How Do You Grow Privacy?
We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.