A few years ago I read Moby Dick. Awesome book, but I remember thinking how weird it was that Ishmael not only shared a room with Queequeg at the Spouter Inn, they slept in the same bed, even touching each other. More recently, reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Private Life cleared things up a bit. Well, kinda.
Privacy was a much different concept in former times. In inns, sharing beds remained common into the nineteenth century, and diaries frequently contain entries lamenting how the author was disappointed to find a late-arriving stranger clambering into bed with him. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were required to share a bed at an inn in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1776, and passed a grumpy and largely sleepless night squabbling over whether to have the window open or not.
Even at home, it was entirely usual for a servant to sleep at the foot of his master’s bed, regardless of what his master might be doing within the bed.
Now, depending on your own predispositions, me telling you that this post isn’t about homoeroticism will either thrill or disappoint. But it’s not. You’re welcome and I’m sorry, respectively.
I’m going to talk about privacy, a subjective and ephemeral concept if there ever was one.
We are all entitled to some basic level of privacy. That much, I think, we can all agree on. The Global Internet Liberty Campaign notes that:
Privacy can be defined as a fundamental (though not an absolute) human right. The law of privacy can be traced as far back as 1361, when the Justices of the Peace Act in England provided for the arrest of peeping toms and eavesdroppers.
It’s clear, though, that acceptable levels of privacy vary a great deal across cultures, age groups, and time.
Today, I think most people’s views on privacy remain rooted in 20th century culture, a time in history when people got really comfortable with the idea of having space between them and their neighbors—and other hotel guests.
The 20th century is in our rear view mirror now. And, more significantly, we’re buttoning up a long run in human history when knowledge of our doings was governed primarily by physical space.
In less than two decades time, the internet has completely marginalized the physical dimensions that protect our perception of private life. Is this good news or bad news? Honestly, it's whatever you allow it to be.
What level of privacy do you need to enjoy life?
As Bill Bryson makes clear, our modern, private lives are a relatively new endowment. We didn’t always live in gated communities with 4,000-square-foot McMansions. We didn’t always have the option of hosting gym meets in our master bathrooms. Hell, we didn’t even get our own bathrooms until a blink of an eye ago.
Maybe the 20th century is an anomaly. Maybe it isn’t. But honestly, how much privacy do you really need? What’s your privacy worth to you?
More on point: Can we use new and highly information-communicable technology while maintaining the standard of privacy we set a few years ago in the pre-internet era?
I’m almost sure the answer is no, and I’m totally fine with that.
So my iPhone has a location cache file
So what? I don’t care. I’m being dead serious. I don’t. If I had an Android phone, I wouldn’t care that it sends my location data to Google. If I had a Windows Phone 7… (Okay, you’re right—I would never have a Windows Phone 7.)
But if you do care about the fact that a phone knows where you’ve been, I think you should step back and ask yourself why.
If you’re worried that some device or entity knows that you went through a McDonald’s drive-through before going to Walgreens before going to work yesterday, I’ll bet that’s already on record without any help from a phone. You use credit/debit cards, right?
As an even remotely active member of modern society, your digital footprints and fingerprints are everywhere. If you can’t live with that,
- Stop using mobile phones and devices. Period.
- Stop using email.
- Avoid the internet, especially web searches. Better, just stop using computers or any hardware that collects electronic residue.
- Stop posting geo-tagged photos of you and your kids on Facebook.
- Stop volunteering your location on Foursquare and Twitter.
- Cancel all of your credit cards.
- Pay with cash—but don’t withdraw it from ATMs.
Or, keep doing those things and realize that you’re getting a lot of benefits from the aggregate location knowledge collected by companies that provide really valuable crowdsourced services.
I love seeing Google traffic data, and the first time you use it to avoid twenty miles of interstate gridlock, I bet you will too.
Parting with privacy whether we like it or not
If you feel that you can carry your 20th century version of privacy into this century, let me sober you. The odds are very much not in your favor. Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal:
Today, almost three-quarters of the world’s people carry a wireless phone. That activity generates immense commercial databases that reveal the ways we arrange ourselves into networks of power, money, love and trust. The patterns allow researchers to see past our individual differences to forms of behavior that shape us in common.
Technology is simply an economic enabler. Given the tools, companies will collect information about where you’ve been and what you did there. But that’s not all bad. Not even close to all bad. Hotz, again:
The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus…
Investing your private endowment
If privacy is an endowed asset, then losing privacy is an expense—or more metaphorically accurate, a tax—that we pay in exchange for the consumption of goods that can only exist through the collection of private data.
Complaining about losing privacy while enjoying the fruits of it is no more rational than complaining about property taxes but sending your kids to public school—or dialing 911. It’s no less hypocritical than lamenting the loss of American manufacturing jobs while shopping at Wal-Mart.
There are pros and cons of location-based technology. The pros are winning. Take the gains from your private investments, and focus on how those gains make your life better. Don’t just dwell on your losses.