Human beings evolved over a very long time in small groups of related people. They hunted together, foraged together, ate together, slept together, and did all the other things one does, in front of everyone else in their group. In all probability, all of the things we consider to be private were public for most of human existence. It’s only when you can live behind walls, away from the sight of others, that you can have privacy.
Did privacy evolve with settlement? Did the need for privacy influence settlement? Was it both, like language and religion. For as long as we know, settled humans have maintained some degree of privacy. Northern cultures seem to maintain a greater divide between public and private, but every settled society had the concept of privacy. Romans may have used communal toilets in the open air, but they did not have sex in the streets or discuss their family matters in the open.
Privacy is the key to one’s identity. It’s why militaries march recruits around naked so much in their initial training. Criminal gangs, like some motorcycle clubs, will do the same thing to prospective members. Take away a person’s privacy and they can no longer stand apart from the rest. It’s hard to hold yourself distinct from others when they know even the most intimate things about you.
Today, the big challenge is keeping your financial life and medical life out of the hands of crooks and ne’er do wells. Unlike 50 years ago or 100 years or 500 years ago, a man on the other side of the globe can now peer into your life and learn things about you that you prefer to keep private. The people who signed up for Ashley Madison are now discovering that those privacy notices are not the safeguard they were promised.
It’s getting much worse than that. If you get a Google thermostat for the house, Google can now data mine your environment and they will. Your phone, your car, your TV, and your PC are all reporting on your behavior. We have gone from passively guarding our private lives to having to aggressively protecting our privacy. It’s a losing fight.
What happens when it is no longer possible to keep any of your life private? What if anyone with a curiosity can go on-line and find out whatever they like about you? It’s not just going to change how you think of others, but it is going to change how you think of yourself. Imagine a world where everyone has the circumspection of a B-list TV personality, always whoring for attention.
That’s one possible outcome. Another possible outcome is a bandit existence where on-line pirates rob people by first stealing their secrets. The Ashley Madison hack is a good example of how a small number of dirt-bags can take down a business. Granted, the business in question caters to dirt-bags, but that’s just a coincidence. The next time it could be a clinic that holds sensitive patient data.
In such a world, you will be forced to employ a combination of deceptions to build a zone of privacy around your life. Most people already have dummy e-mail accounts for signing up to websites. People use proxy services to surf the web. Imagine a world where everyone lies about everything in order to make it impossible to assemble the mosaic of their life. A world in which no one can trust anything about anybody is not one that can have much in the way of social cohesion.
I think we are seeing a case where technology has outpaced our ability to evolve the corresponding cultural and psychological traits. For a few thousand generations we have maintained some degree of privacy and now we may be suddenly thrust into a world of none. Similarly, we evolved in a world where communication was slow and personal. Now we are swimming in an ether of mass media.
Maybe the end is that of John the Savage.