The recent theft and misuse of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook has stimulated public outrage about loss of ‘privacy’. The outrage may be real, but concerns about privacy need to be examined more closely because privacy is such a fundamental aspect of western life. Further, the crime of data theft is more about property than privacy (which is violated much more widely by large organisations, including banks), and a whole changing technological infrastructure and ideology is involved – that problematises the very ideas of self, individual, and privacy.
New communication technologies raise many legal and ethical issues, but their transformative powers are huge and somewhat unpredictable. The changing conditions and actual nature of privacy exposes much about these forces. It may be that new communication technologies are changing the lived experience of daily life to the detriment of rights and freedoms that we simply take for granted. Privacy may become an example of a recently won right that disappears before the social and cultural achievements that made it possible are fully realised.
The popular idea of a self that is individual, autonomous, and private, is historically recent. It corresponds with changes in house design in the eighteenth century that allowed the separation of public and private spaces, consumerism, and more recently with the rise of psychology as an academic discipline. It could be said that the idea of privacy is particularly ‘western’ and ‘bourgeois’, only rising to prominence with the increasing affluence of working and middle classes in the west, and the more general emergence of individualism as a cultural value. Prior to that the self was a more subjugated entity – more at the service of aristocracies through pre-modern power structures such as employers who controlled labour.
This would be a simplification that hides other contradictory causes – the prior living practices of nobility west and east, an emphasis on an individual and private relationship with God in some western and eastern religious and spiritual practices and doctrines (eg. in prayer and meditation), and largely unrecorded histories of individual ‘transgressions’ in sex, love, and other crimes against property and propriety that occurred across all classes.
Nonetheless, after the industrial revolution in the western world, nation states were able to feed, house and employ much larger populations than ever before. Working people were able to become consumers of mass produced goods, and increasingly organised and fought for the human rights, working conditions social services and freedoms we now often take for granted. In this social evolution, the self gained autonomy, privacy and individuality. But it was only with the advent of psychology (and a new therapeutic industry) that individuals had a much firmer base to break away from the stranglehold that organised religions had to legitimately define the purpose and meaning of life – including, to some extent, the importance of privacy in the family and prayer. The rise of psychology and other academic disciplines dealing with the individualised nature of human experience gave new legitimacy to the idea that the self was indeed individualised, sexual, embodied, creative, and, to some extent, autonomous. But was it ‘private’?
The role of privacy in this liberated personal sphere is probably the least discussed issue. Even academic discussion of ‘public versus private’ spheres of life has, strangely enough, not translated to much in the way of public awareness of the importance of privacy as a secular issue in daily life. It seems to have taken the intrusive nature of bad behaviour by ‘data miners’ to have piqued new interest in privacy.
Everyone might now realise that advertising and mass culture has some control over our individual behaviour, but until the advent of personal computers and smart phones our inner selves were still ours to declare if we so wished, ours to defend and inhabit with unique experiences, feelings, desires and memories. Not so any more. Advertisers have persuaded people to share their innermost worlds on Facebook, Twitter, dating services, and other platforms. Now our selves are commodities like toothpaste and cars.
This newly empowered data theft goes beyond the legitimate needs of governments and government agencies to know basic information about us in order to provide essential services and public security. This goes beyond email and basic communication. Now personal data enables us to be valuable commodities to advertisers and all those who advertise. How strange it is that people can be so relaxed about their personal lives that private becomes public. How strange it is that individuals can be complicit in being sold to themselves by advertisers for the profit of unknown others. This is consumer culture writ large and personal.
Perhaps it is time we began to value our privacy more. Perhaps we should think about the importance of privacy to our health and welfare. Perhaps privacy is a basic need, like sex, food and sleep. Who knows? Who cares?