Thursday, May 17, 2007

Privacy and the Death of Privacy

Librarians seem to be the only people in the country concerned about privacy. But they're fighting an uphill battle against the culture.

Oh, I know some librarians don't care about privacy. Those regressive librarians who attack me because I choose to keep my identity private certainly don't care about it. They probably want to make patron library records public as well, so they could find out who was reading books they disapprove of and then publicly attack them. They might claim they respect privacy, but the logic of their position, if we can call it logic, supports access to this sort of information.

And speaking of access to information, there is an irony that the ALA and many librarians want completely open and free access to absolutely every bit of information, except things like patron records. I'm surprised the FBI hasn't used the ALA's open access arguments against them. "I just want access to information," says J. Edgar Hoover. "Isn't that what libraries are all about?"

But the churlish regressive librarians and the somewhat paradoxical arguments from the ALA are beside the point. The truth is, no one cares about privacy. People are panting with the urge to escape from privacy. We have witnessed the death of privacy, and for the most part we have found it very entertaining.

Sure, there are the ominous implications such as public surveillance cameras and the like. But we don't care, unless we're planning to commit a crime. I don't mind surveillance cameras in public. If someone attacked me, I'd want their filthy face right there on camera so the police could go get 'em. I don't want the government sifting through me email or anything, but if they did they'd be mightily bored.

But usually people don't care at all. Think of all the people who write blogs to share their feelings. They don't write to change anything. They don't write to entertain. They don't write to share the beauty of their prose, which is probably a good thing. They just write to write, because they want the world to know they exist. There are certainly entertaining, enlightening, and informative personal blogs in the world, but most of them function as diary entries for the semi-literate. Perhaps I should just say they are diaretic.

Diary entries - the sort of things that used to be private. I remember when I was a girl I had one of those little diaries with a lock on it. The assumption was that you wanted to keep your thoughts private. Do they still sell those things? The market must be small these days. James Mason's character in The Shooting Party tells his granddaughter that she should develop the habit of writing her thoughts down in a journal to keep from boring other people with them. I suppose almost no one reads most of these sad cries for attention anyway, so the locks are unnecessary.

Or consider IM. People know when you're logged on and when you're not. People can contact you at any moment, whether you want them to or not. By signing up, you're signaling to a lot of people that your privacy doesn't mean much.

Or Twitter. Or Flikr. Or Youtube. Think how many people there are in the world desperate to share some part of themselves, whether they have anything worth sharing or not.

Or consider all those websites that track our usage history. Amazon is a good example. They might keep your records private, but not from you. Amazon is always recommending some stupid book to me because of a present I got my grandmother 6 years ago. Amazon remembers And people love it.

Or Library Thing. People are dying to tell other people what they read and what books they own.

Or for a more negative image, just consider the vulgar celebrity culture we increasingly inhabit, where Britney Spears flashes her nether region and Paris Hilton releases how-to fellatio videos - all for publicity. Britney doesn't want privacy. Look at my naked crotch! The sad diaretic bloggers don't want privacy. Look at my naked soul!

I bet patrons would love to trade their privacy for an OPAC that would remember every book they've ever checked out, or a knowledge base with every reference question they've ever asked.

People don't want privacy, at least if the social technology mavens are correct. They don't want to be private, they want to connect. They want to share themselves. They want people to know they exist. They want to be known. They want to be interesting. They want to find friends, or compatriots, or comrades. They want community and belonging. And who can blame them.

How can privacy ever compete with that?


Accidental said...

Aside from the large number of folks in the general populace who don't think about how the ubiquitous collection and use of personal information by corporations, the government, and their own selves affects their privacy, one big difference between some of the "anti-privacy" technologies and policies you mention that often get folks' panties in a stir (e.g. surveliance cameras in public) and other tools pointed to as evidence of the public's lack of concern about their own privacy (e.g. blogs, YouTube, IM, etc) is choice.

People choose to post a blog (or not), create a disturbing video of themselves and upload it to You Tube (or not), or constantly be logged in to their IM client (or not). Surveilance cameras in public are not something over which we in the general populace can exercise a lot of choice (setting aside the fact that one could choose not to leave their home).

I'd also argue that using celebrity behaviors (Brit and Paris) as evidence of the general population's attitudes towards privacy is a bit of a reach. These are folks who make a living from and, arguably, psychologically require adoration from the public. So their need for privacy, if it exists at all, is greatly at odds with what they do to pay the bills and stroke their egos. The majority of the general public, I would argue, have different perspectives and priorities.

That said, I do think privacy is dying (or, as you suggest, may be already dead). But I don't think it's necessarily because people don't value it. I think a lot of people don't think about it or understand how their behavior can affect their privacy. This seems counterintuitive, perhaps (that people don't think about something they value), but I think most would agree that this kind of behavior pattern is not all that unusual in our society.

Brent said...

Well, as the world becomes more isolated because of technology, people still naturally yearn sharing stories with one another. Thus they devalue privacy.

Now if everyone goes to their computer nodes all the time, they won't see each other, so no biggy.

I do have a problem with cops having cameras everywhere. Same with national ID cards.

But the ALA is way over the line in its beliefs, as usual. Librarians and priests aren't the same thing.

WDL said...

i totally agree with you, and actually voiced a similar opinion about an hour ago.

now mind you, i don't plan to make a habit of hanging onto your every word. but today, i will.

ps i had a little lock diary too. it had garfield on the cover, and the spine was orange.

faithless minion said...

Madame, several points:
first, logically, "some people" do not desire privacy; certainly not "all people". You do, I do, pretty much all of your correspondents (including Taupey) do. To what degree must we submit to the rest?
second, the irony of reading your exquisite discourse in the space of your own blog does not escape anyone, I hope.
third, to redeem the above, perhaps we are looking for a new etiquette, perhaps only a consistent application of the old one to new technological circumstances? My preferred whipping boy is cellphone use... I don't think a revival of common sense will ever be a crusade, though.

Anonymous said...

There is no more common sense, that I have seen.

tailgunner said...

AL states: People don't want privacy, at least if the social technology mavens are correct. They don't want to be private, they want to connect. They want to share themselves.

And share they do. The public use of cell phones validates this statement. On a daily basis, how many times do you hear people openly discussing their utmost private thoughts or problems? People now talk openly about all sorts of private issues that only 5 or 10 years ago would have been discussed solely in the privacy of their homes.

I know things about my neighbors that I wish I had never over heard. Thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone and the user's public blabbing, I know it all. One lady cannot get pregnant because her husband has a low sperm count; another has a problem with swollen hemorrhoids. I could go on, but you get the gist and I'll spare the reader's here the gory details. I run 3 miles/day to get away from problems, yet have to hear them on my run. Talk about information overload!

brian said...

That's it! This is were I draw the line. I'm done with you Annoyed Librarian! How dear you talk bad about Britney!!!

Tammy said...

The Amazon thing? Annoyed me, so I went in and turned that option off. So now it constantly tells me that it doesn't know enough about me. Wasn't that the point?

Anonymous said...

I've had a personal web page ever since I took a basic Computer Sci course. It's not on MySpace, nor will it ever be. And it's not linked to anything else that public (only a few other friends's pages). Doesn't have my real name in it anywhere.

The current plugged-in generation doesn't get it. I've been harassed on the net; maybe they haven't? I only want a few people to be able to find me, everyone else can mind their own biz.

Oh, all these people who think they must be incessantly on the phone... if they only had something actually worth saying! The more time spent yakking, the less actual content, has been my observation.