Privacy Betrayed

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By Albert Borgmann

There was a time when privacy promoted prosperity. Then, prosperity promoted privacy. Now privacy struggles with prosperity and is losing.

The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment was designed to protect households from intrusions of government. But when it was created in the late 18th century, there was little social privacy. Communities knew the comings and goings, the habits and conditions of their households. Privacy within households was just as limited. Work and entertainment and food and information were inevitably shared, and living and sleeping quarters were often the same.

Rather than social privacy, what the founders sought to protect was the security of personal possessions, which was crucial for confident and vigorous work and thus formed the basis of prosperity. Consider China, where the blessings of free speech and association, our First Amendment, are largely missing. But when the Chinese government provided for the benefits of our Fourth Amendment, prosperity began to rise.

In the United States, prosperity has increasingly augmented physical privacy with social privacy. In time, there was one bedroom for the parents and another for the children. Today, children expect to each have their own. It isn’t just that children have been taught to be more self-centered. Separate rooms ease the burdens of parenting — divide children, and you’ll conquer fighting.

And here is the emerging shape of hypertrophic social privacy. It’s the marriage of availability and disburdenment. The availability of convenience food liberates individuals from the burdens of cooking and from the prison of dinnertime and the dinner table. The availability of iPads and iPods dissolves agreements on what to watch and what to listen to.

Individual electronic devices exemplify today’s version of prosperity: the availability of unencumbered commodities that come with the promise of the purest of pleasures. iPads and iPods also instantiate the underside of these hyperfine commodities, an unobtrusive and immensely powerful machinery.

Between seductive commodities and invisible machineries, social privacy suffers. Discreet machineries prompt indolence. Hard-to-resist commodities invite self-indulgence.

Indolence allows for the innumerable traces we leave in cyberspace, traces assiduously gathered and used and abused by government and business. Self-indulgence makes us consumers and then also producers of alluring revelations. Privacy, once the sacred precinct of intimacy, love, and friendship, is exploited and betrayed for the sake of a dubious kind of prosperity.

Now what? Privacy advocates battle the abuses of government and business, novelists and essayists pillory the self-absorption of the citizenry, and journalists are bringing the perils of privacy to public attention. Philosophers for the most part, are engaged in analytic exercises and oblivious to the ravages and the new beginnings of the surrounding culture.

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher and Regents Professor at the University of Montana, specializes in issues at the intersection of technology and contemporary life.