Thursday, July 23, 2009

Do you really wanna be that private?

It’s interesting how some notions seem to function like currency in the social sphere. Take Facebook’s recent breach of Canada’s privacy laws (see news item here). Whenever social/cultural values seem to elevate one social dynamic over another I get suspicious that there is a type of stratification happening in the social context that advantages some and not others. Boil it down: Could it be that manipulating privacy might be a way of gaining social/cultural/economic power?
Now I understand that a certain amount of privacy is good thing. We just do not want to know every sordid or banal detail of each other’s lives. There are also times when knowing certain private information can be used to take advantage of another person (the pin # to your mastercard for instance). But on the whole even in those cases some basic social hygiene might prevent most of these problems. Instead we have been given to understand that privacy is a right we deserve to have protected. On top of it all our privacy, it seems, needs to be protected by external forces. The bank we keep our money at, the store we shop at, the internet site we are addicted to, and even the government ought to protect our privacy for us. Which seems kinda odd doesn’t it since after all our privacy can only really be protected by us. It seems we want to act in an increasingly public manner, revealing ever more ‘private’ information, while expecting outside agencies to protect us from our own indiscretions. We are more voyeuristic than we have ever been – just take a peak at YouTube…
But even if our privacy has been breached-big deal! Let’s look at a few examples: A) your private credit card information in used to make an enormous purchase. Well we already know that credit card companies are swift to deal with charges that are not made by the actual card holder. It’s gonna be pretty easy for me to tell when an $8000.00 purchase has been made on my account. There’s always the ability to revert to cash… B) your child’s private online information is used to for the benefit of some pedophile (if you get my meaning). This one boggles me. If your kids is spending time on the computer and you are not aware as a parent of what they are doing online – there is a problem and it’s not with the issue of privacy it is with the issue of parenting. Getting an education degree has revealed to me that if someone wants the personal details of your child they can access them quite easily even though there are FOIPP plans that seem to protect that information.
So there are two examples - extreme perhaps but those are the sort of things that are bandied about in the media as reasons for increased levels of privacy.
But do we really want a world with more privacy. Well aside from the public/private conundrum I mentioned earlier it seems like privacy holds a lot of social power. Privacy fences or houses designed with the garage in front so that I never have to talk to my neighbours are two examples of the pervasive presence of privacy in the cultural ethos. I am not sure that a more private world benefits us that much. We seem to feel increasingly vulnerable and seemingly more helpless to create the privacy we need. We also seem to want to keep private things that would be better revealed. Sickness, relational difficulties, financial struggles and personal addictions are all things that are better dealt with publicly than privately.
The conclusion to the matter: It seems that the ability to control the private/public domain of one’s life wields a social power. Look at our celebrities they reveal more private information than most of us might and use to their advantage to increase their star power. The proletariat (the rest of us) fight to hang on to as much privacy as we can so as not to become victims of horrible things. Agencies that claim to protect our privacy give us a false sense of security since they really can’t protect our privacy at all. And as we retreat into our freaked out individualism scraping together as much personal space as possible, we yell and scream to be noticed, worried about, cared for - that stuff only happens in a public setting.

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