What do we lose when we lose our privacy? This question has become increasingly difficult to answer, living as we do in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) as never before, to commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy. Although this is a new phenomenon, it has become as ubiquitous as it is quotidian, and for that reason, it is perhaps one of the most telling signs of our time. To get a sense of the sheer range of unconscious exhibitionism, we need only think of the popularity of reality TV shows, addiction-recovery memoirs, and cancer diaries. Then there are the banal but even more conspicuous varieties, like soaring, all-glass luxury apartment buildings and hotels in which inhabitants display themselves in all phases of their private lives to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers below. Or the incessant sound of people talking loudly—sometimes gossiping, sometimes crying—on their cell phones, broadcasting to total strangers the intimate details of their lives.
And, of course, there are now unprecedented opportunities for violating one’s own privacy, furnished by the technology of the internet. The results are everywhere, from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity of Facebook users registering their personal “likes” and preferences. (As we recently learned, this online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe; more than fifty million users’ idly generated “data” was “harvested” by Cambridge Analytica to make “personality profiles” that were then used to target voters with advertisements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)
Beyond these branded and aggressively marketed forums for self-invasions of privacy there are all the giddy, salacious forms that circulate in graphic images and words online—the sort that led not so long ago to the downfall of Anthony Weiner. The mania for attention of any kind is so pervasive—and the invasion of privacy so nonchalant—that many of us no longer notice, let alone mind, what in the past would have been experienced as insolent violations of privacy.
Given our widespread obliviousness to the current situation, we might be better served by asking: What did people used to believe they lost when they lost their privacy? Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, the first defenders of privacy became aware of its value at the moment they were on the verge of losing it. [Continue reading…]