American essayist and Harper's contributing editor Garret Keizer offers a brilliant, literate look at our strip-searched, over-shared, viral-videoed existence.
Body scans at the airport, candid pics on Facebook, a Twitter account for your stray thoughts, and a surveillance camera on every street corner -- today we have an audience for all of the extraordinary and banal events of our lives. The threshold between privacy and exposure becomes more permeable by the minute. But what happens to our private selves when we cannot escape scrutiny, and to our public personas when they pass from our control?
In this wide-ranging, penetrating addition to the Big Ideas//Small Books series, and in his own unmistakable voice, Garret Keizer considers the moral dimensions of privacy in relation to issues of social justice, economic inequality, and the increasing commoditization of the global marketplace. Though acutely aware of the digital threat to privacy rights, Keizer refuses to see privacy in purely technological terms or as an essentially legalistic value. Instead, he locates privacy in the human capacity for resistance and in the sustainable society "with liberty and justice for all."
About the Author
Garret Keizer is the author, most recently, of Privacy and The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. A contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and a former Guggenheim Fellow, he has written for Lapham’s Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He lives in Vermont.
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By Garret Keizer
PicadorCopyright © 2012 Garret Keizer
All rights reserved.
LET'S BEGIN BY DOING A LITTLE SHARING
Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. — THOMAS PAINE, COMMON SENSE
Does anything say so much about the times we live in as the fact that the word sharing has almost everything to do with personal information and almost nothing to do with personal wealth?
Of course, some will answer that we live in times when information is wealth. Generally these are people who have good teeth and drive nice cars. When they sit down to eat, which they do regularly and well, you can bet they're not eating information.
To say the same thing in slightly different words: You and I belong to a society in which the gap between the rich and the poor is widening even as our personal privacy shrinks. It is the contention of this book that these two phenomena are connected, and connected in a number of ways.
To state just one of those ways: We tend to think of our right to privacy as a value that came about with the historical growth of the middle class. If, as current indices of income suggest, the middle class is vanishing, then it should come as no surprise if the privacy of all but a few people is vanishing with it.
This book also contends that privacy is important and worthy of preservation. It is important and worthy of preservation for the simple reason that human beings are important and worthy of preservation. These may seem like rather obvious statements, though if they were that obvious or universally believed we would not be so easily resigned to losing our privacy and to watching so many of our fellow human beings fall further and further behind in health, in education, in political power, and in privacy.
That privacy is a good thing for human beings is not hard to establish. Were it not a good thing, the wealthier among us would not enjoy more of it than the less wealthy do. The best things in life may be free, but that seldom prevents those at the top of the food chain from appropriating a lion's share of the best things. Air is free, but it tends to smell better in Malibu than in East L.A.
Some would contend that Americans, like citizens of other democratic nations, all have an equal right to privacy regardless of the air they breathe — and in some notable if not always typical instances, courts in the United States have agreed. But the right to privacy depends in large part on one's opportunities for enjoying a private life. Americans are all guaranteed freedom of the press, too, but what does that mean if you have never been taught to read or write?
In the hopes of giving as thorough an introduction as possible to the big idea of privacy, this small book will range over a number of topics, but it will always come back to the basic themes I've stated above: the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don't; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.
I should add that giving a thorough introduction to privacy is not the same thing as giving it an airtight definition, a project I regard as both impossible and unwise. That's not to say I won't try for a tentative definition later in the book, or that I agree with a scholar who says, "Perhaps the most striking thing about privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is."
In fact, I think most of us do have a clear idea — if not clear enough to define the word, then clear enough to express the need behind it. Clear enough to say "Let me alone." Not to be confused with "Leave me alone," "Let me alone" is ever the cry of privately disposed women and men, of anyone who struggles to keep some reasonable hold on his or her short and not always sweet life. We are entitled to that cry.
That said, we will cry it in vain so long as we settle for anything less than a beloved community, with liberty and justice for all.CHAPTER 2
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
A friend is someone before ... [whom] I can think aloud. — RALPH WALDO EMERSON, "FRIENDSHIP"
I am writing in early November, about the time when I begin looking in my rural delivery mailbox for the annual Christmas letter that will come from my former college classmate Ralph. It is one of the longest and most welcome letters I receive during a year filled with robust correspondence. His letters of the past several years have been especially dear to me. Not only are they every bit as colorful as their antecedents of thirty years ago — full of his adventures surfing and hiking up and down the Pacific Coast, reading his poetry aloud at slams and soup kitchens, reuniting with old flames from his Springsteen days on the Jersey Shore — they're now infused with that sense of redemption that comes from a second chance. Not long ago I feared that my long friendship with Ralph might be at an end.
The trouble came when Ralph casually revealed to me that he had been scanning my paper letters and pasting the texts of his into a single electronic document that he e-mailed to his friends and associates. Presumably he was sharing our correspondence because he thought it valuable, and sharing the fact with me because he thought I'd be flattered. I wasn't. In fact, I was horrified at the thought of complete strangers reading what amounted to signed disclosures of family health problems, professional difficulties, spiritual doubts. Our custom over the years had been to confine our exchanges to a single yearly letter, but I dispensed with custom and rang him up after the holidays.
