Inside Out

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.


6 thoughts on “Inside Out

  1. all of the things we consider to be private were public for most of human existence

    Not quite. Apes shy from other apes for some activities; sly breeding for one. Apes find food, hide and hoard it. Many mammals breed, give birth or raise children away from their herd or pack as matter of safety (from other members of the herd or pack).

    Privacy may have grown with capability. As predators learned to fear people, it became possible to be alone without the fear of death. Prior to that, safety required numbers.

    • My default when looking at these things is to assume a dynamic. Hunter gatherers in Eurasia maintained some minimal privacy for things like sex and courtship. The sense of dignity, however, was minimum as it could not be a trait of much use and possibly even detrimental. The desire to have some separation and independence from the group was there and was part of the set of traits that led to settlement. That in turn made traits for self-sufficiency, independence, privacy, etc. more valuable, elevating their status.

      My observation is that the further you go north the more common the sense of privacy. Perhaps the need for males to be away from the group for long periods to get food is the cause.

  2. “It’s why militaries march recruits around naked so much in their initial training.”
    You had a very weird drill instructor, Yossarian.

  3. Privacy was always possible. If you were that desperate you left the herd and tried to make it on your own. Hermits were just about guaranteed total privacy. Of course it was lonely but if you could pretend a god (or gods) approved of it then you could get by. As for sex, I think people have found ways of pleasuring themselves without anyone else since people developed the ability to grasp and, er, wiggle.

    trouble is these days privacy would be immaterial if it wasn’t commercial. if Googoo can examine your life it isn’t because they are particularly interested in your activities or proclivities, it is because someone will pay for that knowledge.

    Years and years ago I had a relative who worked for a major publisher in London. He told me back then he would be offered dozens of lists of names and addresses each year for marketing purposes. This was years before tinterwebz and emails, so how these people acquired them I knew not, and anyway I lived in the sticks so who would want my name and address? Since then i have discovered I am a commodity. Today I went to a toy shop to buy a present. Would I like to win some money by registering online at sellyourprivacy.argggh or some such place? Were I foolish enough to try to win a few quid my name and address and the fact I like buying dolls would be circulated for all to see.

    Without the money aspect no one would care at all that i like dolls with flouncy petticoats.

  4. I think that you have two options:

    • Live an entirely exemplary life The problem with this strategy is that any transgression, no matter how minor, be held up as the vilest hypocrisy known to man by your rivals and enemies. So you might as well just…

    • Let it all hang out. It’s not just the Virgin Mary who will cry every time you masturbate, it’ll be your mom since she’ll know. So if you scratch your butt and pick your nose you might as well do it in public.

  5. You have to wonder, with the numbers bandied about on page views, and traffic stats, how many of the ‘visitors’ are ghosts, or try outs sent in before the ‘real’ guest stops by. And then there’s the bot factor.
    We live in the age of the simulated entourage.

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