Friday, February 18, 2011

Private Parts

When I first glanced at Andrew Keen’s article on internet privacy I was more than intrigued. Keen was writing in an excellent publication, Wired, and was addressing the loss of privacy that occurs when more and more people share more and more of their personal information on line. Link here.

We need more people in our culture defending privacy and explaining its value.

If you lose your privacy, if you have it compromised, or if you sacrifice it to whatever cause seems good to you, you will end up in very serious difficulty.

Undoubtedly, this is a major social problem. But Keen adopts a conspiratorial tone when he suggests that a bunch of entrepreneurial hucksters in Silicon Valley are stealing our privacy from us. Such a tone forces his argument and makes it unpersuasive.

Many people mind find internet marketing and advertising to be intrusive. If people can discover what you have purchased online, whether at Amazon or at, they know something about your personal habits and preferences.

Then, they can use the information to send you notices and announcements about new products and services that are suited to your habits and predilections.

I am not ready to call this a breach of your privacy, mostly because I do not see that it is ultimately that important for someone to know whether you prefer Colgate or Crest.

But maybe that’s just me.

What happens in internet marketing feels a bit like what used to happen when you had a favorite salesperson at Saks or Barney’s. That person knew what you liked and needed. When a garment arrived in the store that would suit you especially well, you would be among the first to receive a call.

Effectively, it is a similar, if not the same, principle.

It also has something in common with television advertising. The cost of the cable notwithstanding, we do not pay to watch most television shows. Network television is provided to us for free.

Of course, we are paying with our time and with our attention. We are paying by allowing ourselves to be exposed to a message from the people who are paying for our access to television programs.

Advertisers pay for television because they want to pitch their products at us. Why else would they want to do us the favor of treating us to free television shows?

You might think that this is intrusive. You might even think that the Budweiser ad is something of an invasion of your privacy. In that case you can subscribe to one of the fee-based networks, like HBO, and escape advertisers altogether.

Like it or not, it is not a moral failing. It is the way of commerce. Someone has to pay for the content you watch on television; those who pay for your television shows want to receive something in return: your attention. Or else, a chance to do business with you.

Similarly, much of what happens on the internet is free. It costs nothing to search Google or to use Facebook. These sites provide a free service. In return they expose us to advertisements and they gather information about us.

By allowing ourselves to be exposed to these minor indignities-- if you want to call them that-- we are, effectively, paying for the use of these services.

It makes no sense to think that someone ought to be giving them away for free.

It might feel like fun or like play, but when we use Google or Facebook, we are engaging in commerce.

If you don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to know about your tastes, then don’t go on to Facebook. Today it is virtually impossible for many people to avoid Facebook, but perhaps one day there will be a new business model where you pay Facebook for access and prohibit it from selling any of your information or trying to pitch any products.

Online shopping is enormously convenient. Yet, the choices you make when you are trolling through Amazon are not in the realm of strictly private information. Any more than it is private information when you go to the supermarket and stop before the display of paper towels. When you are looking online for the best deal on a blender or the perfect shampoo your searches are not exactly private information. As part of a commercial transaction, they are, at the least, borderline public information.

Something quite different happens when you reveal details about your private life on Facebook.

When you do so you are making a free choice. You can, fairly obviously, able to reveal as little or as much as you wish.

If you decide to regale your 4,000 closest friends with pictures of your private parts, or if you otherwise compromise your privacy, it is not Mark Zuckerberg’s fault.

For my part I find that most young people reveal too much about themselves and do not understand the consequences of their actions. I am not merely referring to the practice of adolescent sexting.

One might ask where people have learned about the joys of moral exhibitionism. And why do they feel that it is right and proper to confess and reveal every intimate fact about their lives.

In my view, the answer must lie in the influence of our therapy culture. Therapy asserts the value of the free and open expression of feelings. And feelings are private, intimate things.

Therapy has even managed to convince people that it is essential to their mental and physical health to allow their private feelings hang out in public.

If our culture valued decorum and propriety and modesty, then perhaps, young people would not respond to the siren song of Facebook and Twitter by revealing more about themselves than anyone really wants to know.

There are aspects of our culture that have devalued privacy. Blaming it on Facebook absolves the individuals who are freely exposing more of themselves than need be.

If Keen is saying that too much promiscuous self-exposure is a bad thing, then I would agree. If he is saying that an impulse toward socialization is responsible for this trend, then I would demur. Revealing too much of your intimacy does not make you more social; it makes you more asocial.

People who reveal too much have more difficulty making and keeping friends, commanding respect , and being trusted. No one is going to confide in you for very long if you cannot keep a secret.

In some ways social media can be a tool for socialization, or for personal branding, or for personal marketing. Once it becomes overused, it becomes the enemy of socialization.

Unfortunately, Keen goes awry when he takes his argument too far. He is wrong to say that there is something intrinsically wrong about being social or sociable.

Keen is wrong when he says: “Today's digital social network is a trap. Today's cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren't naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone.”

Keen would have done better to take a lesson from Aristotle. As the philosopher said, there is no such thing as a human being living alone, in isolation from other human beings. As he wrote in his Politics: “… the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.”

Far from representing the essence of human happiness, being left alone can involve being ignored, being marginalized, and being rejected.

Moreover, the truth of human nature cannot be found in a painting by Vermeer, any more than it can be found in a play by Sophocles.

The Vermeer captures a poignant moment in a woman’s life. To be alone at that moment, to enjoy one’s privacy without sharing it with anyone… such is fundamental to human sociability. If all of you is exposed, then you would lose the ability to manage your relationships by exposing a little or a lot to this or that person.

But the Vermeer is not the truth of human nature any more than King Oedipus’ murdering his father and marrying his mother is the truth of human motivation.

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