Going public

Hiding behind the sound of running water
Hiding behind the sound of running water

We need to remind ourselves from time to time that privacy and secrecy are not the normal human condition. In fact, privacy is an invention of the 18th and 19th centuries. The rising middle-classes suddenly found themselves wealthy enough to build private houses big enough for them to retire “into the privacy of the home”, as the adage goes. Formerly this had only been the privilege of the very rich or of the aristocracy.

The notion of privacy as more than a luxury for the very few, therefore, is less than 200 years old. The rest of human history was spent in villages, where everything is known about everybody and secrets are shared but hardly ever mentioned.

Privacy, it turns out, is actually a Western concept. In India, even middle-class people are used to living in large, densely packed family units where privacy is almost completely unknown. In Japan, where the walls of rooms in the average house consist of rice paper and bamboo, any attempt to “retire into privacy” would be thought rather funny. In most Eastern societies, everyone knows and accepts that they can, at any time, become the instant focus of a large gathering of family and friends, neighbors and strangers who may wander in from the street.

The concept of an “open society”, then, is already an accepted norm in many countries of the world. Anyone who is part of such a society lives with a kind of moral reflex that says: Be aware that anything you do or say is probably already part of the public domain or can become so at a moment’s notice. Live your life accordingly.

Japan is a good practical example of this principle at work. There, individuals are hardly ever really alone, and over time society has developed certain rules and habits that assure a certain amount of discretion. For instance, if you live side by side, separated only by a paper wall, others will presumably hear every sound you make. Young Japanese girls are typically very bashful, so many of them feel embarrassed by the sounds they make when going to the toilette. In order to drown them out, many start flushing as soon as they sit down, comfortable in the knowledge that unwitting listeners can’t distinguish between the sounds being produced naturally, so to speak, from those emanating from the plumbing.

On the other hand, young Japanese belong to one of the most environmentally conscious generations anywhere, so many of these girls worry about wasting precious drinking water this way. Which in turn has led business-savvy entrepreneurs to jump at the opportunity by offering them gadgets that produce the sound of running water electronically! One of the most famous is called “Otohime”, or “Sound Princess”.

Actually, Otohime is a mythical Japanese princess whose father is the God of the Sea. Anyway, these gadgets can be found in women’s WCs all over Japan. Funnily, they never caught on with men, who apparently could care less whose listening…

In the United States there is a movement that calls itself “Post-Privacy”. Like many techno-libertarians before them such as the eternal hippie and Greateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow these people postulate a “Human right to information” and demand that confidentiality and data protection be outlawed as a crime against humanity. This includes, of course, such things as information about social contacts, political leanings, personal outlooks, financial status and health records. This applies not only to individuals however, but also to government.

Nova Spivack wrote in an article for wired in 2013: “Even the CIA and NSA cannot protect their own secrets as effectively as before. The same holds for corporations”. Increasing transparency levels would level the playing field, he maintained. “Everyone can watch everyone. Whistleblowers are everywhere; It’s mutually-assured disclosure.”

Instead of trying to hide secrets, we should focus our attention on how to share them, the author believes, concluding that “Healthy transparency is not the opposite of privacy. In fact to be sustainable, transparency is respect for privacy in practice, even when it does not actually exist in principle.”

If you don’t want something to become public, then don’t put it on the Internet, one might add. Or even on a computer.

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3 thoughts on “Going public

  1. digitrusteu February 15, 2015 / 3:38 pm

    It is certainly true that privacy is perceived different in different cultures, and the examples demonstrate this. And although the differences are at all levels, most of these examples are almost all from the family and local environment. Within such relatively small environment one is of course also able to know who knows what and address them about their actions with this knowledge, of course within the social order that exist at that micro level. Moreover one can also leave that particular environment to have more privacy.
    The threat in the digital age is that powerful entities which are unknown or very difficult to deal with, know or can know all about everyone. Where you are, with whom you communicate, what you read and write, what you buy, how you behave within your job, family and sports club, etc. This broad knowledge gives global companies or governments enormous political power over individuals, which is not the case in the examples.
    Full transparency of individuals will lead to what is described in “The Circle”. A total loss of freedom. Adaptation to total mediocrity, the end of creativity and innovation. I think the speech of Obama at the White House Summit on Cyber Security and Consumer Protection in Stanford (see news item of DEF home page) gives a reasonable picture. We need fully transparent company data handling processes, surely. And accountability by these companies. Just to restore the power balance to the benefit of the individual.
    The question is not whether we need or need not privacy, but can we protect the necessary bit of human autonomy to enable building our own identity narrative in our digital world and thus participate in its progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. malcolmoz February 17, 2015 / 2:18 am

    Hmmm. This requires more thinking. ‘Privacy is a modern concept and only available to the wealthy’ is a remark often seen.

    But let’s dig a little deeper.

    The desire for privacy and what should be kept private is contextual. As a well known Japanese commentator on privacy noted, traditionally in Japan you could beat your wife in public but could only kiss her in private while in the US you could kiss your wife in public but only beat her in private.

    Now I consider beating anybody abhorent, especially your partner.

    But the example has a point.

    Another example: in the US, salary is often a jealously guarded secret, indeed bound by contract to be kept secret. Yet in the same country, local taxes as paid are often listed by name as a form of accountability through transparency. And in some Civil Services, salary of named individuals is published, again as a form of accountability through transparency.

    Similarly what is considered private is likely to change through time and not necessarily because it is a luxury. Well before 200 years ago, public nudity was not acceptable in many cultures: the view of your body was private. Yet today, many people are sharing pictures of themselves naked or nearly naked all the time, including via the internet.

    Beyond that, there are aspects of privacy that are relatively constant. In particular, the privacy of the individual’s own thoughts. Except in extreme cases where coercion or other extreme forms of power asymmetry exist, most individuals are able to and want to control with of their thoughts they share with others and which they keep private.

    And beyond that, privacy is essential to democracy: when an individual cannot form opinions for themselves and express them in secret in the ballot box, the end of democracy is nigh.

    Privacy is a fundamental human right, and for good reason.


  3. Tim Cole February 18, 2015 / 7:00 am

    There is a famous German song written by Hoffmann von Fallersleben and based on a much older folk song called “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts are free”), in which is said that “noone can guess them”.

    Of course, Facebook is doing lots of work on how to guess what people are thinking by studying their posting behaviour and the language they use. FB caught a lot of flack for an experiment some researchers at Cornell did in 2014 called the Emotional Contagion Study where they claimed they could subtly manipulate a person’s mood by only showing a certain type of post on their timelines.

    In other words, if you feed my good news, I start feeling goid myself, and vice versa. If true, then we can not only guess what people are thinking, but actually manipulate their thoughts. It may not be thought-reading, but it’s close.

    Okay, advertisers have been trying to manipulate moods and buying habits for decades, but this goes quite a few layers deeper.


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