Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support local and independent journalism by making a gift to NHPR today.
NPR Blogs

What's The Big Deal About Privacy?

A weathered sign hanging in a store window says, "Come in; we're open."

Privacy is the state of being unobserved.

Looking back at history and prehistory, privacy is the rarest luxury. It requires walls or seclusion. It is not our natural condition.

In recent times people have taken privacy for granted, the same way we take other modern conveniences for granted. There's nothing natural about privacy, just as there is nothing inalienable about cheap fast food.

Privacy may be going the way of the dodo, or rather, the way of the long-playing record: a rarity enjoyed by the few.

The striking thing about privacy, it seems to me, is it may not even be something that people want. Actions speak louder than words. And far from acting to preserve or protect our privacy — far from working to find and cultivate conditions in which we are unobserved — we seem, as a culture, to be doing the very opposite, to be reverting to our natural state of openness.

I have always found the idea of the diary somewhat puzzling. It is meant to be the private record of one's thoughts and feelings. Writing just for you. But that's the thing. There's no such thing as writing just for you. Writing, of its very nature, is, if not public, then at least sharable. Behind the impulse to keep a diary, there lies the impulse to share, to communicate, to make public.

So to be a diarist is already to flirt with social media.

These days we keep our diaries in public. We've replaced "Dear Diary" with "hey, fb friends!" We're less Anne Frank than we are PT Barnum, presenting our lives online and in real-time. Each of us runs a media empire devoted to our own exhibition. Millions of us, at minimum, are the authors of fan magazines devoted to ourselves.

And that powerful, vain impulse to broadcast ourselves is just the tip of the iceberg. We use phones that literally map our every move. Our credit cards leave a permanent and transmittable record of our every purchase. And you can't walk down the street, or drive anywhere, without being photographically recorded.

As individuals, and as members of our cultural group, it seems, we tear down the walls and open ourselves up to near constant observation.

Do you remember the JenniCam? Well, for millions of us, it's all JenniCam, all the time.

Is this a bad thing?

Many of us are frightened to be reminded, as Google reminded us this past week, that we have no right to email privacy. Our emails may be read. And many of us expressed shock at the thought that the government could be watching all of us all the time.

What have we got to hide? What have we got to protect? When has privacy ever been anything more than, like the LP-record or cheap fried food, a modern convenience, or, rather, an accident of modern living?

Media and technology are opening us up the way we have, for most of our history, been open to other people and the world around us. No man is an island. And most of us have no desire to be isolated.

If we really value privacy — if, for example, we really believe that being unobserved is necessary to securing our freedom in a democracy — then why are so few of us bothering to pull down the shades and lock the door?

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 https://www.npr.org.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.