Private Parts

Amidst the current social controversies regarding constant connectedness and dystopian fiction-turned-fact surveillance, I've been doing some reflecting on the meaning and value of the buzz concept of 2013: privacy.

While the typical libertarian mantra of inalienable personal rights is tossed around as valid refutation of state sponsored nosiness, I've never been a fan of the "inalienable rights" argument. It glosses too readily over the deeper philosophical points that inform the opinion and give less analytically minded blowhards a convenient crux to lean on.

So in the case of privacy, I think it wise to explore beyond the political rhetoric and investigate how privacy really factors into our humanity, not just in the wider systemic sense, but on the deeply personal and philosophical level of how we experience life.

Very simply, privacy is a matter of agency. It is an extension of our capacity to dictate of the world and of our lives the terms by which we cope with existence. We think of privacy often as a matter of social stability or change, that it is the stuff of revolution and national security, but in fact, privacy is at its core most relevant to the individual person. All the other issues are just laddered and expounded concerns of a simple individual desire for control over ones own reality.

One of the consequences of personal agency is the emergence of self-identity. Because to act meaningfully is to do so in context, and the context of most human life is unquestionably social, what we do is inexorably tied to how we wish the world to perceive and receive us. The words we use, the clothes we wear, the style of our hair, the careers that we pursue, are all, conscious or otherwise, representative of the concept of self that defines our consciousness. 

So how does privacy fit in? Well, what we do is only half the equation of our identities. For an identity to be fully realized, it has to be communicated to a broader audience. Privacy is the management of that line of communication. It is only by acting as gatekeeper to the knowledge of ourselves that we exert any agency in our social lives. What we do may satisfy some solipsistic notion of self, but it is ultimately what others perceive about us that defines who we are in the wider reality of any human society. This is why you can never seek friendships with an anonymous philanthropist, why we are not happy to simply enjoy paradise, but compulsively need to Instagram the white sands and fallen coconuts on our lavish vacations. What cannot be shared cannot be known. And it is by this simple principle that all people manage the veil of privacy required to ensure their own status as gatekeeper, preserving the agency which imparts meaning to our existence.

When our privacy is breeched, it is not simply an affront to our political agendas and freedoms, it is stripping us of power. When others can control the flow of information that directly informs on who we are and what we do, we lose the option to dictate our own presence in the world. The early morning photos sans makeup, the juvenile record, the drug-addled past. These are components of individual lives which we each assume should be our own right to express or contain.

In fact, when it comes down to it, all communication is predicated on this managed transference of information between actors. What we call tact or charm is just the nuanced and mindful management of an identity and all the relevant information attached to it. The coy and graceful tête-à-tête of a first conversation, the concerns of making a proper first impression, the use of body language, a firm handshake. We have developed as human beings one of the most involved and delicate communications systems of any creature. Privacy is the fundamental concept that makes it possible. It is what allows us to gaze into the eyes of a stranger and determine in that moment to redefine ourselves. And as we slowly relinquish control of our roles as gatekeepers, so too do we lose the opportunities to say to the world, "This is who I am."