Information overload

Is privacy going out of fashion, asks Julian Baggini and, if so, at what cost to society and the individual?


Information overload

The young parliamentary candidate had barely met me when he started talking about his lucky pants. As I was about to tuck into my asparagus, he explained, ‘I realised that every woman who has seen me in them has fellated me.’ Suddenly, my starter seemed much less appetising.

This guy’s not going to go very far, I thought. Despite being something of a rising star, such reckless candour is bound to lead him straight to the front pages of the tabloids and unceremoniously out the back door of Westminster.

However, whether I like it or not, it is clear that the very idea of privacy seems to be changing. The young politician represents a generation for whom nothing is truly real until it is shared online or by mobile phone: file-sharing has become life-sharing. While ID cards and CCTV cameras are hotly debated, people are voluntarily revealing more and more of themselves online, to friends and strangers alike.

‘Some years ago an MP sat me down and told me that a politician needs to develop a private identity and a public identity,’ Lucky Pants later told me in an email. ‘I thought: bollocks to that.’ With so much information now being uploaded every second, he even wondered whether it would be possible in 10 years time to have any secrets at all. Would that matter?

Privacy – a novel concept

The kind of privacy we currently take for granted could be seen as a recent aberration. For most of human history, people have lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business. The privacy many of us treasure is thus the flipside of the anonymity of modern life. Perhaps the internet is an artificial way of returning us to the natural state of transparency to others.

But even if privacy is a modern invention, it may be a very good one. Not being always exposed to the gaze of others is what allows us to develop our individuality. Those small communities where everyone knew everything were often extremely conformist. Being different is very hard when the collective gaze of society is always on you.

The collective cyber-gaze could have the same effect. For example, the homemade sex videos or pictures of drunken, sweaty parties which people post online have the surface appearance of uninhibited freedom, but they are almost indistinguishable from each other.

The benefits of anonymity

Abolishing privacy might unite our public and private selves, but I’m not convinced this would be a good thing. It’s easy to think that we each have a true self, and that our public personas are just masks. The truth is more complicated than this. Changing how we are according to situation need not be a matter of adopting a disguise, but of showing different facets of our selves. If we always had to conform to just one version of who we are, then we may lose a lot of the richness of being complex individuals.

Without privacy, there can also be no true intimacy. What you do in bed with your lover is no longer an intimate experience if you blog about it or post a video of it online. There may be a choice between having strong bonds with fewer people or looser bonds with many more.

The nature of privacy is changing, that is for sure. But I suspect that it won’t take long before we start to realise that without some distinction between our private and public lives, we cannot have the intimacy with others and individuality we cherish. The realm of the private may be shrinking, but we would do well not to let it vanish altogether.

Enable referrer and click cookie to search for eefc48a8bf715c1b ad9bf81e74a9d264 [] 2.7.22