30 Days – Day #12: Privacy

Another “whatever takes my fancy” topic. I’m a fairly private sort of person – while my blogs talk about the things I’m interested in they don’t generally talk about me, and my private life very much. And on the back of Google’s COE saying some fairly idiotic and hypocritical things, well, the subject is on my mind.

Privacy is well on course to being the major social issue of the next decade on a number of levels. It’s being suggested that what we do on the internet should be constantly monitored, because we might be doing something illegal. And Eric Schmidt up there believes that if we’re doing something that would bother us if it became public, then we should not be doing that at all.

Any of you know someone who’s in the closet? Any of you know someone who is, at the least, not out to a certain group of their friends or acquaintances? Any of you have a fetish that you’d rather not admit to any of your friends? Any of you have a fetish you’d rather your work colleagues did not know about? Yeah, I know – there are none of us who could really withstand the level of public scrutiny that Mr Schmidt and our lawmakers think we should be able to endure.

Now, I’m sure there are people out there who might be thinking “if only people were more able to be open about sex – I do nothing I am ashamed of. I’m not even ashamed of the thing with the wetsuit, the goat and the tub of creme fraiche” and heralding the end of privacy as a sign of increasing social enlightenment – if everything is public, there’ll be no need to be ashamed, and so on.

Those people are wrong. Privacy is vital. I only used sex as an example there because it’s one everyone can relate on a very basic level, regardless of social, economic or technological status. I’m going to continue using it as an example, because I think everyone can relate to it, but the need for privacy could equally apply to health issues, money, politics, religion, or really, anything that is a common experience, but that could also be used to mark us out as different. But to return to my point: on a very basic level, we also need privacy, and I’m going to waffle on at length about why.

Human beings are social animals. It’s why we worry about things like “fitting in”. Fitting in, being part of the herd, has both evolutionary advantages and some serious drawbacks. Obviously, you get the bonus of strength in numbers, and readily available sexual partners, but the flip side is too much pressure to fit in has the unfortunate effect of stifling innovation. And so we’ve adapted – we do need to fit in, we need to affirm our place within society, and we also need “alone time”. As much as we need to fit in, we also space, both physical and cognitive, that is defined as our own, space away from the crowd.

One of the ways we secure that space, particularly cognitively, is by managing information according to a level of trust – we reveal what we are thinking only to those we trust, as a means of testing out our ideas, before bringing them into the wider social unit – to check that those ideas won’t have negative consequences for our place in the group dynamic. And depending on how important, how personal those issues are to us, we reveal them to fewer and fewer people.

To return to my earlier example I, personally, do not think anyone needs to know what I might enjoy getting up to in the bedroom, so I generally keep my mouth shut on the subject. My closer friends may have picked up some hints, here and there, but I doubt any of them could tell you in any detail about things I enjoy, or experiences I have had. Which is the way I want it – not because I am ashamed of it or uncomfortable with the topics, but simply because most people have no need to know. And if they don’t need to know, why would I tell them? Telling people things they don’t need to know isn’t “being open/liberated/free/honest/insert word that hippies like here”, at least not as far as I’m concerned. I file it under “being pointless”. It’s tipping the signal to noise ratio in favour of noise.

There’s also a broader social management going on in what we chose to reveal to who – it’s partly a combination of trust, and partly to do with the ways we categorise the people we know.

On the trust front, if someone else displays a willingness to be open and public with certain information about their life, then I am going to think twice before I share information about myself on related topics with them. Whether I can trust them or not is irrelevant – they clearly don’t accord it the same level of importance that I do, and might therefore share my confidence with someone else, without stopping to think about whether or not I would consider it appropriate. And I am likewise made uncomfortable when others share information with me that I would not share with them – to me it speaks of a level of closeness that I do not wish to have, or perhaps do not wish to have yet – they may not consider a certain level of detail to be an intimate confidence, but I do and it is the perceived imbalance that is the source of my discomfort, rather than the topics themselves – it is as if they are presuming a level of friendship without going through the steps that would normally build that same level, skipping the intermediate levels of confidence, proclaiming a level of trust in me that I feel unable to reciprocate.

But that’s all to do with levels of trust. But there’s also kinds of trust. My clients at work need to be able to trust that I will work hard on their behalf, with honesty and discretion. Which means, in fact, that if they learn about my personal life if I share to a level they consider inappropriate, then they’re going to doubt my discretion. And the same is true of my friends, who need to be able to trust in other things about me, so it’s appropriate to share different things with them, and the same is true of my family, or even just something as simple as the players in my roleplaying games, who may be my friends, but who also have to feel able trust in certain of my character traits, so I need to present myself in certain ways to them.

All of which will be undermined, if, as Mr Schmidt is suggesting, privacy goes the way of the dodo, because if I can nothing my clients won’t approve of, then I can’t do much that my friends will like, either.

Now, most of what I’ve talked about here goes on at a level below conscious thought. By the time we reach adulthood, it is learned, and long practiced social behaviour. We do it without thinking – I’m only spelling it out here because it’s relevant to the subject of privacy, because if we have no privacy, then we lack the means to manage our social bonds in the way we choose. Without privacy, you don’t get intimacy. If you share everything with everyone, willingly or otherwise, without thought for context, then what you share with your nearest or dearest is no longer special.

I have no idea if any of that was sensible, or even coherent. But I need got get this posted today, so that’s what you’ve got for now. I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the subject.