means of ordering and making sense out of the massive amounts of information confronting early modern readers. As is frequently noted, the dismay and disorientation they experienced is not altogether unlike the angst that sometimes accompanies our recent and ongoing digital explosion of available information. And so, taking a cue from Jacobs, I intended for this blog to be something akin to a commonplace book.

As it turned out, the analogy was mostly suggestive. Much that I write here does not quite fit the commonplace genre. Nonetheless, something of the spirit, if not the law, persists. The commonplace genre would find a nearer kin in Tumblr than in traditional blogs.

In a 2000 essay reprinted in The Case for Books (2009), historian of the book Robert Darnton also reflects on commonplace books and the scholarly attention they attracted. The attention was not misplaced.  Commonplace books offered a window into the reading practices and mental landscape of their users; and for an era in which they were widely kept, they could offer a glimpse at the mental landscape of whole segments of society as well.  In the spirit of the commonplace book, here are some excerpts from Darnton’s essay with a few reflections.

Describing the practice of commonplacing:

“It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book.  They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks.

Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your own personality.”

What is only a parenthetical aside in Darnton’s opening paragraphs was for me a key insight. Darnton’s description of commonplacing could easily be applied to the forms of reading practiced with digital texts, all the way down to the personalization. What is missing, of course, and this is no small thing, is the public or social dimension.

On what commonplace books reveal:

“By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selections into patterns reveal an epistemology at work below the surface.”

That last sentence could easily function as a research paradigm for analysis of social media. Map the “elective affinities” of what Facebook or Twitter or Google+ users link and post and the emergent patterns will be suggestive of underlying epistemologies. Although here again the social dimension complicates the matter considerably. The “elective affinities” on display in social networking sites are performative in a way that private commonplacing was not, thus injecting a layer of distorting self-reflexivity.  But, then, that performative dimension is interesting on its own terms.

Commonplacing as reading for action:

“But they read in the same way — segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover. Segmental reading compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own pattern on their reading matter. It was also adapted to ‘reading for action,’ an appropriate mode for men like Drake, Harvey, [etc.] and other contemporaries, who consulted books in order to get their bearings in perilous times, not to pursue knowledge for its own sake or to amuse themselves.”

Again the resemblance between early modern reading practices as described by Darnton and digital reading practices is uncanny. The rise of sustained, linear reading is often attributed to the appearance of printing. Darnton, however, would have us connect sustained, cover-to-cover reading with the later rise of the novel. In this case, the age of the novel stands as an interlude between early modern and digital forms of reading which are more similar to one another than either is to reading as practiced in the age of the novel.

The idea of “reading for action” is also compelling as it suggests the agonistic character of both early modern English politics and early 21st century American politics. I suspect that a good deal of online reading today is done in the spirit of loading a gun. At least this is often the ethos of the political blogosphere.

Nonetheless, Darnton would have us see that this form of reading, at least in its early modern manifestation, had its merits in what it required from the reader as an active agent.

Finally, on reading and the attempt to make sense of out of experience:

“… we may pay closer attention to reading as an element in what used to be called the history of mentalities — that is, world views and ways of thinking. All the keepers of commonplace books, from Drake to Madan, read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns. The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it, not by elaborating theories but by imposing form on matter.”

Early modern Britons and those of us who are living through the digital revolution (an admittedly overplayed phrase) share a certain harried and anxious disposition. It was, after all, the early modern poet John Donne, who wrote of his age, “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” Early moderns deployed the commonplace book as a means of collecting some of the pieces and putting them together once more. If we follow the analogy, and this is always a precarious move, it would suggest that the impulses at work in contemporary digital commonplacing practices — which have not only written information, but lived experience as the field from which fragments are culled — are deeply conservative. They would amount to an effort to impose order on the chaotic flux of live.

Kindles, Books, and Half-hearted Endorsements of the New

Megan McArdle on the Kindle and the Book:

The Kindle was only released in November of 2007, just three-and-a-half years ago.  By 2009, Kindle book sales briefly surpassed print sales on the day after Christmas.  In July of 2010, the eBook format overtook hardcovers, and six months later, it surpassed paperbacks.

Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined.  Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.

She is not surprised and this is part of the reason why:

And like many Kindle owners, I’ve found that I buy more books than I used to.  The impulse purchases are now completely irresistible: I can have the new memoir about someone’s dead tax cheat of a husband right this instant, rather than waiting two whole days . . . by which time, I’ll have forgotten about the Washingtonian excerpt that made me want to read it.

Score another one for the frictionless life and disposable reality.

She concludes:

I’m pretty sure the print book’s days are numbered for anything except specialty applications.  The die-hards will cling for a while, but ultimately, book buyers are already an extremely affluent group, and the convenience in acquiring, porting, and storing your library simply overwhelms the drawbacks, especially as Amazon has introduced innovations like eBook lending.

But wait, there is a tinge of melancholy:

… it will change a lot of the dynamics of life for book people.  My first adult books were pulled from my parents’ giant trunk of mystery novels, and the shelves in their bedrooms–will there be a family Kindle account, and will they be able to control access to the juicy stuff?  Peter and I are already wondering if we shouldn’t merge our Amazon account, but do I really want my archives cluttered up with his comic books and movie tomes?  Does he want to have to scroll through a long line of trashy police procedurals?  What will happen to the pleasures of pulling a random book from the shelves of a home where you are a weekend guest?

Not too worry, it was only momentary:

They’ll be replaced by other pleasures, like instant gratification.  And it’s probably more gain than loss.

Or was it:

But I’m just a little bit sad, all the same.

Why do we feel compelled to ratify what are surely trivial pleasures, if pleasures at all, while suppressing our instinctive regret for the passing of deeper more substantives pleasures?  This is not an indictment of the Kindle, nor a defense of the book.  I’m just intrigued by the recurring “this is better, yes its better, it must be better it’s new and the old is passing, it must pass” feel that attaches to pieces like this.  Who exactly is being convinced?


H/T to Mr. Greenwald for passing the McArdle post along.