The Pursuit of Privacy

March 1st, 2011

Our society values privacy so much that sometimes it seems to be an inalienable right, a need as natural as food or water. We might not notice just how unusual our expectations of private space and private knowledge are in a broader context.

It’s a theme I’ve been noticing in a number of places and discussions recently, including in Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal. In looking at what works for us in video games, contrasted to how we approach our lives, McGonigal notes that we’re more social and open-minded when playing a game, and that these things may be missing from our lives.

In most places in our lives, we can afford privacy because of our money. I noticed this most sharply when traveling on trains in India. If you paid 2300 rupees for a ticket (around $50), you could get into an air-conditioned compartment with a sliding door, where other passengers would mind their own business and you’d have plenty of space. For around $6, you could take the same trip in a crowded cabin, hot and dusty, with strangers sitting inside your personal bubble.

sleeper class train in Bihar, Indian Railways

And my conclusion, after trying all the classes of Indian Railways, was that sleeper class was a lot more fun. Or maybe fun isn’t the word for it. It was rewarding; it was life-affirming; it was beautiful.

This is a paradox of money in our time. When we can afford privacy, we take it, and we look for more ways to enhance privacy. Certainly some times we have excellent reasons to protect our privacy, even beyond convenience. We are wise to protect ourselves from stalkers, identity thieves, and contagious viruses. But the problem with privacy is that it can rob us of some essential nutrients we need to survive–human contact, surprise, wonder, generosity, both given and received. So maybe we seek this out online, then recoil from it, preferring the safety of privacy.

This may just be an accident of history, something that looks self-evident at one point but is actually very limited. Consider the security question, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” For a brief period of the 20th Century in the Western world, we could safely assume that this question would be secure. But before that, and in any village culture, the name of your mother’s clan is no secret–it would be rare that someone who knew you wouldn’t know that. In the future, in the global village, it won’t be that hard to figure it out either. Your digital footprints and connections will give that secret away. Yet I think we might gain something more precious in return for the disappearance of privacy. A new way to see and be seen, that won’t be painful if we’re happy with who we are.

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