The Death of Privacy


In the Digital Inferno, privacy is one of the major battlegrounds between individual and corporation. It’s a war taking place largely without the conscious and active participation of the majority of humanity, most of whom are sleepwalking into the loss of most of their privacy.

At the heart of many of the large corporations is a zealous wish for the walls of individual privacy to come crashing down. These zealots largely claim that this removal of privacy will heal the world by joining us all together in a new family of pure openness. Heaven on earth.

In the spiritual development of humanity, one might imagine that us all being more open with each other might be a benevolent thing. When we put up walls to keep others out, we also brick ourselves in. Doesn’t privacy divide? Doesn’t openness and sharing bind us all together in ways that enhance the notion of the linked human family? Doesn’t privacy disconnect and doesn’t openness connect? Aren’t open work places what we all want (at least behind the firewall)?

Recently Facebook’s God, Mark Zuckerberg, launched Facebook “Home”, a new interface for smart phones. He claimed that it will put “People” not “Apps” (Applications) at the heart of the “mobile experience”. Various commentators have expressed horror that this will mark the death of privacy as the corporation uses this apparently benevolent attempt at openness to “Data mine”. (Find out what you are up to specifically in order to target you with adverts).

What was particularly telling was Zuckerberg’s statement that one of the main things humans want to do is be very connected into the big wide world. That’s his assumption. Is it yours?

Is that what primarily drives you? If so, then privacy might well limit you. If it isn’t your prime aim in life, or even for the rest of today, then you might just want to be careful before giving up your privacy.

Privacy isn’t just along a line of openness and closedness. It isn’t only about what is hidden or revealed. Privacy is also connected to our inner life. Privacy is part of our inner health and well being. Our wish for it is there for a reason.

Sometimes our inner world is a place where things seem even hidden from us, and only reveal themselves at certain times – not always the right time! A slightly difficult term to use these days is the word “Sacred”. Let’s use it to mean “of vital value to us”, of priceless value, special and often something we keep close to our hearts. Our sacred space is often our private space. Our “alone time” is often sacred to us. We often keep things secret because they are fragile or because we intuitively know they are brewing inside us. Sometimes we suppress things from ourselves in order to deal with them when we are more able. If you expose something too quickly to the light, it won’t develop – try it with some camera film. If you take something too quickly out of the oven, it won’t rise. Privacy is often sacred to us, because it guards precious and fragile aspects of our lives, our families, and deeper parts of our selves, that need to develop over longer periods and will be harmed, diminished or even destroyed in too much light. Much of our privacy is part of our mystery, our story over years that needs time to reveal and be told. Too many clues and the novel is ruined, the story spoiled. At work, good and innovative ideas often develop in quiet, out of public scrutiny.

We also put things into our private realm because we want to try to forget them. Forgetting creates space, at least in our immediate consciousness for newness, for a new page. It’s like clearing the decks – we don’t need them to be too glaringly available on our line of time. Clumsy social media platforms refuse to allow us to put our past into real privacy, archiving rather than deleting, and, even worse, putting them onto storylines and timelines that constantly bring our wish-to-be-forgotten memories into, not only our awareness, but also the awareness of the public.

One way this is maintained is through a development in recent years that creates a kind of tiredness in people to resist or undo it. It is the notion that the new “default” state of our lives is public, rather than private. We are now sold houses with the windows and doors wide open and a “come on in” sign posted at the gate, with the keys hard to get from the agent. It is for us to close and lock the doors and take down the windows. And, as soon, as we make any kind of change – perhaps add a new room, the default of public and open, reasserts itself and we have to lock it all up again. And, whenever we decide to do that, we are asked several times at each stage: “Are you sure”? “Are you really sure”? And even when we do delete or try to set to private, the search engines forget a lot more slowly, if at all.

Even when we lock the door and bolt it, various adverts start to fly through the letter box. If we say yes to any of those and don’t tick the right (and very tiny) “no” box, the openness defaults all start up again. And again. And Again.

It becomes less tiring, easier to just keep the doors open. My mother was recently shocked to discover that all of her photos are on public view whenever she posts them online. How do I stop it, she asked? Hmm…

Many corporations and social media zealots are attempting to link openess with a kind of moral duty in all of us to heal humanity by taking down the walls that divide us – the walls of privacy. These deliberately try to link privacy with being antisocial. Their prime motive of course, not very well hidden, is to mine our behaviour for data so that their virtual algorithms can target us with adverts and thus raise revenue for the corporation’s shareholders.

Openness can feel very freeing. It can bring the walls that make us feel isolated crashing down. We get more immediate feedback. We get more likes. More connected buzz. And we also get rewarded with more always-on connection popularity. Suddenly we have strangers on the other side of the world loving our family photographs.

But I want to suggest that we are also squandering something precious here and losing consciousness of the value of it our sacred space – not only to ourselves, but also to the rest of humanity. Pauses and silences are important. Space is as important as “stuff”. When we allow things to brew quietly and secretly inside of us, often over years, they deepen and refine, they mature and develop charisma. They need privacy. They need to be out of harsh glare. This gets lost if exposed too quickly. Also when we keep our story private, when we finally do decide to tell it to another, it can become healing for both them and us. Our stories are powerful and the constant sharing of them and even stealing of them by corporations (whom we unwittingly give permission to use them) diminishes their power, dilutes them, and even as we increase the number of connections, the quality of them degrades.

