by wjw on June 18, 2013

I’ve been considering the proposition that maybe privacy is a mid- to late-Twentieth Century concept that’s already proving obsolete.

Up until the 20th Century there wasn’t any privacy to be had, unless you were some kind of hermit that lived by himself in the wilderness far away from any civilization.  (And even some hermits wouldn’t have had privacy— none of that on a desert pillar, for sure.)

Hunter-gatherers lived in small communities,  in caves or huts made of twigs and leaves.  No privacy there.  I imagine Ogg and Thogg were up in each other’s business all the time.

After the development of agriculture, most people lived in farming communities and thrived on gossip, there being nothing else to talk about except crops and weather, both of which lack human interest.  No privacy here, either.

People from Scandinavia to Polynesia lived in longhouses— whole families sharing a big space.   Noisy lovemaking was entertainment for the whole community, adults and children alike.

If you were lord or lady of a medieval manor, you got a certain degree of privacy by virtue of the fact that you might own a curtained bed.  But you’d be sharing the bedroom with various family members and servants who would be sleeping on the floor next to you.

People who got together privately might well be up to something illicit, fornication or heresy or insurrection or fraud.  As the premiere theoretician of capitalism remarked, businessmen “never gathered together even for a social purpose save to conspire against the public interest.”

With the industrial revolution, we got people rich enough to build themselves palaces and mansions, which might have guaranteed them a degree of privacy, except that you need servants to maintain palaces and mansions, and the servants knew everything that was going on.

Surveillance by the servants was so ubiquitous that it just became a part of the background.  When you read of the genteel folk in Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Honoré de Balzac, picture a servant or two silently observing every scene.  They were so taken for granted that the authors never commented on them.

People could send telegrams, but they were sent and read by third parties.  People could use telephones, but they were on party lines, and both operators and neighbors could listen in.

People left agricultural communities for cities, but they lived in apartments.  And every apartment that I’ve lived in had thin enough walls so that I knew my neighbors’ affairs.

It wasn’t until the middle class moved to the suburbs that privacy became possible.  The middle class could afford houses, but they couldn’t afford live-in servants to spy on them.  Nuclear families became just that.  Privacy was possible, though neighbors and local community standards imposed their constraints.

Or maybe you got just enough privacy to convince yourself that you really had a lot more than you did.

And now it may no longer be, not unless we go as off-the-grid as any medieval hermit.  Never use credit cards, never get social security numbers, never use the phone or the internet.  Pay everything in cash.

And that sort of behavior, of course, is suspicious, and might get you looked at.

So we may have no more privacy than Ogg and Thogg.  Except that the balance of power has changed.

Back when we lived in small communities, Mrs. Grundy may have known all about us, but we also knew all about Mrs. Grundy.  The balance of power was roughly equivalent.  If Mrs. Grundy denounced us, we could denounce her right back.

Now, the people sapping our privacy are big corporations and governments who insist on the secrecy of their own doings.  Information flows one way,  not the other.  We know little of the people who know all our business, and that leaves us no power, and little recourse.

My own privacy might be an illusion, but it’s an illusion to which I’ve grown rather attached.  I preserve it when possible. Though I’m a fairly public figure, and I chat here and elsewhere about those aspects of my life that I choose to label “public,” I stay away from a lot of topics.  My Facebook page gives an incorrect birth date, and very little other information.

But yet there’s that lack of equivalence.  The watchers have the power and we do not.

So let’s keep watching the watchers.  Because if I can’t have my illusions of privacy, I don’t see why they should.

DensityDuck June 18, 2013 at 6:12 am

Privacy is a social fiction, as much a result of politeness convention as “waving hand means nonthreatening greeting” or “chew with your mouth closed”.

I don’t draw my curtains because I think you shouldn’t ever be allowed to see me; I draw my curtains as a favor to you, because I presume that you don’t want to see my naked body lolling around on the couch. Drawn curtains are a statement that certain things may be going on that you wouldn’t care to see.

Pat Mathews June 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

There’s an old, old joke about Mrs. Grundy. The local Mrs. Grundy had called in the village handyman and read him the riot act for being a drunk, because she had seen his truck parked at the bar all night.

That night he left his truck parked in front of her house until dawn.

