[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]
With the rise of digital technology, privacy is increasingly seen as a matter of managing and protecting personal information. Our intuitions about privacy, on the other hand, are not formed by abstract information as it exists in cyberspace, but by the need to protect yourself against the things you are ashamed of, such as bodily excretions or secrets of the mind. The ability to isolate you enables you to develop yourself as an unique and autonomous individual. Features that cannot be found in the virtual world.
Nowadays, debates about privacy are mostly about digital developments such as social media and monitoring technologies. But the link between privacy and digital technology is only a difficult one. For most of us, privacy seems to be about other things than what the virtual world is about.
Of course it is important to ask yourself who is allowed to use the information that you feed to the internet in one way or another and how this information may be used. But if you present these questions in terms of privacy, you neglect the essence of both privacy and of the importance of data protection.
Even without the link to computers, privacy is often seen as something that belongs to the western culture of the last few centuries. A concept that belongs to liberal thought, where the separation between the private and a public space creates freedom. That is most certainly not nonsensical, I basically have said the same elsewhere. But it may be better to see that liberal vision primarily as a derivative case of an approach to privacy based on the need to seek protection against vulnerability, a trait that is universally human. It is this need that largely determines our intuitions about privacy and that mainly involves a physical place where you can find psychological shelter.
The sociologist Barrington Moore states that the need for privacy is a fight or flight response aimed at coping with stress and danger. If an individual feels unable or insecure to meet a certain social obligation, then she would prefer to withdraw into a protected space. Such social obligations are regularly in the domain of physical activities, such as eating and drinking, but above all pooping and peeing. Things that everyone does, but we are all ashamed of.
We seem to be the most vulnerable if the boundary between our body and the outside world does not appear impenetrable. Bodily discharge like sweat, snot, pee, blood, saliva, puke and shit disgust us when we someone else produces it and it makes us ashamed when others us producing it ourselves. The self-control that we strive for and that is so important for our self-image appears to be relative. By creating private spaces, we get the protection we need to sustain the idea of self-control.
For psychoanalysts, the shame of bodily secretion is what makes us human. By learning to be disgusted with your own feces, according to Freud, a child internalizes the norms of a culture. Lacan even projects that anal phase to the level of the development of humanity as a whole by stating that people started to distinguish themselves from animals when poo was seen as something to be ashamed of.
These claims might sound a bit outdated now, but from the viewpoint of developmental psychology there is something to be said for the formative role of privacy. It is all about the realization that there are secrets, things that you must or can keep for yourself. Things that are yours alone and about which only you have something to say.
The ability to keep a secret helps you to develop into an individual. A person who is fundamentally separated from everybody else. In fact, this is also the origin of the liberal vision of privacy, where each individual has the right of complete self-determination, in which no government or other party may intervene.
It is no wonder that privacy is primarily a matter of feeling. If your privacy is violated, it will affect who you are, what gives meaning to your life. The violation of your privacy is not something you conclude on the basis of an observation or rule, it is something that you feel intuitively.
You keep the biggest little secret in the smallest room. There you can isolate yourself during your most vulnerable moments. On the toilet, the archetypal private space, you can be the one you don’t want to be, but that you still are.
Not only the toilet offers protection, the house we live in does that as well. We feel at home at home because we are protected from the glances and judgments from outside, we can deal with our lack of physical self-control in a reasonably relaxed way. The bond we have with our loved ones allows a high degree of tolerance for our bad habits. For your family, your family or best friends, there are far fewer secrets.
Yet everyone has secrets that really are her own. We no longer have any drawers, boxes or anything else to hide our secrets and our junk. Private spaces that slide into each other like matryoshka dolls or that exist alongside each other.
And then we are not only at home in our house. Many of us regard their car as a private space. Our own music, our mess, our shouting at fellow road users that will never be heard by someone else. No place else you pick your nose as comfortably as in your ‘home away from home’, which happens to be found on roads that are public.
That is also what makes it so difficult for policymakers to counteract the negative consequences of driving a car. Congestion, safety and pollution hand over plenty of reasons to develop a policy that leads to less car traffic. But measures such as banning dirty cars in city centers, road pricing, extra excise duties, often lead to strong reactions. This vehemence suggests that those measures are primarily perceived as a violation of privacy, as a violation of the fundamental right to be free within one’s own private space.
This all seems strange and paradoxical. How can something be so public and so private at the same time? That is precisely so because public and private are intrinsically ambiguous. Paradoxes belong to the separation between public and private spaces, because secrets are physical or mental or because we use different spaces to isolate ourselves. We only have to look at the system that makes the toilet possible, namely the sewer system that connects all toilets and ensures that our secrets secretions remain secret (note the etymology). There have been working toilets for centuries, but they only became successful when it could be integrated into an infrastructure that regulates the supply and drainage of water. Only with such a system the practices of emptying of poop-filled buckets in canals, vulture pits and open sewers could be terminated- you now have to travel to distant lands to get sick of drinking water.
