It would be hard to miss the outcry online today, following the news of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in an interview that have been described in news media articles as saying that privacy is no longer ‘a social norm’. Of course much of the commentary is assuming that Zuckerberg was heralding the death of privacy, which he wasn’t, and even if he had been, it’s more than a decade late: Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy did that in 1999. And for even longer than that, sci-fi author and physics professor, David Brin has been arguing that equity of access to information is a higher priority cultural right of the information age than privacy.
All fey predictions and commentary aside, there is the question of what aspects of privacy still remain and what perceptual changes to privacy have been fostered by social technologies and communication.
Traditionally – and as such constitutionally in many countries of the world – privacy has been considered in terms of a personal or natural right, as well as a property right.
Natural rights: moral or unalienable rights, not limited by place or jurisprudence, based on autonomy of human beings. Provides individuals with the right to control information about themselves.
Property rights: legally and politically specific to cultures and regions. Generally allows individuals to sell, transfer, exchange or otherwise handle property with others, or exclude others from accessing that property.
To all intents and purposes, these rights remain. But the extent to which surveillance is culturally acceptable and not incongruent with privacy has depended largely upon culture. In European nations, surveillance has often been regarded as acceptable practice where in Anglo cultures it was regarded as unacceptable. Charlotte Bronte described in her Villette, a profound difference of opinion on the subject of surveillance between the English governess and her Flemish characters. Whilst predominantly attributed to religion in that work, Bronte also described a quite specific difference between English and Flemish responses to breaches of human decency and trust. Whilst the Flemish believe that ‘the end justifies the means’, the unbeautiful, but determined English governess believes that trust should be presumed. But Bronte’s novel is just a single example of many 18th and 19th century literary characterisations of difference between British and non-Anglo notions of surveillance, and the same alarm can be traced throughout early American and Commonwealth literature.
But as the media age and information age developed, and as national and personal security has been more threatened, the distinction between Anglo and other-cultural responses to surveillance has blurred.
And with that shift in perceptions about the need for surveillance, has come another shift in understanding about control of personal information. In pre-20th century literature, ‘control’ of personal information was almost synonymous with concealment. Decency was characterised by covering up – physically in fashion, emotionally in demeanor, and socially in conversation. But over time this perception about control/concealment has adjusted to denote release of information about oneself, or providing limited access to that information. And as this has occurred, literature, media, fashion and personal communication has documented that change. Only 20 years ago, mobile phones were reviled as a massive invasion of personal space. While there may still be a lingering sense of mobile phones as intrusive (threatening concealment of personal space), they are more likely to now be regarded as a necessary safety device (limited release of personal information).
However, over the past fifteen years we’ve seen the greatest shift in perceptions about personal privacy. With the rise of ‘reality television’ and the development of what Christopher Lasch described in the 1970s as the ‘Cult of Narcissism’, we’ve developed a strange symbiotic culture of exhibitionism and voyeurism, against the backdrop of overcoming the tyranny of distance and the ravages of time. Business is faster and multi-national, and culture is global. Amidst this cultural mix comes social media, and social networks that promise to reconnect you with people you don’t otherwise have the time, space or opportunity to connect with, and you are given the chance to share status, photos, media and links in a manner that echoes the titillation of reality television with the added benefit of being decidedly personal. All it takes is to be willing to reveal that little bit more of yourself than you’d ever have had the chance to do before.
But to a large extent, it is that act of revelation in which the key value of social media resides. Whether it be announcing an event or seeking support for a crisis, it is the revelatory act that provides an emotional and cultural link between people. The value isn’t in the technology but the connections forged. Even in my own experience in hospital recently, the ‘radical transparency’ that social media permitted was certainly more valuable to me than what would in 19th century literature have been regarded as decent (however uncomfortable) concealment.