This isn’t about going back to the past and locking away old photo albums. This is about gaining mastery over what WE choose to keep private or make public. This is about feeling refreshed by revealing things at a time and place of OUR choosing. It is also about finding the value in the sacred inner private space that we all have. If I decide to regain my privacy, I regain this:

– a kind of inner portfolio of thoughts, feelings, and impulses that are like a raw material I can draw upon when I choose to. This raw material isn’t quite the same when it is in the public domain. I am imbuing it with value, with an importance, and I am keeping it protected so it can develop in its own way. What I am actually nurturing is my own genius, my own story over time.

– I keep things in private places where feedback will not confuse them, diminish or dilute them so that when I do get input and feedback and reaction to them it will be in ways that I choose. In this way I can consciously decide when to test out new ideas, or even deal with past pain, to bring out early drafts and work on them further. A lot of potential great ideas and innovations at work have been killed at birth by them being exposed to peers too early.

– I’m valuing aspects of myself by deciding what stays behind closed doors. It becomes up to me to manage my private and public self. Over time, this actually strengthens my will power.

The family trip to the coast, the rockpools and the sun cascading over the spray; the quiet time in the shade, reflecting on the sad week gone saying goodbye to grandpa who has passed on. The terrible row that blew up and the days of silence that followed, and now this quiet time together, with fewer words. Only years later, as we all look back – we have no pictures taken from this day, no status messages in an archive, yet we each remember it together and tell the story of how perfect it was. How it started to resolve things. And now, fifteen years later, older, wiser, as we meet up as a family and recall this day together, each remembering different details, we feel something else shift too, something deeper. And something profound is healed completely.

I’m suggesting this will be less likely to happen on a deep level if, when we were supposed to be embracing that silence on that day, just letting the sun wash over us, instead we were posting pictures every five minutes to Facebook, getting witty and clever comments from people, who were making suggestive suggestions about skinny dipping. I’m suggesting that by making such things public and, when we get home, checking into our inbox and half-seeing adverts for seaside holidays and travel insurance and semi naked bodies in bikinis, that we won’t dive so deeply over the longer run; we are distracted and the energy spreads and dissipates. We get a broader but not a deeper connection. Fifteen years later, that healing family conversation doesn’t take place. Does it take place in another way? Perhaps. I think – less likely.

Am I being old fashioned? Or more conscious? You decide.

This is about being more conscious with privacy. The problem of social media platforms with their default “public” settings and their clever terms and conditions that few of us understand, is that they are clumsy and fairly insensitive. It is possible to customise our online experience to be private, but it has been designed to be tiring and difficult, and also it is marketed as “uncool”. The corporation is actually highly emotionally intelligent and designs virtual experiences that tap deeply into what motivates us, boosts our self-esteem and meets our need for belonging and connection. They address our insecurities with consumate skill. Yet, as with many businesses, they also have some significant and subtle blind spots (whether that ignorance is accidental or a choice is down to conspiracy theories). Privacy is contingent, not generic. At critical moments in our lives we need to be able to withdraw completely, for a few moments, for a few years. We need to be able to burn a picture. We need to be able to say “not your business.” We need to be able to say “I’m not telling” or “I want to take that back”. This is how we finesse our story, a story in which we need to be the core author. If you want to give up the main editorial role in your life story, then this will mean little to you or will irritate you. If you feel that your story is your story and that the world’s story will be enriched by you holding onto your own pen when you choose to, then you might need to retake some conscious control over what you keep sacred and secret, and what you decide to share.

Pictures created through collaboration and community can be awe-inspiring and there can be a synergy created from the group and not just the individuals. I’m happy when that is driven by a consciously willed motive of creativity, and not a motive of commercial advert-selling. But also the many and diverse contributions of each of us is also part of the rich picture of our world. Rudolf Steiner said that each human being is a unique species of one. If you agree with that, your own particular recipe might need the lid kept on your pot as you cook! You’ll contribute to the recipe book of life but with your recipes in there too.

Conscious privacy strengthens your will power by improving the way you value yourself. It helps you regain the sense of sacredness and unique value you have. Claiming privacy can be a gesture of self-worth.

By not putting everything on view, you do not deny the world, you deny the corporation. By choosing consciously in the moment with your own will what you share and don’t share, actually is a gesture of value to, and faith in the world. Our public “virtual” spaces become less cluttered, simpler, cleaner, and we can start to see each other as we really are, in terms of our essence, not in terms of our mess. Instead of filling up an infinitely expanding attic, you start to help tend the garden.

Privacy divides us from each other. Conscious privacy connects in ways that Mark Zuckerberg can’t imagine. For then we connect out of a sense of uniqueness and importance for each other, renewed in each moment of sharing. This comes from connecting soul to soul, not via fingertips.

Privacy is going to be the new gold.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on April 7, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: