Privacy - blog by ouinon


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Posted 02-Oct-2011 at 08:55 PM (20:55) by ouinon
Updated 02-Oct-2011 at 09:12 PM (21:12) by ouinon

Was struck by a sentence in an article at the Guardian today; "Invasion of the body scanners" by Victoria Coren at:

In 100 years' time, will [ privacy ] be a forgotten historical curio, like the crinoline? Or will it creep back in as a retro fashion for romantic occasions, like the candle? ("For a cute novelty this Valentine's Day, why not make love to your partner without broadcasting it live on the webcam?")

Will we miss it when it's gone, like Joni Mitchell's trees? Or will we forget it was ever there, like Steve Brookstein's career?

The answer is: I don't know. It's an old, old thing. Quite some time ago, humans decided that we'd eat in front of each other but not defecate. The ancient soul reached for moments of seclusion and solitude.
I doubt that humans thought very much about this choice, it was probably instinctive, because as far as I'm aware most primates, and many animals ( though not horses, pigs, sheeps or cows, ie. that live in herds ) eat in company but defecate in private, even dogs will not defecate right in front of other dogs if they can avoid it ... BUT ...

Humans do not seem to be as constrained by instinct as most other animals, our behaviour, our brains, etc are far more plastic/malleable ... ( and we are no longer likely to be attacked by predators or rivals while squatting either ).

And so I was suddenly wondering whether perhaps, as Coren suggests, our need for privacy, socially conditioned as it is, varying in degree and in kind from culture to culture, might conceivably disappear ... and whether this would necessarily be a bad thing.

For much of human history the tendency has been in the opposite direction; witness the dwindling number of societies and classes in which it is acceptable for children to sleep in the same room as their parents, in which it is normal for adults to reprimand other people's children, in which doors are open and people sit on porches/steps to peel vegetables, sew, sing, breastfeed, etc.

Once upon a time in the west/Europe etc people lived in small close-knit communities where everyone knew what everyone's name was, what everyone was up to, etc.

It is actually only since the dislocation of communities, the vast increase in size of towns/cities, etc caused by the Industrial Revolution that people have tended to live increasingly behind closed doors, to keep themselves to themselves, almost as if such large numbers, or the absence of longterm ties, triggered a need for more privacy ... ?

The rich have almost always enjoyed, and demanded, ( as an indication of their rank, as part of their privilege ... and/or for protection ... and/or as a symptom of guilt/alienation? :? ) far greater privacy than other people ... except from their servants that is.

What might the actual, or merely apparent, or simply imminent, loss of privacy, both voluntary and imposed, ( in the age of the internet, social networking, satellite surveillance, scanners, etc ) of people in developed countries, indicate?

I have been tending to think of it as a necessarily "bad" thing, but could it be just the modern world's attempt to recreate, clumsily, laboriously, with technology etc, the visibility and "transparence", ( and accountability, hence the "battle" associated with it? ) of older/ancient communities?
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  1. Old Comment
    iamwombat's Avatar
    Odd and provocative thoughts on this, which is always good, .
    I like examining primitive mans not so primitive ways of dealing with modern issues like eating in a group but pooping off where the eventual seeds of agriculture will sprout. One thing about the current state of revealing personal and or private events online; how much actual honesty do most people exhibit online when portraying themselves. I think the trend is toward an inflated or at least improved or desired presentation for most, which raises questions about privacy being at all forfeit. The self knows far more about what they do not want broadcast or revealed after all. Thought privacy is not to be lost for any real benefit IMO. Scanners to read brain temps and activity centers are already being made on the prototype level, with much research ongoing to refine them. Presumably these will weed out terrorists about to board aircraft, or so we are told. P.S. you might have a talk with my dogs for me, I'd appreciate their adopting your 'poop in private' ethic!
    Posted 03-Oct-2011 at 01:04 AM (01:04) by iamwombat iamwombat is offline
  2. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    Thank you.
    Originally Posted by iamwombat View Comment
    ... I think the trend is toward an inflated or at least improved or desired presentation for most, which raises questions about privacy being at all forfeit. ... P.S. you might have a talk with my dogs for me, I'd appreciate their adopting your 'poop in private' ethic!
    Do they shit within view of each other though, or of other dogs? If in view of each other perhaps that's because they don't experience the same sort of potential rivalry as wild animals do?

    I agree that a lot of the "self-exposure" online is not necessarily a loss of privacy ... I meant more the way in which personal data is being picked up by organisations like Facebook, the govt, etc.

    I was thinking some more about how privacy is "distributed", controlled, as if it were a sort of "commodity", and how the wealthy have had a special relationship with it, apparently more of it than most people but also less of it in so far as are constantly "seen" and "heard" by servants/domestic staff, and it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't actually all that sure what privacy consisted of ...

    What situations do we apply the word/label of "privacy" to?

    The word is bizarre in that it seems to come from the same root as "deprived". The french say "privé" both for private and for deprived.

    What does privacy mean? It appears to be connected with "social contracts" that have a certain legal standing, eg. "couples" and families, as well as the relationships between employee and employer, between individual and their doctor/lawyer/priest, etc ... as well as the relationship between the individual on their own and society as a whole.

    It's like series of walls, hence perhaps the link with "deprivation", of being cut off/shut out, but intriguingly the common root suggests that originally privacy was something seen as applying to those ***outside*** the couple/family/group/privileged relationship, ie. privacy was experienced by those ***excluded*** from the event/relationship, whereas now it is experienced by those "inside".

    Unless it was originally something experienced as a sort of privation, a necessary loss or sacrifice entailed by a certain role/job or behaviour/activity. ... How in that case did it become something which most people see as positive, desirable?

