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What, Me Worry? The Privacy Question

Your life is in there, somewhere: Facebook's Amir Michael introduces a new, more efficient server design during a 2011 media event at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, California.
AFP/Getty Images
Your life is in there, somewhere: Facebook's Amir Michael introduces a new, more efficient server design during a 2011 media event at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

Why do Americans do so little to ensure the privacy of their communications? Is this a new kind of liberation? Or the symptom of real psychic, as well as political, breakdown?

When I was a kid, for a while we had a party-line telephone. A few different families shared the same line. We each had different rings. If you wanted to make a call and the phone was in use, you had to wait. Nothing stopped you from picking up the receiver and listening in on other calls. But why would you? We didn't know the other families on our phone line.

If we had cared more about our privacy, my parents could have paid more for a private line. Maybe we took our privacy for granted. Or maybe, somehow, the question of privacy just didn't arise. The phone, for us, in those days, was like our table in the restaurant, or our blanket on the beach. It wasn't a private place. We didn't need it to be. We didn't expect it to be.

Most of us pay no more attention to our privacy than my parents did. We conduct our financial transactions electronically. The movement of our vehicles is tracked at toll booths. Our electronic tickets for subways, trains, buses and planes record our itineraries. There are cameras at intersections, not to mention stores and hallways. For-profit email providers such as Google data-mine our most personal email correspondence; or perhaps we use our work emails for personal correspondence, even though in such cases our employers own what we send and receive. We post our most intimate details on Facebook, even though we know that Facebook is a business whose product is the packaging and repackaging of information about us without any principled regard for our rights or interests. Our internet search histories are saved and analyzed. We use wireless devices for intimate communication even though these devices store and transmit information about where we are and what we are doing, and even though these devices are easily hacked by anyone with a little motivation. And this is to say nothing about reports that the Government has begun to listen in on and record all our electronic communication since 9/11, with the full cooperation of the private carriers.

Just as my parents could have paid more for a private line, we could all do much more to ensure our privacy, if we cared. But we don't seem to care. My question today is, why not?

One possibility is that we've been suckered. We're hooked on new technologies and the immediate gratifications they afford. Like that song? Download it. Recall that boy you had a crush on in grammar school? Find him on Facebook and write him a note without even standing up. Wonder what Hegel thought? Google it. Can't remember the name of that actor? Click over to Imdb and voila! And so on.

It's not just that the loss of privacy is a cost of doing business. It's that we've become so lazy, so complacent, that we can't even muster the energy to realize what we have given up.

We're in trouble, especially if we are members of activist or minority communities. But we're having so much fun consuming pre-digested "free" information that we don't even know it.

But maybe things aren't so bad.

Here's another possibility. Ours has become a trust-based community; the sphere of the open and the public has expanded to include not only our table in the restaurant and our blanket on the beach, but also our electronic communications, our movements, our hobbies, our likes and dislikes, our interests, etc.

We are not like books whose meanings are locked within us; we are like pictures whose meaning is always on the surface. Privacy doesn't matter to us because our lives happen in the open. We have nothing to hide.

Would that this were true!

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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