Erich Schneider June 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm

This historical view of privacy, and the current one-way flow of information, is a big part of David Brin’s The Transparent Society, published back in 1998. I mention it merely to call attention to the fact that he wrote a book about it, not to endorse anything in particular inside it.

One thing that was more true in the less-recent past than it is today is that if one did something scandalous, the gossip generally stayed in a small area, so it was possible to move somewhere else and start over with a blank slate. Now, there are photos of the incidents involved persisting on Facebook forever, or enternally Google-able references to them, etc.

David Brin June 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Excellent summary Walter, tho I am sure folks always had forest corners they would seek for some seclusion. The privacy problem has always been linked to disparities of power and lack of reciprocality. In the Nasty Villages of old the feudal lords dominated, their hired thugs terrorized, and the third terror was the local busybody gossips, who became crucial components of the communist dictatorships of the cold war era.

Flattened power and reciprocality can turn the Bad Village into the Good Village of Andy Hardy movies, wherein folks do see each other… but leave each other alone.

And yes I talk about all this elsewhere.

Thanks Walter.
David Brin

Ralf The Dog. June 19, 2013 at 3:32 am

Wow, Brin is in the room!

As Dr. Brin said in his very excellent book. (Not in his exact words, he said it better) The cure to the death of privacy is to make it symmetric. The governments of the world get to watch us, however, we get to watch the watchers.

From the fiction perspective, I think Larry Niven’s, “Oath of Fidelity”, was based on the same ideas.

James R. Strickland June 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm

If one reads Foucault (though the scholarly translations are awful), he holds that surveiling without being surveiled is, itself, power. I was compelled to read him in graduate school 20ish years ago, and despite me, it stuck.

(If one would get a taste of Foucault without the raw tedium of scholarly translations, dig up the few articles he himself wrote in English. He is quite readable. Alas, most of his work is in French, necessitating the translations.)


Jerry June 19, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Let’s not forget about the Bad Guys hanging around in the shadows. Of course I mean terrorists, but what’s that old saw about turning into the enemy yourself? Imagine the Secretary of This or That, who leaks damaging info about political rivals to the press. Personally, I find no problem with techno-snooping, but we ought to devise the VERY best safeguards we can, against perversion of the information. [And hope for the best — on all fronts.]

As always, Mr. Williams, I am dazzled at your insight and your ability to put things in such clear context. And when are you coming out with the next Metropolitan book?

wjw June 20, 2013 at 4:06 am

Indeed, Jerry. I could hardly escape noticing during the Cold War that so many insisted that the best way to fight the Soviet Union was to become more like them: more militarized, more oppressive, more ideologically unified, more dependent on monopolies of information.

We’re still dealing with these huge legacy Cold War institutions, and their very size and secrecy has become a handicap in solving the problem.

And of course I was aware of Dr. Brin’s thoughts on the matter.

wjw June 20, 2013 at 4:07 am

Oh, and by the way, David, while local lords could terrorize their way to wealth and success, it wouldn’t necessarily give them privacy. If you filled your castle with thugs, it just meant the thugs knew better than anyone what you were up to.

DensityDuck June 21, 2013 at 7:39 am

But the thing was, in feudal times you didn’t *care*. The thugs were paid to pretend they didn’t care, and the peasants were property and thus irrelevant. The only people whose opinion you couldn’t buy or command were your peers, and they only saw you once in a while.

TRX June 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Back in the last century, LAPD took to having some private meetings in defiance of the applicable “sunshine law” prohibiting such things. Eventually they found some spy cams in the ceiling.

As far as I know they never found out who put them there, or how long they’d been there. But it was interesting how angry they were about it…

The hardware has become so small and inexpensive, it’s within the reach of individual private citizens to do their own monitoring, at least somewhat. No help against the data mongers, but it’s something.

Esebian June 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Your summary of the last thousands of years of pre-IT civilization sounds a tad exaggerated (an aristo’s thugs could be payed or coerced into exercising discretion, not to mention they couldn’t possibly always be everywhere on the off chance to overhear a personal conversation or intercept covert, encrypted messages; same goes for the commonalty, all village solitude aside), but anyway, even if privacy is a modern invention, so is sanitation like indoor plumbing.

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