    Speaking of how the meaning/use of the word may have been reversed over time I was thinking about the Sermon on the Mount, ( in the context also of my comments on Gurdur blog at: and my claim that the New Testament was the first postmodernist text ), and how it says, for example, that "the meek shall inherit the earth": ie. the "meek", a label, a value judgement, for those who never inherit anything, turned inside out.

    The map is not the territory.

    So I am interested in the label/social construct which is "privacy", how it is applied, by whom, to what "things"/what is it used "for", and whether it is seen as a positive value judgement or not. In whose interests is it that it be seen a positive, desirable for instance? Etc etc etc.
    Posted 03-Oct-2011 at 07:29 PM (19:29) by ouinon ouinon is offline
  3. Old Comment
    iamwombat's Avatar
    I am going to want to carry this forward a bit after I'm done with some tasks I'm on. You raise a great point in the construct and symbolism arena, where a societal desire exists to share but to also reserve particular aspects of ones personal life. The thing I see most regards sharing socially, that information we hold dear, is that if we are rebuked or singled out for it once it is viewed and known, we recriminate and often become conditioned to offer less or even persuaded to offer something else as a defense. When early man living in a group above say 100 but below 500 had to decide who to follow and support, most often that person led a life more examined than others. If a failing occurred, that leader/headman/shaman might forfeit their role. As the power base increased we see where clinging to power began in earnest and why, but it took privacy to maintain that power and elitism by then. Group size began to grow as well with the advent of privacy for some and less or none for others, albeit within their own hovel/hut/home. Privacy therefore did seem to come at the cost of separatism and class/status/caste differential. It does seem to be a negative in that form from it's inception, only benefiting those with a means of excluding the prying into affairs by others. Yet we have arrived at a set belief that privacy is akin to efficacy and valued above sharing or diffusing. Whats your vocation?
    Posted 03-Oct-2011 at 08:49 PM (20:49) by iamwombat iamwombat is offline
  4. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    I don't have a vocation that I know of, not one with a label or an income anyway! ( I read a lot online, like "thinking", draw, write and paint sometimes, am mother to a homeschooling boy ... )

    I like your suggestion that early leaders were perhaps more examined/observed, had less privacy, than the others in a tribe/community, but that would be the opposite of "increased privacy" being a "deprivation" ...

    But I wonder about early religious "officials" ... ... ... Many tribes/early communities ( pre-neolithic ) had/have initiation rites for children entering adulthood, different ones for each sex too, which were secret/"hidden" to some extent from some members of the society ( either the other sex or the youngest ) but everyone passed through them/one or the other at some point, and even shamans, etc, as you say, were probably very observed ... but the neolithic revolution, the spread of agriculture etc was accompanied by the creation of a new sort of "rite/set of rituals", a new class, and a new sort of secrecy; large numbers of "religious officials", who spent much of their lives "hidden away"/cloistered, administering to their gods ... and who perhaps presented ( and even experienced ) this as a form of loss, of painful if rewarding sacrifice.

    I wouldn't be surprised if religion had played a very big role in the evolution of the social construct which is "privacy" ... .

    Privacy is probably most of all about "not being seen". The monotheistic god is everywhere, sees everything ... might the spread of belief in a Christian/monotheistic god have contributed to an increased "need" for social, physical, etc privacy? ... Has this "need" for privacy been responsible for swathes of legal/constitutional developments, increasingly complex detailed formal structures for regulating our "boundaries" and interactions ( like those between cells in a multicellular organism compared to the "simple" interactions between many single-cells in a liquid ) which we might not have bothered with otherwise? Am always stunned by the way in which people in many african countries ( and China, India ...? ) can live cheek by jowl, crammed into spaces with few boundaries, skin against skin in crowded buses etc, and not go mad, as if their skin is all they need to "feel" private.

    This is all rather rambling. I'm "exploring"!
    Posted 03-Oct-2011 at 10:03 PM (22:03) by ouinon ouinon is offline
  5. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    Thinking perhaps humans have always had exactly the same amount of that "feeling"/experience that we often apply the word privacy to, ... "safety"/security, inviolability ? ... but that it is not always/has not always been so closely connected to "being unseen", that this may be a monotheistic thing.

    PS. Just wondering whether it's possible that for some/many people who use the internet a lot, ( especially social networks and forums ), it feels slightly like what it felt like for people first being exposed to and convinced by the idea of one omnipresent/omniscient god. ...
    Posted 03-Oct-2011 at 10:20 PM (22:20) by ouinon ouinon is offline
    Updated 03-Oct-2011 at 10:26 PM (22:26) by ouinon
  6. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Good post, and lots of good thoughts.

    I know I have privacy issues, and I can't really compare my need to not have people know too much about me to the idea of an emerging omniscient god. I was going to say, well, my trying to keep my privacy intact as much as possible is due (in part) to me not wanting people to find me and hurt me...

    ...But then I realized that train of thought could easily be applied to a god, as well. so, maybe?

    As for increased privacy being deprivation, the first thing that comes to mind is a deprivation of social contact. For some people that could be a real killer, forcing more privacy, simply based on the sort of person they are.

    As for whether we've always had a large need for privacy, I would say that's very much a matter of how you're socialized, with a large secondary component being personal. My sister thinks nothing of putting her name on the internet, whereas I have major issues with it. why? In large part it is because we are socialized differently, and in less large part, though still (I would think) significant, is our personal needs for more or less security I need it in huge swathes, for whatever reason, and she does not.

    sooo... Lots of reasons, lots of thoughts?

    Sorry for the rambling posts. I am a tired bunny.
    Posted 04-Oct-2011 at 12:50 AM (00:50) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
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