Friday, 23 October 2015

31. Privacy is the foundation of freedom but it is not its edifice

Moving from a big city to a small town was a shock to my system. As soon as I arrived, I took a taxi and the taxi driver knew who I was and what I was there for. Even though nothing important happened in this environment of observation and scrutiny, having this experience helped me understand why someone who was born there might develop -under the pressure to conform- more conservative views and would resort to different tactics to wear a mask in front of the others. But most importantly, I could understand why someone that crossed any line, succeeded or even failed miserably would become such a succulent piece of gossip: (very) deep inside everyone longed for the freedom of simply being themselves.

Here is the interesting part. The opportunity to experiment our true self in privacy (in our own cave), protected from the overly eager correcting eye of the tribe, is the seed for the subsequent "coming out", the ability to face public exposure with self-acceptance and take the inherent risk of being rejected by the tribe. In this article, Somalies living in foreign countries tell of the rejection they face when they return home for holidays.

We need to separate ourselves a bit from outside influence to find out who we are. This "stepping out of town", crossing the barrier and entering into the underworld, is the first critical stage of our individuation process, the hero's journey. However, the point of the individuation process is not to be alone at the end, but to find a tribe where we can be who we are or say what we think. 

Nowadays, our ever more connected world is making privacy a hot topic (almost as much as transparency).  Our online lives are deeply ambivalent: on the one hand, they are very public, therefore we behave like we would do in the small town, always smiling, only showing what we know the others accept. At its best, it is a source of transparency and empowerment. On the other hand, and mostly through pseudonyms and avatars, it is very private, it is our cave: a place to look at our shadow, our desires, to find the inner fire that motivates us -as individuals- to do things that are probably in fields a bit beyond of what's conventional and accepted by the people who surround us. This search has to happen in the privacy of anonymity.

Privacy is a result of technology

It's curious to think how privacy came about as a result of technology: the technology of chimneys, the ability to build individual spaces with fires -at least, for countries with winters-  (Watch the 5 min video from The Guardian series "The Power of privacy"). 

The Guardian, "The power of privacy"

Chimneys gave us the possibility to physically build our own separate cave. Fires kept groups together who had to gather around it. Families would sleep together, sex would have to happen in this sort of exposed environment. But chimneys changed that. Houses started to have separate rooms, each of them heated by its own chimney. Sexual exploration happened in this new private rooms and most revolutions started by groups that first gathered in secret, too. The technology of chimneys required the development of a lot of knowledge: precise ratios to draw smoke out, brick technology to resist the heat and avoid setting the roof on fire, the knowledge of how to do its maintenance, etc.  
Symbolically speaking, screens are now our new chimneys: TVs, tablets, smartphones are the small fires of the caves we use to explore ourselves (no wonder why sexual exploration happens a lot in this private world).

The RSA animate video illustrates a talk given in 2009 by Evgeny Morosov "The internet in
society: Empowering or censoring citizens?" challenges 'cyber-utopianism' - the seductive idea that the internet plays a largely emancipatory role in global politics. He describes how authoritarian governments use internet (not even with sophisticated tools) to reduce tensions and build more legitimacy (pseudo benevolent action), but also to turn people against each other and keep control of citizens.

The keys to our house

The awareness of how public everything is in the online world is a key learning that we need to go through. There is a first level that it is just being aware of our own naivety. When we put our lives online, we are making public a lot of information about ourselves: what we think, what we have, how much we earn, the faces of our children, their names, our favourite places, our friends, our credit card number, our credit, etc. We are responsible if we leave a door of our house open.
But even if we are careful, the fact that there are techniques to access information we don't want to share is a big issue. And the revelations from Edward Snowden pointed out that the technology is there to build back doors into our house without our knowledge. How can we guard our house if we don't know of these doors? Who has the key? Can this key be stolen?

This is of course a post-9/11 world. What 9/11 changed the most, is that the american public demanded to prevent these things from happening beyond the capabilities intelligence services had up to that point. It is completely different to the attitude to other crimes, like mass shootings, where the prevention element is not demanded so widely. For many Americans, it is taken almost as a price to pay for the freedom of bearing arms. Prevention in this sort of cases is deeply problematic (the Minority Report movie explored it somehow). It lies outside our justice system, which is based in evidence, actions having taken place or at least been attempted or significantly planned. We all accept that privacy is not guaranteed in the context of an investigation of a crime that has been committed or planned, but this dwelling into anyone's privacy is progressive and must be justified to begin with. However, in prevention not only its investigation has to be outside the system, but also its resolution. Hence, Guantanamo, extraordinary renditions, etc.
And then, how far back in time should we intervene to prevent something from happening? Is someone reading about a subject guilty? Many societies used to burn books because of this. Is someone with extreme/"wrong" ideas guilty? Many societies disappeared people because of their ideas. This world is the heresy world, the world where the Inquisition worked. Does it have a place in today's world?

Our cave is sacred, even if it is obscure, ambiguous, strange and we are afraid of it ourselves. But the exploration of this space is what makes us free, is the place where we gather the strength to look for alternatives, to break convention, what allows us to find ourselves, to evolve, to ditch ideas and beliefs no longer work and then get out to the world changed. Without privacy, we stop evolving. Without privacy, we cannot become truly free.

A light in the shadow

Shedding light into themes that society normally puts in the shadow (sex typically is put in the shadow, but also issues of identity, individuality, conformity, etc) helps us run this search better prepared and without false expectations. The more adult dialogue happens in the real world, the better armed we will be to explore these topics in solitude. A cave is the place where desire and fantasy live (in all its shapes and forms) but it is unreal. It's a place to get in and get out. No one should live in the cave or being granted any sort of unconditional anonymity. It is in complete anonymity that we suffer a fracture and fall into depersonalisation. Without the other, looking at us, we can't recognise ourselves nor the others. It is only outside the cave that we can make a connection, that we can use our desire to fire a positive action. Ultimately, freedom is the exercise of being ourselves in public.

Upside down world

One of the ways of eroding a social contract is turning the right of privacy upside down: granting anonymity to the actors and entities that concentrate power (who become depersonalised and unaccountable) and denying privacy to individuals. 



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