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Privacy and publicity

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Thursday, Oct 2, 2008

Considering that Sarah Palin has declared her belief that the right to privacy is guaranteed by the Constitution, this August 2008 Scientific American article by Daniel Solove about how privacy is evolving in the internet age is worth revisiting.


It is still possible to protect privacy, but doing so requires that we rethink outdated understandings of the concept. One such view holds that privacy requires total secrecy: once information is revealed to others, it is no longer private. This notion of privacy is unsuited to an online world. The generation of people growing up today understands privacy in a more nuanced way. They know that personal information is routinely shared with countless others, and they also know that they leave a trail of data wherever they go.
The more subtle understanding of privacy embraced by Generation Google recognizes that a person should retain some control over personal information that becomes publicly available. This generation wants a say in how private details of their lives are disseminated.


Solove suggests that as a result, we need to firm up legal protection of the data we generate through our online activities. I couldn’t agree more, though I don’t get the sense that Generation Google much cares about it. I’m not sure what the nuances are that Solove is pointing to; it’s hard to get the feeling that people are concerned with privacy at a deeper level because they don’t like having online activity broadcast by Facebook.


Rather it seems that when we use the internet, we become blinded by our own self-absorption and too enthralled by narcissism to care about what sort of digital trail we leave behind. If we are casting a wider net than we realize, if marketers find us so important as to publicize us further, then so much the better. We are achieving greater notoriety, registering even more deeply in the public sphere, where selves are now predominantly fashioned. And though we may start out only wanting our friends to know what we want them to know, the lack of reciprocity and face-to-face exchange in online relations begins to make us indiscriminate about who pays attention to us. Online, a page view is a page view, a comment is a comment; in the end it all gives us the same sense of being paid attention to in that realm. So social networks exert a centrifugal force, and the seeds of our identity are sprayed out in ever-widening circles, looking for a place to find purchase.


So privacy concerns have taken a backseat to publicity concerns. We don’t have to use the internet and create a digital record of our lives; we choose to, because it is both convenient and flattering, particularly when personalized ads succeed in making us feel well-understood. In general, we are aware of our digital trail but, encouraged by the design of social networking and the ways it tries to prod us into perpetually applaud and recognize one another, generally think only of how our digital history can aggrandize us. As the private sphere disappeared—as Richard Sennett details in The Fall of Public Man—and public life became a forum for expressing the authentic self, a new imperative to celebrity takes hold: the more publicity one receives, the more established and concrete one’s authentic self begins to seem to oneself. If I wear a clever T-shirt and no one sees me, what have I really accomplished? The idea expressed by the T-shirt has not been affixed to my image; it hasn’t been affirmed and validated. I remain that much more amorphous.


Social networking makes it so I can believe someone is always seeing me wear my clever T-shirt, or listen to a cool band, or come up with a pithy sentence about what I am doing right now.

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