But the responsibility of this system is by no means private. On the contrary, it are public (that is, in this context, collective) organizations that must ensure that the underground streams of poo and urine remain invisible. Indeed, historically, the serving role of the government as manager of the public space comes primarily from the task of making our crap disappear as efficiently as possible, so that it seems as if it never existed.
So where does this take us in terms of privacy? Our need for it seems to be based primarily on the idea of physical self-control, where we create shielded physical spaces that can mask the lack of self-control. This branches off to less physical forms of privacy, such as the secrets of the mind that turn someone into an individual. Moreover, the constellation of shielded spaces is far from clear, especially in our complex world. Above all, privacy is a feeling, so that paradoxes and ambiguities are hardly noticed. Based on our gut instinct, we know whether something or someone is getting too close, wants to know too much about us, or wants us to do things that are not our own choice.
What about the virtual world? The interweaving of fiber optic cables, which is tied to zeros and ones encrypted information into zeros and ones, is stored and transported to the seemingly infinity. The web allows you to further shape your individual identity. Separated from direct personal contact, many expect to enter the domain of the intimate, a domain where nobody sees who you are and what you do; a domain where you can enjoy your own little and big secrets.
However, there is a problem with this representation because it portrays the virtual space as something that it is not, namely a three-dimensional space. We only use the term cyberspace as a metaphor for lack of better, but it is a metaphor that largely determines how we behave on the internet.
Nevertheless, the web does not offer the protection it seems to offer. The web is also the site of cookies, data analytics and hackers. Unlike in the real world, the web knows no boundaries between what must be kept secret and what may be revealed. Cyberspace merely suggests that it is a platform for the hidden. But the virtual space of the web is a space without rooms, without walls, without doors, the intimate flows smoothly into the public. It is not for nothing that the virtual space is called the ‘cloud’, it is an amorphous mist in which it is never clear where you are exactly. Ultimately, the virtual world lends itself very poorly to the application of the concepts of public and private, because this world is intrinsically diffuse.
Big data, internet, social media, it is all seen as a threat to privacy, to the information that we would prefer to keep to ourselves; but it remains a difficult discussion, because our intuition of what privacy is seems to have a physical origin and not a virtual one.
The secrets you have on the web, which NFSW sites you visit, whose Facebook profiles you check, which guilty pleasures you listen to on Spotify, well, those are things that you want to keep to yourself. But that is hardly what debates on digital privacy are about, because these are about information that is collected or sold by companies and governments. But these are abstract data that have little to do with the secrets that have a special meaning for us.
The implication is that most of us are hopelessly naive when dealing with digital information. We do feel embarrassed if we stand in front of a group of people with sweat stains under our armpits, however, a smart analyst profiling us on the basis of clicks makes little impression. And that is to be regretted, because that collected and processed information can indeed have bad consequences and can lead to a new kind of vulnerability that we must protect ourselves against.
Now you can say that ultimately everyone will learn how to deal with the new digital vulnerability. A new phase in human development à la Lacan where it is not about an anal, but about a digital phase.
Maybe, but I think it makes more sense to approach virtual privacy in a fundamentally different way than ‘real’ privacy. Also because the current debates about privacy threaten to colonize other debates about privacy. For example, when it comes to street cameras and tracking systems, the debates are more about the collection of data than about the fact that the street is a space that should belong to all of us and not to a data collector, whatever its purposes. Even when it comes to DNA that may or may not be stored, people are primarily reduced to information carriers instead of producers of meaning. That leads to the question of what remains of people as beings who assign meanings to themselves and to the world around them?
Hence, I think that privacy should above all guarantee the latter, and it does not fit the digital world as a concepts. For that, someone has to come up with an ugly neologism with which the dangers of the digital can be described in a much more targeted way.
Gastelaars, M. (1994). Publiek private aangelegenheden. Een essay over de wc. Kennis en Methode, 1, 69-89.
Geuss, R. (2001). Public Goods. Private Goods. Princeton & Woodstock: Princeton University Press.
Ishmaev, G. (2019). Open Sourcing Normative Assumptions on Privacy and Other Moral Values in Blockchain Applications. Delft.
Melosi, M. V. (2000). The Sanitary City. Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Moore, B. (1985). Privacy. Studies in Social and Cultural History. Armonk & London: M.E. Sharp.
Pesch, U. (2005). The Predicaments of Publicness. An Inquiry into the Conceptual Ambiguity of Public Administration. Delft: Eburon.
Pesch, U. (2015). Publicness, Privateness, and the Management of Pollution. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 18(1), 79-95.