You post online pictures of you and your friends, not exactly exhibiting a lot of restraint at a party. Next week, a prospective employer will see those photos. You send a friend a frustrated e-mail, joking that you’re going to blow up your building to quiet down a noisy neighbor. The NSA will see that e-mail. You buy a ticket to go home and visit your parents. Thanks to the latest in scanning technology the TSA will see you naked underneath that sensible blouse, all part of the screening process.
Our realm of privacy is slowly eroding, particularly if you do anything to draw attention to yourself. In Privacy, the latest entry in Picador’s smart series Big Ideas//small books, Garret Keizer tells the story of a man who saved a president from assassination only to be publicly revealed as gay, his private life playing out in headlines for ages. He tells the story of a young student who jumped to his death after his roommate filmed him in an intimate moment. And he tells the story of all the ways our expectations of privacy are being violated, and why you should care more about it than you do.
Read the last Bookslut on 'The Laurels of Lake Constance.'
I corresponded with Keizer about his provocative little book, and why we seem so willing to violate other people’s privacy and allow our own to be violated as well.
The public now agrees to an almost shocking amount of privacy invasion. We don't even turn on the privacy controls with our e-mail accounts. For the amount of control we do have over our privacy, we don't wield it. Why do you think we've become so apathetic about privacy?
I root privacy in our creaturely resistance to interference and exploitation. Another way to say this is that I root the impulse toward privacy in our creaturely resistance to being penetrated against our will. This is one of the reasons that I find the subject of such importance: its connection to our human capacity to resist, the loss of which has even more dire consequences than our loss of a derivative right like privacy. We establish our rights through resistance.
But your question is why we don’t resist the loss of our privacy. I think there are several reasons. Perhaps the simplest is that we belong to a society in which the promise of greater convenience—a promise made all the more attractive by the degradation of labor, political life and the social contract—increasingly amounts to “an offer we can’t refuse.” If we insist on our right to privacy, it might slow down our shopping, it might reduce the contents of the feedbags strapped to our heads.
Our surrender is not without irony. Many of the technological devices that compromise our privacy were initially marketed to us as tools for enhancing privacy, or personal autonomy—for allowing us to get the goods and services we want without enlisting a neighbor’s help or even leaving our basements—so that you could argue that it was precisely our desire to cocoon ourselves in digital caves that left us living in glass houses. The joke was on us.
On a larger scale, I think we have entered a new era of superstitious fatalism in which markets and technologies have been imbued with the implacable power of fate. “Privacy is gone and there is nothing we can do about it.” This is a terrifying thought, and so we dull the edge of it by “going with the flow,” by adopting a studied nonchalance to mask our impotence and despair. We’re like the guy who loses the girl and says, “I never loved her anyway.”
When I moved to Germany, the most difficult thing to adjust to was the total lack of personal privacy out on the streets. People feel free to stare at you, point at you, correct you if they think you are doing something wrong. And yet, Germany has had a much more organized protest to privacy invasions from corporations. Your book deals primarily with the United States, which has the opposite approach, really, to Germany's, but I was wondering if there were countries enacting privacy protections that you think are on the right track.
As you note, there are some marked differences between American and European conceptions of privacy. Many Americans are appalled by the tolerance for public nudity found in European countries like Germany or by European statutes that restrict the “parental prerogative” of naming one’s children. For their part, many Europeans are appalled by the readiness with which Americans will submit to the sharing of their credit ratings or to the publication of their photographs.
I can’t say that any country’s privacy laws strike me as especially exemplary, though I do tend to admire those countries, in Scandinavia for instance, in which privacy rights are buttressed by, as opposed to being set against, the right of every citizen to health, education and welfare. In other words, I tend to believe that the stronger the social contract, the more durable the privacy—and the lesser one’s reasonable fear of the prying eye. Gross inequality breeds mistrust, and mistrust inspires snooping, either because one fears one’s “inferiors” or envies one’s “betters.” If we all have a decent piece of the pie, why should I feel any need to be peering at your plate? I’d rather eat my pie.
There is a side of this privacy invasion that feels malicious. Justifications include things like, well if you have nothing to hide, what do you care? And, you shouldn't have drawn attention to yourself. It doesn't say good things about our culture, which seems out for blood more and more. The only privacy protection protest with any teeth I can think of is the NRA wanting to make sure that people who want guns don't have to get background checks. Is the tabloid culture a sign of our cultural degradation, or simply a high-tech extension of old village gossips?
There is indeed something malicious about privacy invasion, and it has much to do with achieving the grossest possible inequality with respect to another person. In a civil interaction, you and I have reciprocity; we negotiate our boundaries and adjust them as we develop or lose trust in each other. But the voyeur puts himself beyond reciprocity: he sees you, but you do not see him. He has knowledge; you have ignorance. Privacy invasion is the elemental form of all invasions. It’s Everyman’s chance to play at imperialism.
The hackneyed argument that good people have nothing to fear from surveillance amounts to saying that all people are good—in other words, it implies that we need not fear that a spy will ever misuse the information he gathers—in which case, why do we need surveillance? As for blaming the victims of voyeurism for being too free with their public personae or too indiscreet in sharing their personal information with third parties, the assertion strikes me as very similar to blaming a rape victim for dressing too provocatively or for having had multiple lovers. Who are these potentates who presume to tell us how far we dare expose ourselves before we become subject to a public stripping with no one but ourselves to blame?
I’m not sure if tabloid culture is an extension of village gossip so much as an obscene distortion of it. Even the most vicious village gossip might have turned up his nose at opening a neighbor’s mail or peering into a bedroom window. Gossip does not necessarily invade privacy, though it may not respect it. Here, too, there’s a factor of reciprocity that does not exist in tabloid journalism. Gossips can be gossiped about, but the hit-and-run “journalist” who hacks into a girl’s cell phone does so from a privileged position.
I agree that the voyeurism of the media represents a “degradation” of culture, but I prefer to look at the larger degradation that supports it. Think about this: Do you know anyone with meaningful work and nourishing social ties and a sensuous delight in living who spends her time rifling through her neighbor’s trash or surfing the ’Net in the hope of finding the latest “wardrobe malfunctions” of the stars? It’s not enough to decry the ugliness of certain cultural phenomena; we need to unmask the economic and spiritual forces that degrade human lives and alienate them one from another. Address that degradation and the others will take care of themselves.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.