In the words of Ron Swanson, “Seems like an Invasion of Privacy”
Writing in 1998, Jonathan Franzen was fed-up with the notion that “there is less privacy than there used to be,” which was a claim implied often in books, editorials, and talkshows (Franzen, 47). But diving into a short historical recap, he argues that the statement seems “bizarre,” as then — in 1998 — Americans had the most privacy. He starts with 1890, when Americans “typically lived in small[s] under conditions of near-ponoptical surveillance” — basically, everyone knew everyone and all their “business” and “baggage” too. The community was tight knit, and that meant that there was very little room for privacy — heck, few even had their own rooms! Franzen writes that when communities started to move away from these gemeinschaft, place-bound societies, people gained a substantial amount of privacy. He writes,
“In the suburbs and exurds where typical American lives today, tiny nuclear families inhabit enormous houses, in which each person has his or her own bedroom and, sometimes, bathroom. Compared even with suburbs in the sixties and seventies, when I was growing up, the contemporary condominium development or gated community offers a striking degree of anonymity. It’s no longer the rule that you know your neighbors. Communities increasingly tend to be virtual, the participants either faceless or firmly in control of the face they present” (Franzen, 47).
He ends his historical perspective arguing that, yeah, “maybe the government intrudes the family more than it did a hundred years ago” but “these intrusions do not begin to make up for the small-town snooping they’ve replaced” (Franzen, 48). Yet, writing in 1998, Franzen was, and rightfully so, unaware of the potential of the Internet to create a “global village,” in Marshall McLuhan’s words. While place-based town snooping eroded in the late modern and postmodern era, a new form of community blossomed — a networked community, which has the potential not only to to snoop, but do so in a new, seemingly privatized environment. The historical evolution of privacy that Franzen writes about is true, yet it is not a fitting argument to refute the concept that privacy is disappearing today. In the days of small town villages where everyone knew everyone and everything about everyone, and you slept in the same bedroom as your parents and your siblings, there was no expectation of privacy as you were never “invisible” — you we’re always fundamentally aware of those around you. Yet, quickly travel down the timeline, and people began to gain privacy — it becomes normalized, people assume it. You are no longer sleeping in the same bedroom as others, you are sleeping in your own bedroom, alone — but not, because with modern ICTs, everyone is watching. Perhaps we haven't “lost privacy” but rather we have gained an invasion of it.
In chapter five of Understanding Digital Culture, Vincent Miller dissects the notion of privacy, separating it into three different elements: solitude, secrecy, and anonymity.
Solitude is defined as “the ability to be alone, isolated, or cut off from others, or colloquially to be ‘alone with one’s thoughts’” (Miller, 113). In this notion of solitude, people can find their “authentic” self, “by escaping the self of sociability: an inauthentic self tainted by social interactions with others” (Miller, 113). In relation to privacy is the demand for a private space, which is a romanticized idea of a physical landscape where one can actually be alone. Having read “Imperial Bedroom,” it is obvious that Franzen is yearning for this aspect of solitude. Different from the many panicked views of loss of privacy, he does not worry as much about a loss of his own privacy, but rather, a flood of others’ (strangers, celebrities, even politicians) loss of privacy — to the public sphere. In this sense, Franzen’s isolation — his home, his Saturday morning ritual breakfast retreat — is being invaded.
“On the Saturday morning when the Times came carrying the complete text of the Starr report, what I felt as I sat alone in my apartment and tried to eat my breakfast was that my own privacy — not Clinton’s, not Lewinsky’s — was being violated… What I felt I felt personally. I was being intruded on” (Franzen, 40–41)
Franzen argues that we a losing a sense of “public space” and that it is becoming wrought with personal, private matters. He writes, “If privacy depends upon an expectation of invisibility, the expectation of visibility is what defines a public space. My ‘sense of privacy’ functions to keep the public out of the private and to help the private out of the public” (Franzen, 48). With that said, privacy, for Franzen is a two-way street — If you want respect of you’re private space, you should also ask and give that same deserving respect to your public space. He argues that the line between the two spaces should not be breached — but is this achievable?
Miller defines secrecy, “as is being able to limit or have control over the amount of information others can know about oneself or the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (Miller, 113). If people’s actions “have no palpable effect on the rights of others,” they should have a right to define/display their “public face,” which is an image one presents to the world (Miller, 113). And lastly, anonymity, coined as the “modern” element of privacy, is defined described by Miller: “people are seen to be deserving of the right of protection from unwanted attention and scrutiny, or the right to simply be ‘a face in the crowd’ and go about ones business unhindered by the surveillance or attention of others” (Miller, 113).
With the rise of the Internet, our ability to be in solitude, have secrecy, and be anonymous has changed — these features have been invaded upon. Digital surveillance tracks and monitors the actions of people, collecting copious data from each one. But, on the opposite side of invasion there is incentive. Incentivized surveillance argues along the lines of, if you are being watched, you will act better, and for acting better you will receive some sort of reward. If you wear fitbits and maintain good health, your health care costs can be reduced. But, the question arises — how can you hold yourself to a certain standard, if the responsibility of doing so is held by higher office, such as social systems. I’m not sure where the future lies, but I do know that privacy has been increasingly invaded upon as a result of higher technologies. Some people, may be hypnotized by their incentivizing powers, but in doing so, give up a sense of self responsibility. We always say the postmodern era, in neoliberal fashion, is centered around the individual — but can we still say that true?