In today’s world, increasingly quantified and tracked by the Internet of Things, we are talking a lot about privacy. When we stop to think about it, we are vociferously for privacy. But then we immediately turn around and click another “accept” box on a terms and conditions form that barters our personal privacy away, in increasingly large chunks. What we say and what we do are two very different things.
What is the deal with humans and privacy anyway? Why do we say is it important to us and why do we keep giving it away? Are we looking at the inevitable death of our concept of privacy?
Are We Hardwired for Privacy?
It does seem that – all things being equal – we favor privacy. But why?
There is an evolutionary argument for having some “me-time”. Privacy has an evolutionary advantage both when you’re most vulnerable to physical danger (on the toilet) or mating rivalry (having sex). If you can keep these things private, you’ll both live longer and have more offspring. So it’s not unusual for humans to be hardwired to desire a certain amount of privacy.
But our modern understanding of privacy actually conflates a number of concepts. There is protective privacy, the need for solitude and finally there’s our moral and ethical privacy. Each of these has different behavioral origins, but when we talk about our “right to privacy” we don’t distinguish between them. This can muddy the waters when we dig deep into our relationship with our privacy.
Let’s start with the last of these – our moral privacy. This is actually a pretty modern concept. Until 150 years ago, we as a species did pretty much everything communally. Our modern concept of privacy had its roots in the Industrial Revolution and Victorian England. There, the widespread availability of the patent lock and the introduction of the “private” room quickly led to a class-stratified quest for privacy. This was coupled with the moral rectitude of the time. Kate Kershner from howstuffworks.com explains:
“In the Victorian era, the “personal” became taboo; the gilded presentation of yourself and family was critical to social standing. Women were responsible for outward piety and purity, men had to exert control over inner desires and urges, and everyone was responsible for keeping up appearances.”
In Victorian England, privacy became a proxy for social status. Only the highest levels of the social elite could afford privacy. True, there was some degree of personal protection here that probably had evolutionary behavioral underpinnings, but it was all tied up in the broader evolutionary concept of social status. The higher your class, the more you could hide away the all-too-human aspects of your private life and thoughts. In this sense, privacy was not a right, but a status token that may be traded off for another token of equal or higher value. I suspect this is why we may say one thing but do another when it comes to our own privacy. There are other ways we determine status now.
Privacy vs Convenience
In a previous column, I wrote about how being busy is the new status symbol. We are defining social status differently and I think how we view privacy might be caught between how we used to recognize status and how we do it today. In 2013, Google’s Vint Cerf said that privacy may be a historical anomaly. Social libertarians and legislators were quick to condemn Cerf’s comment, but it’s hard to argue his logic. In Cerf’s words, transparency “is something we’re gonna have to live through.”
Privacy might still be a hot button topic for legislators but it’s probably dying not because of some nefarious plot against us but rather because we’re quickly trading it away. Busy is the new rich and convenience (or our illusion of convenience) allows us to do more things. Privacy may just be a tally token in our quest for social status and increasingly, we may be willing to trade it for more relevant tokens. As Greg Ferenstein, author of the Ferenstein Wire, said in an exhaustive (and visually bountiful) post on the birth and death of privacy,
“Humans invariably choose money, prestige or convenience when it has conflicted with a desire for solitude.”
If we take this view, then it’s not so much how we lose our privacy that becomes important but who we’re losing it to. We seem all too willing to give up our personal data as long as two prerequisites are met: 1) We get something in return; and, 2) We have a little bit of trust in the holder of our data that they won’t use it for evil purposes.
I know those two points raise the hackles of many amongst you, but that’s where I’ll have to leave it for now. I welcome you to have the next-to-last word (because I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic). Is privacy going off the rails and, if so, why?