"What the hell are you doing, Ralph?" I demanded. I should add that, in the interests of privacy, Ralph is not my friend's real name. Nor is hell the word I used after "What the."
The episode is likely to strike some readers as quaint in its twenty-first-century context: two middle-aged men still communicating by posted letter, one of them making only minimal use of technology and the other offended in a way that seems vaguely Victorian — to say nothing of a larger circle of acquaintances who apparently have the patience to read an entire correspondence by a pair of third parties, and with no option of posting a comment or two of their own, to click on "Like" or turn down a virtual thumb. What I considered an intolerable breach of privacy would strike others as pretty innocuous, and even pretty private — especially when compared to what happened to Tyler Clementi, an eighteen-year-old Rutgers undergraduate who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his dorm-mate used a webcam to observe Clementi's liaison with another young man. After watching it with a female student in her dorm room, the roommate reported it on Twitter.
Presumably, the two young spies had no idea that the sensitive Clementi would kill himself, nor apparently any inkling of how their own devices might be turned against them. Almost immediately after Clementi's suicide, the story went viral, with thousands of posted comments on the wicked behavior of the dorm-mates, countered by a host of others decrying the stupid overreaction of the outed gay young man. The same techniques and attitudes that prevented Clementi from carrying on his love life — and perhaps testing his own sexual orientation — in peace prevented his betrayers from paying a penalty appropriate to their youthful trespass. No matter the outcome of the legal charges brought against them, they may never live down what they did. It is a curious paradox of the times we live in, when no commandment is inscribed on tablets of stone but every one of our transgressions lives eternally within some data bank, effectively beyond the pale of forgiveness.
* * *
America is a pluralistic society in nothing so much as the plurality of ways in which an American's privacy can be breached. By most assessments, the Clementi incident was run-of-the-mill, notable only because of its heartbreaking consequence. Government agencies and private corporations vie with each other to know the most about us — and sometimes join hands out of mutual interest, as Yahoo and Google have done in China. Verizon alone receives 90,000 demands for information from law enforcement agencies every year. Four months after the 2001 passage of the USA Patriot Act — a 340-page document "undermining nearly all of the scant privacy protections adopted by Congress over the last forty years" — 4 percent of all U.S. libraries and 11 percent of all libraries in communities of more than 50,000 had been visited by FBI agents requesting information about their patrons' reading habits. The National Security Agency intercepts 1.7 billion e-mails every day.
At the same time, corporations mine our e-mails and Internet searches in the hopes of honing their marketing strategies. No sooner do I press the send button that e-mails a letter of recommendation to a female student or a note of thanks to a female editor and an ad for an online dating service invites me to learn more about a bevy of eligible lovelies "in your area." More than 96 percent of Google's $29 billion in revenue for 2010, a sum exceeding the combined advertising revenues of all newspapers, came from advertisers sold on the search engine's ability to know our individual wants. Unlike Orwell's Big Brother, who merely sought to sniff out dissent, corporate Big Brother wishes to know our every desire, confident that we can be pleasured into submission. And we have hardly seen the worst. Privacy expert Jeffrey Rosen speculates that "it would be a simple enough task for Facebook or Google" to launch an "Open Planet" surveillance system, by "which anyone in the world could log onto the Internet, select a particular street view ... and zoom in on a particular individual. ... Most of the architecture for implementing it already exists."
Such a development would be good news not only for the Big Brothers of government and business but also for what Walter Kirn, writing about the Clementi case, calls "Little Brother." He means any nosy individual with an electronic device. With the use of something called a keylogger, for instance, you can keep track of a spouse's computer keystrokes. With the use of Google Images you can change your mind about a blind date. The surveillance state and the surveillance economy are matched by a surveillance culture, each daring the other to go one step further in vandalizing old norms.
The plurality of intrusions on our privacy has the cumulative effect of inducing a sense of helplessness — in much the same way as an exhaustive list of environmental carcinogens can make a person despair of her health. "If one thing doesn't kill you, something else will," says the beleaguered citizen, opening his laptop and unwrapping a hot pastrami sandwich with all the resignation of a condemned man eating his last meal. The most important question raised by the Tyler Clementi case is not how we can manage to protect our privacy against so many threats, but how we can ever hope to resist our Big Brothers without reliable brothers-in-arms. Solidarity, even more than privacy, is what's at stake. As Tocqueville said, a tyrant does not need his subjects to love him; it is sufficient for his purposes if they hate one another. Perhaps Tocqueville set the bar too high. Mistrust might do the job.
* * *
I'm pretty sure my friend Ralph did not fully grasp my objections to his sharing my letters without permission. He sounded more perplexed than defensive on the phone. He suggested that perhaps I felt different about the matter than another person would because I am a writer. I balked at this, but not without wondering if he was right.
