Ever since Edward Snowden defected after blowing the whistle on the NSA and its tendency to spy on normal citizens, there’s been a lot of talk about privacy and how it is being redefined during our lifetimes. We live in an exceptional age–the Age of the Internet–and this means that we leave a digital trail behind us every time we go on the internet to buy things, look things up, or watch things. We have traded the public square for a virtual platform; Facebook has become the place we go to hang out, talking to–and about–other people. We’ve traded our homey little coffee shop or bar for a social media program that displays our lives like an open Kindle book.
While it’s normal to be concerned about the fact that we are now all ultimately and essentially visible with all our tastes and tendencies apparent for all to see, concerns about the loss of privacy are greatly overstated. It would be impossible to be completely invisible, even if it were desirable. Each of us leaves a wake behind us as we travel through life, as surely as a boat leaves a wake even through the most turbulent waters it passes through. Only by living alone, in the midst of a wilderness, could we assure complete anonymity, a situation that seems to me inherently un-human and completely undesirable.
Humans are meant to live together. When we live together, in towns, cities, and small, rural communities, we brush up against each other. This is nothing new: we have always lived close to each other, and we have always left our trails behind us, whether in the refuse we produce (garbage, recycling, heavy trash), in the lives we create and those we touch (for better and for worse), and in the friendships we create–and terminate. It is–and should be–nearly impossible to skim across this life without leaving any signs of our existence. When we hear of someone who has achieved this, we feel no admiration for him or her but rather lament this kind of Prufrockian existence, this Willy Loman-ish life that fades into nothingness as soon as it ends.
Leaving traces of ourselves–even digital traces–is thus a good thing. It proves that we exist, if only for a short time. Of course, what worries people about the new, lower standard of privacy is that we are remarkably open with our computers; we type things into our browsers that we would be embarrassed to say in public. Browsers are much like our pets: we have few inhibitions in front of our dogs and cats, after all, and taking them into the bathroom, or into our beds, is quite common. If they could talk about us, we would surely be less inclined to be so open around them.
The development of the internet means that it is now quite easy for a government entity, or a commercial enterprise, to sweep in and find out things about us that we would not openly advertise or perhaps even admit. This is, however, nothing new. Governments have spied upon their citizens, seizing manuscripts and intercepting letters for the last thousand years, and in all likelihood back to classical times and pre-history. Complaining about our loss of privacy is ultimately futile, since there is nothing we can do about it. All forms of communication have always been co-opted by those in power and used to oppress others. The FBI engaged in wiretapping in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the first Queen Elizabeth’s informants spied on those engaged in illegal wool trading, men like William Shakespeare’s own father, John Shakespeare.
However, I’m not opposed to those who want new legislation to protect our privacy; in fact, I am grateful that they are willing to exert their energy and spend their time fighting this good fight. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is no explicitly stated right to privacy in the Constitution. It would be hard to ensure such a right, in any case. And while I commend those who are committed to fight this battle for us in order to preserve some small degree of digital privacy, my point is that the threat to online privacy, important as it is in some respects, is not one we should lose sleep over. There are other, more dangerous threats out there right now–like the defunding of public education, for example. But that’s a topic for another blog.