Privacy is, of course, an evolving social compact. In the modern era, we have enjoyed, thanks both to economics as well as philosophies and policies keeping pace as best they can with the changing economic context, an expansion of privacy. More of us than ever before live comfortable lives with an increased sense, and scope, of what we consider private. Much of our notions of privacy have to do with the spaces within which we interact with others. Thus, we have the notion that our front yards are more public than our back yards, if we have such a thing, because one is more viewable from the clearly public space of the street than the other. Our living rooms are more public spaces than our bedrooms, a fact we emphasize by putting the living rooms between the front door and our bedrooms.
But how do we define privacy within the so-called “virtual” space of the internet? We have come to regard certain information about ourselves as private. Sure, there have always been unscrupulous efforts or acts that revealed our privacy was more tenuous than we would like to believe, but usually those acts have been met with outrage.
Some enterprises or pundits have, in what has always struck me as a power grab, declared that “privacy is obsolete.” Give it up, they tell us. Give it up and we shall be set free. Don’t believe it.
More insidious has been the efforts of some enterprises — and here I am thinking directly of Facebook, but also of that stupid website where you share your credit card purchases and perhaps even, in some sense, GDGT — to whittle ever so slowly on our privacy expectations or, perhaps worse, to bargain with us. There gambit is simple: give up some of your privacy and in return you get … all the coolness that is “social media.” That would include a sense of community, of connectedness that was one of the promises of the internet (but not the only one).
But to return to a better definition of community than the one that gets slogged around the interwebs, what you get isn’t “community” but “association” as Max Weber made so clear at the beginning of the twentieth century. Communities are made up of the people who are around you because they are your neighbors or your family. They may or may not be “like” you in some larger sense. In fact, they often are so unlike you that they drive you crazy. Associations, however, are voluntary groupings of individuals who come together around some abstract sense of togetherness. This could be Methodists or it could be Masons. Ham radio operators were perhaps the first to use an information technology to seek out other like-minded individuals who never knew in person.
Yes, Facebook does offer you a bit of the real version of community, but it does so with an eye to mapping you, your friends, and your relationships. It is the kind of data that organizations, both private and public, salivate at the thought of getting.
And most of us have gladly given up our privacy in order to have this sense of community, of connectedness.
And it was convenient to do so. We could have built our own infrastructure to transport our ideas, but here was somebody else with the light rail system already set up. They weren’t charging money, only asking us to give up a little bit of our privacy here, and a little bit there, and suddenly, once we were on the train and enjoying the ride, they announced, “oh, you have no privacy, unless you ask for it.”
And so I am deactivating my Facebook account. Not deleting it, because I want to keep my name, but deactivating it.