I'm also pretty sure the two undergraduates who spied on Clementi did not grasp the enormity of what they were doing. Certainly their society did not contribute a great deal to any such understanding. Not long before the young man hooked up his webcam, a school board in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, was charged with using school-issued laptops to spy on students in their homes. As long ago as Watergate, Chairman Mao wondered aloud what Nixon could have done that his people would have found so offensive. "Americans are always playing with tape recorders," he said, and many Americans remain as uncomprehending of "what Nixon did wrong" as Mao was. I can't know this for sure, but it's tempting to believe that the students who spied on Clementi were actually seeking a kind of vindication for their snooping when one of them tweeted what they had done. After all, what Clementi was doing was hidden, whereas they were "sharing" their deed "out in the open," and isn't openness always good? If they weren't hiding anything, then how could they be doing anything wrong?
I'm also doubtful if the commentators and court fully grasped what had happened either. Early in the arraignment of the accused, a question was raised as to whether Clementi's dorm-mates had witnessed explicit sexual activity or merely a chaste romantic interlude. One sensed a collective bated breath as reporters sought to determine just how steamy the details had been, as if arranging a surreptitious peek at a young man putting on his deodorant or saying his prayers or practicing his violin would have been no big deal. People put that stuff on YouTube all the time.
There was also a prevailing assumption that Clementi had taken his life because he could not live with the public disclosure of his sexual orientation, a tragedy that might so easily have been prevented with a vaccination of political correctness. If only he'd realized that we didn't have a problem with his being gay — the more enlightened of us anyway — then he could not possibly have had a problem with our acquiring the knowledge, vox populi vox Dei and all that. In fact, Clementi had already come out to his family and to a friend. It is far more plausible to assume that he took his life because he found the thought of living in a world without privacy unbearable. Why else would societies take such pains to punish theft beyond the requirement of simple restitution if not that they realize how much their very existence depends on a covenant of trust? Who steals my purse steals trash, but who steals the confidence with which I take my purse to market trashes my world.
These basic misconceptions, coupled with personal experiences like the one with Ralph, make me deeply skeptical of the popular notion that older norms of privacy are being trampled underfoot by hordes of clueless kids with their diabolical electronic devices. I think those norms have been underfoot for a while. Alan Westin's classic Privacy and Freedom was sounding the alarm as far back as 1967. If I didn't know better, I would suppose Facebook had been invented by some boomer layabout with a howdy-there paunch and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and I will not be surprised if people soon to be in their seventies are still friending each other long after younger folks have put away childish things. When Harper's Magazine published the cantankerously pro-privacy essay that led to this book, the ratio of the approving to the disapproving letters I received was about three to one. Interestingly, most of the positives came from young women, and all of the negatives from middle-aged men. I did not find this ironic.
I came of age in the 1960s. Raised by parents who remembered such things as telephone party lines and troop ships, I was taught to value my privacy. The verbal similarity of "minding your business" and "doing your business" (my grandmother's euphemism for going to the toilet) impressed upon me at an early age the connection between privacy and physicality, between private conversations and private parts. Nevertheless, I grew up sensing that privacy was somehow at odds with the times, and that I was too even though I grew my hair long and listened to Dylan like everyone else. Whatever its reputation to the contrary, I remember the sixties as a time of coercive conformity on both sides of the barricades, and it does not surprise me that flower power should have wilted into the decadent stinking blossoms of identity politics and academic dogmatism.
Excerpted from Privacy by Garret Keizer. Copyright © 2012 Garret Keizer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
1. LET'S BEGIN BY DOING A LITTLE SHARING: A Preface,
2. FRIENDS AND ENEMIES: An Introduction,
3. PENUMBRAS: What Is Privacy and Are We Even Able to Say?,
4. GETTING YOUR DEGREE: The Purity Code of the American Public Square,
5. PRUDERY 2.0: The Cult of Sanctimonious Exposure,
6. STANDING UP FOR PRIVACY: A Contrarian Argument,
7. IS PRIVACY A UNIVERSAL VALUE?: A Second Contrarian Argument,
8. THE PRIVACY OF THE GODS: Religious Roots of a Secular Right,
9. NATIVITY: The Birth of American Privacy,
10. THE PRIVACY OF THE POOR: On Inequality and Private Life,
11. PRIVACY IS NOT PRIVATIZATION: A Third Contrarian Argument,
12. WOMEN AND MEN: The Feminist Critique of Privacy,
13. WRITERS: The Exploitation of Privacy,
14. LETTERS: Private Thoughts in Public Hands,
15. LEFT TO OUR DEVICES: Technology and Privacy,
16. STORIES THAT BEGIN IN AIRPORTS: Privacy, Sustainability, and Resistance,
17. BODY AND SOUL: A Final Contrarian Argument,
18. ANOTHER NATIVITY: A Conclusion,
Also by Garret Keizer,
About the Author,