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Is Privacy a Modern Phenomenon?

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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January 9, 2013

I recently came across this piece by the author William Deresiewicz (from his consistently insightful “All Points” blog), in which he comments on the observation that privacy and solitude are privileges of the modern era that are “rare both historically and globally,” with most people in the world today and in the past being “too poor to even have the space to be alone.” Members of the medieval household, for example,

occupied a single room, conducting their business (all their business) in one another’s presence… separate bedrooms, with everything they enable, are a relatively recent development in domestic architecture.

In addition to new architecture, he points out, other developments that helped create the modern self included the novel, romantic poetry, and the influence of thinkers such as Freud. Privacy, he says, is not just a privilege, however—it is also a compensation:

People didn’t have modern selves in traditional society, but they didn’t need them, because they had family and community: extended families, face-to-face communities. They had an intricate structure of relationships, traditions, roles, and expectations to give content to their lives and direction to their efforts, to orient themselves in space and time. They didn’t need to go it alone or make up the world for themselves…. Now all we have is ourselves. The modern self is a consolation prize…

Deresiewicz also links to a 2009 essay on “The End of Solitude” in which he provided more elaboration on that idea, arguing that people are driven to relentless electronic connection with others by the currents of our time:

The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city…. But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness…. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak….

But, he argues, the internet has become too much of a good thing:

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

That’s an interesting argument, but Deresiewicz is talking about the visibility and constant connection that people seek, and the internal dynamics that impel them to do so. What he doesn’t address here is the great non-consensual stripping away of privacy that is now underway through the construction of multiple overlapping infrastructures for observation and control. This is not inconsistent with Deresiewicz’s point; people can both seek visibility—fame, even—and still desire privacy. A person can want recognition, yet still retain areas of their life where they remain in control of what others can see of them. I think all seekers of fame want that.

Or am I being culturally provincial in saying that? If it is really true that privacy is a purely modern phenomenon, pehaps so. After all, it is extremely difficult to recognize the essential foreignness of past cultures. In the HBO miniseries Rome, an early scene shows a couple making love. After they finish, the woman throws her arms backwards—and a chalice is placed in her hand. The camera pulls back, and we see that servants are standing attentively around the edge of the room. The point hits home: those people were just different from us. As Gary Kamiya pointed out in a nice 2007 essay on the essential historicism of Rome:

A work of art set in the distant past must walk a tricky line between portraying its characters as essentially the same as us or as utterly alien. Most history-themed films and TV shows have always fallen decidedly on the “human beings are always the same” end of the spectrum. There are many reasons for this. It requires both historical scholarship and a certain imaginative audacity to create characters who don’t share some of our most basic assumptions and beliefs….

"Rome” plunges us into an amoral, anarchic, conservative, lustful, deeply religious age. It throws history in our face, makes it impossible for us to escape it. We walk across Rome’s streets, squat in its latrines, enter its brothels — and are forced to contend with its profound otherness.

Are we privacy advocates naively stuck on a set of values that is particular to our culture, unable to recognize the relativity of the value we defend (as has been suggested to me by more than one privacy-invading businessperson)? As thinking people we should always be alert to that possibility. Yet, there are two reasons why I don’t think the criticism is valid. First, who cares if our values are relative? They are our values and the values of our culture and our civilization, and we defend them because they represent the society we prefer to live in.

Second, the privacy cited by Deresiewicz, and the privacy sense that is portrayed as being so absent in Rome, is bodily privacy. Bodily privacy may be the most culturally relative kind of privacy.

But other kinds of privacy, such as communications privacy, I suspect are not so relativistic. Where there is any intrigue at work, where power is in play, or social relations are at all dynamic or complicated—where there is politics, public or personal—there is a need for communications privacy. There is a need for confidences—a need to say things to some people that other people do not hear. (Even in Rome, we see that all the time.) I suppose a medieval serf, ensconced in the tightly defined structures, roles, and hierarchies of a traditional society, and virtually powerless, might have a reduced need for such privacy (though, historians tend to find that even the seemingly simplest lives are usually anything but). But in the modern age, where we are all considered equal, empowered, democratic citizens, and have wide latitude for self-development and self-creation, the need for such privacy is certainly all but universal.

Not to mention, the geographical sprawl that Deresiewicz mentions, which spreads us apart and impels us to communicate electronically and exposes us to centralized eavesdropping, is reducing one kind of privacy that a medieval serf certainly did possess: the privacy of having a conversation out in the middle of a field. (Or, the back of a bus.)

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