Oh, for the Privacy of the Old Days …

November 10, 2010 3 min read

People seem really shocked that, what they believe to be, their “private activities and interests” on the internet are being tracked. There is a pretty widely held notion that our inalienable rights to privacy are being trashed by modern technology. 

What we forget is that for most of human history, a lack of personal privacy was actually the norm. In ancestral villages, if someone was a drunkard, beat his wife, couldn’t bear children, or was a congenital liar (or all of the above), the entire community knew about it almost instantly. It wasn’t just the “yentas” that were “in everyone’s business” – everyone was in everyone’s business.  You couldn’t help it.

Three trends – two of them technological – created what we now think of as “privacy” in the first place. 

Urbanization. As long as people lived only in villages, we all worked, lived, and loved together.  Everyone knew what was going on.  The rise of municipalities larger than a village, for the first time gave people the opportunity to move from place to place in relative anonymity.  Sure the people around you would still know a lot about you in your new town or city, but now, you could more easily leave an old life behind for the first time in human history.

Trains.  With trams and trains in cities, for the first time in history, people could work a significant distance from their homes and neighbors.  Sure you still had to wave to and engage people on your way to and from work but, for the first time, you could have a separate set of acquaintances for home and work – and, with enough distance, you could reasonably expect that the two social spheres would not overlap often – giving you a sense of privacy.  Trains and trams allowed cities to spread and grow as well – and with more space between you and the next guy, more opportunity to hide your favorite sociopathic behavior from the world.

Automobiles.  With cars and the rise of suburbia came our first real taste of privacy.  The wealthy had long had estates large enough to offer them spatial privacy – but they needed a lot of servants to take care of the lands, and those servants could be nosy.  But automobiles allowed even a middle-class family – those poor souls who couldn’t afford help – to live without adjoining walls.  Garages meant that you could come and go without ever having to acknowledge the neighbors around you.  Most of us today don’t know our neighbor’s names – we have arrived!

Now, belief in the “right to privacy” has become so entrenched that anything that threatens it feels like… well… a violation.  Our current scapegoats for loss of privacy are, among others: online-advertising, sensors, key cards, CCTV, and Facebook.   But these are just the latest in a long line of technologies that actually have opened us all up to shared experiences.  Gutenberg’s printing press started it all when it began to tear down the secrecy walls that the priesthood had erected around Holy Scripture.  The telegraph made local bad guys into national criminals by disrupting their opportunity to privately move their particular brand of criminal activity from one locale to the next without warning. Television let an entire nation (and in many cases the entire world) experience the same emotions simultaneously for the first time ever (oddly, for many those emotions involved Milton Berle).

Now the internet is opening up individuals (literally in some cases – how many have watched surgeries that are now “YouTube’d” on the web?) and organizations to scrutiny and reactions that would have been unthinkable, even a decade ago.  While complaining about their lost of privacy, a surprisingly large number of people are embracing – even rushing – to put ever more of their information out on the web for anyone to access (do I really need to know which of my friends just arrived at McDonalds and bought a Big Mac?)

The coming years will give us more GPS and sensor-based access to information about everyone in the human village.  And a generation of people who have grown up with technologies will put more and more of their “personal lives” out there for everyone else to see and potentially take advantage of.  We need to continue the conversation about how to deal with these technological and sociological trends, but let’s never forget the fact that in some ways we’re just going back to an earlier world where there was no expectation of privacy.  But this time, the village is a lot bigger.