Your empathy and fear have created society's obsession with privacy

Note: scroll straight to the bottom for the photos.

Imagine a world with no private spaces.

Imagine that your car has no doors, so that asshole on the drive to work who just cut you off can mock the ugly socks you wear or the fact that you drive with no pants on. 

Imagine that your home has no walls, so anyone can watch the way that you shit while reading copies of Reader's Digest from 1997 or see the manner in which your face contorts and your body shakes as your brain concocts little night-terrors to entertain itself.

Imagine that your company strips away your office cubicle and leaves you at a table in a room with all your colleagues who can count the number of times you get up to pee or track how long it takes for you to get up, to wait in line, to order, to wait for your food to arrive, to return back to your desk with your bag in hand, and to shove that greasy burger down your throat and get back to business.

Imagine that your backyard has no fence and no hedges, so your neighbor, who smells like the two-week-old trash that she unceremoniously leaves by the curb next to your used Honda Civic and that you have to ward the raccoons away from when you wake up at 6am to go to that shitty job where everyone can see your dandruff, can watch through her camouflage binoculars with the plastic daisy taped on your six-year-old son play in your backyard on your playground that you built for him.

Imagine a world with no private spaces.


How do you feel? Violated. Surveilled. Insecure. Exposed. But why do you feel that? Let's look back.

Human societies invented privacy. Which is to say, not every human society embraces the conception of privacy. And, moreover, not every human society understands the conception of privacy.

This is apparent in language. Many languages do not have a word for privacy; many more have attempted to replicate this meaning by construction of phrases to represent this conception; still more have simply adopted cognates of the English privacy, after finding themselves incapable of constructing a representation of this idea in their own naturalness.

This is apparent in attitude. Cultural norms reflect behavioral ruts composed from arbitrary trends. An entire society may share the belief that to make out and grope in public poses no issue. Across the border, another entire society may share the belief that to perform the same actions poses a deep threat to the whole and that the violators should be jailed. Or simply, that to be asked to reach into a bag which belongs neither to you nor to the asker presents a deep philosophical question.

You might think: "yes, obviously different people think about privacy differently."

Well, yes. In some cultures, conceptions of privacy may overrun, may be confluent, may be integrated or disintegrated.

So let's first abstract upwards with the goal of achieving a more holistic view of the conception of privacy, a conception proposed by Daniel Solove. Which is to say, let's review the classifications of privacy. And then let's second dive into how each classification may be violated by some action, a map of behavior also proposed by Solove. Which is to say, let's review the taxonomy of violations of privacy.

  • the right to be let alone
  • the option to limit the access others have to one's personal information
  • secrecy, or the option to conceal any information from others
  • control over others' use of information about oneself
  • states of privacy
  • personhood and autonomy
  • self-identity and personal growth
  • protection of intimate relationships

And there exists four types of activity around privacy, each of which may violate one of the conceptions of privacy.

  • Invasion
  • Information Colleciton
  • Information Processing
  • Information Dissemination

(If you're curious about any of the above, check out Solove's book.)

But for right now, let's just re-narrow our scope. In doing so, we will engage with several of these classifications and many of these violations. 

Imagine that you're walking down the street and you feel like dancing, and you know that if you were home alone and in private you would dance your heart out; you, however, (being an intelligent young man) recognize that the sidewalk of a poppin street just outside of your office clearly presents no good opportunity to break it down.

You decide not to dance neither due to your concern that the skinny dude eating that fat slice of pizza with molten cheese running down his white t-shirt will be offended nor because you suddenly realize that you feel a bit too tired to do that right now. You decide not to dance because you are afraid.

(Let me quickly interject that I do not feel like dancing. Most days.)

You would dance in private because you are not afraid; you would not dance in public because you are afraid. You would dance drunkenly in a humid club with loud music and strobe lights because you are not afraid; you would not dance at a party with that cute girl, who lived down the block from you all these years and whom you've wanted to ask out for six years in a row but somehow conveniently never found the right moment, because you are afraid.

And this fear stems not from insecurity; this fear finds root in empathy. Like most other individuals in your society, you have been taught to speak the language around you in order to communicate and have been trained to cohere to the culture by observation of prevailing social norms.

Your language has embedded within you an understanding of the conception of privacy by providing you a word of which you may research definitions or identify context clues or debate. Your society's norms have smoothed your neural pathways to ease the path to coherence with public behavior.

You implicitly understood that, by dancing, you would trigger a reaction in the onlooker. And you empathized with that person within a microsecond. And with this empathy, you generated a simulation of the onlooker's reaction. And you projected your language and your norms as inputs into your simulation of the onlooker's mental reaction. And you concocted a belief that you would judge yourself.

And so you don't dance because you are afraid that your simulation will be the onlooker's reality.

And so you want privacy because people trigger empathy which triggers fear. And thereby people trigger fear.

Instead, I suggest that society abstract the arbitrary norms and omit the loaded language so that when you think about dancing, society's arbitrary norms of the public and private spheres no longer inhibit you and your culture's ancient language heavy with whimsy does not bind you. So that when you empathize with the onlooker, you simply see yourself dancing.

Thanks for reading.