The Changing of Privacy and Surveillance Over Time

As mentioned in Vincent Miller’s chapter, “’Everyone is watching’: privacy and surveillance in digital life”, privacy has been difficult to define due to its varied meanings, yet is mostly considered to be an integral part of everyday life. However, like most concepts/ideas talked about thus far, the notion of privacy has changed over time, and along with it, the idea of surveillance. There seems to be a correlation between these two concepts and community, especially considering their changing dynamics as outlined in Joshua Meyrowitz’s four eras (oral, scribal, modern, and post-modern). And as post-modernity seems to become increasingly similar to that of pre-modern societies, we can expect privacy and surveillance to follow suit, but with a post-modern twist.

Miller explains that in general, privacy can be viewed in terms of three elements, the first being solitude. Solitude can be described as the ability to come away, or to be cut off from others; to feel alone. In solitude is where an individual finds their authentic self, unaffected by interactions with others. The second is the concept of secrecy, where an individual, group or organization has the power to be in control of or limit the amount of information that is available to others. This is the idea that people have the right to exercise autonomy in the presentation of one’s public image. The last notion is that of anonymity. This is the protection from attention or close examination that is undesired, or to be unbothered by the surveillance of others. Though these seem to be reasonable elements, they are mostly constructed by modernist views of society in relation to community.

In the oral era where the spoken word was dominant, there was no understood notion of privacy. These societies were small, close-knit groups that relied heavily on the village as their form of community. This community was seen as more important than the individual, and as an egalitarian society, there was no differentiation between members; no one had individual thoughts or opinions that differed than those of the community. In addition, these groups were highly sociable and extremely involved with each others lives; they lived interdependently. Due to all of these characteristics, this meant there was no anonymity, no solitude for introspection of the self, and no secrecy. Private space did not exist away from the community; everyone knew everyone and their affairs. Surveillance in this era was extremely minimal, especially due to the fact that there were no hierarchies. Members surveilled one another, and in the case of someone engaging in behaviour discouraged by the community, members were shamed, or in the case of extremely horrible behaviour — like murde r— were banished.

With the introduction of the written word in the scribal era, the organization of communities began to change, where the extent of a person’s literacy caused separation. The church acquired an authoritative presence given that Scribes were part of the few who could read and write. In addition, people began owning property in this era, and as a result, the idea of solitude began to sprout, as now property was no longer shared. However, the notion of privacy remained similar to that of the oral era, seeing as though communities remained close-knit and interconnected. However, what changed the most was the notion of surveillance, due to the rise of the hierarchy of religion. Religion became an important part of life, and though members still surveilled each other, religion became an over-arching surveillance; the idea that God is always watching, so you need to follow the rules of the church.

It wasn’t until the modern era when strong notions of privacy and surveillance came about as community declined. Due to the proliferation of jobs created by the Industrial Revolution, many people moved from their rural, close-knit communities to urban settings, leading to feelings of isolation and detachment from these communities, as well as a sense of solitude. We then start to see an erosion of village life and the rise of mass society, where relationships with everyone became unrealistic. This led to the modern conception of anonymity, where individuals could just be another face in the crowd, unknown among the mass amounts of people they passed by or came into contact with. In addition, the separation of work and home life led to a distinction between the private and public sphere, leading to the element of secrecy, by allowing people to limit the amount of information known to those in the public space. We also begin to see heavy surveillance of the mass population. Although religion remained a meta-surveillance, the development of institutions gave way to surveillance structures in order to stabilize and control mass society, with each institution having their own set of rules and guidelines to abide by. This led to the notion of “behave yourself, you never know who’s watching.”

In post-modernity, we again are seeing another shift with the concept of privacy and surveillance. In this era, social organization revolves around the ‘network’, and less on the term of ‘community’. In this way, we are constantly connected regardless of time and space bounds, yet lack close-knit communities of pre-modern eras, allowing for instant, sought-out, yet fleeting relationships through social media. Due to the fact that networks and digital communication technologies play an extremely large part in our lives, it leaves our information vulnerable to being surveilled, gathered, and used. Surveillance is often conducted in the name of safety and security, but is increasingly being used for commercial enterprise. All of the services we use on the internet and other digital technologies, in reality are not ‘free’ — we are paying in advertisements, which require the gathering of our information. Databases collect whatever they can, from clicks to the information we provide on social media, in order to create social identities. Basically, our privacy is being sold to companies; “online life has basically become raw material for the production of consumer (and other) identities, as all behaviour is turned into data points that are organized, manipulated and transformed into a dematerialized identity to be targeted by those who have something to sell, or those looking for threats” (Miller, p. 125). There has even been an increase in person-to-person surveillance, as seen by feedback technologies inherent in particular websites and social networks, and an increase in public shaming over the internet.

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Though not as close-knit as pre-modern societies, we are constantly connecting online through social media, and other communication technologies, which erodes solitude. Secrecy is threatened through constant surveillance of information by commercial entities, in order to create profiles and target particular products to certain markets, as well as government agencies gathering information in the name of ‘security’. This takes away individual autonomy in the presentation of one’s image. In this way, it seems as if privacy is eroding. However, some scholars believe we have too much privacy, and that in fact the private sphere is encroaching on the public sphere, as expressed in Johnathan Frazen’s essay, “Imperial Bedroom”. This can explain the over-sharing that occurs on social media, our society’s obsession with reality shows, and news coverage of private matters (as explained in his essay through the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal). Either way you want to look at it, it seems that the notion of privacy and surveillance is returning to a sort of village-esqe view, with the increase of person-to-person surveillance, and a merging of the private and public spheres.