Privacy: An Affective Protocol
Privacy is best understood by putting down the mobile phone, stepping away from the computer and turning-off all digital communication devices. Privacy is a fact of living in communities and although the ways in which privacy is expressed is ethnocentric, and differs on a community-by-community basis, anthropologists have long observed that “it” exists. What “it” is very hard to define. The problem is at once linguistic, categorical, experiential, sociological, anthropological and philosophical. Put otherwise, is privacy a thing, condition, property, right, ethic or even biological necessity?
Some people suggest that privacy might somehow be removed, surpassed or lost from the human equation – that privacy is dead. However, this is to very much misunderstand what privacy is. Excitable folk (particularly CEOs of tech’ companies) who herald the death of privacy are quite likely to be unpopular with their family, colleagues and acquaintances. This is because privacy plays a fundamental role in our most basic daily interactions. Be this in our behaviour towards each other, what we consider to be taboo, our modes of intimacy, the confidences we share with others, who we are open to, how we arrange our homes and working spaces, where we store thoughts and things of value, and more recently the ways that these are imbricated in media and technological systems, privacy is a basic and primal premise.
One implication of this view is that it makes little sense to think of privacy as being alone and if we are to think in terms of seclusion, this must be in terms of managing relationships with others (and being open as well as withdrawn). After all, being alone and being private are very different as the former involves an absence of relationships and connection. This absence can be very palpable and may even occur in public as well as on a hypothetical desert island where no one knows nor cares that an unlucky individual is stranded there. Without connection, being alone is simply that – utter absence of others that relate to us in some way.
While I broadly share what today is a liberal outlook on privacy (involving Kant and JS Mill’s thoughts on control, dignity, rights and autonomy), I also see it in more systemic terms. By this I mean that privacy norms contribute to how we connect and interact with others. Privacy is not about being alone, but how we are social. A systemic approach thus sees privacy as an organizational principle that contributes to the regulation of institutions, practices, modes of interaction, and social and individual life more generally.
It is at this point we can bring technologies back into the mix, particularly if we see technologies as social actors that both contribute to the existence of social norms, and are required to abide by them. As a principle, or set of principles, privacy is best conceived in terms of meta-stable protocols informed by physical, social, historical, technological and environmental circumstances. Importantly, protocols are not imposed, but are co-created between actors of all sorts so to be an emergent norm that advises interaction and behaviour. Thus while privacy does not have substance, it is quite real, and when we say real, we are able to say that it has capacity to affect and to bring about corporeal, behavioural, technological, psychological and organizational differences.
With privacy being affective protocol, the ethical onus for anyone seeking to dramatically modify or alter it is to make a case for their actions. To do otherwise is an act of force. While concern about consent, cookie use, legislation and surveillance of our digital communications remain critical areas for scrutiny, these investigations are renewed and refreshed by recognition of the breadth of privacy matters. This breadth is comprised of the fact that privacy protocols are found in the most basic of arrangements. Privacy is very much part of the human equation and suggestions that it might be waning are to be treated sceptically.
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