I was commenting on Paul Bernal’s excellent blog on privacy, and the title of this blog came to me. I was arguing, on the blog, with Bruce Shneier and I realized there was a connection, perhaps spurious, in political philosophical terms between the rise of privacy and the death of God. What made me think about this was that our concern for privacy has increased in direction proportion to the increasingly God like surveillance technologies that are emerging.
What made consider this point in detail was the question “What do privacy advocates see as the political good?” By that, I mean to explore what it is that privacy achieves because it is only a means to an end. Privacy is not an end in itself. In thinking about this problem, I came to connect privacy and the death of God.
What is the theory?
The theory, very crudely, is as follows. Privacy is an epiphenomenon of the modern state. The modern social contract allows us to have a public sphere and private sphere, where none existed previously. We believe we have a private sphere, separate from the public, where the state cannot intrude. To get to this point, though, we have to understand its origins. The Ancient Greeks believed that only in public was man free and to be private was not to be as free. The public sphere was where man found his fullest expression.
A short history of the modern state
The rise of Christianity, in the West, changed the relationship between the individual and their society. In particular, the Church focused on the spiritual life with a secondary interest in the temporal, physical life. When the Church as a political institution starts to decay in the Middle Ages, its place is taken by the modern state. As the Church starts to lose its grip on society, the state starts to organise our lives and the private lives start to emerge. The private and public are increasingly separated. In time, this culminates with Nietzsche’s well-known statement “God is dead”. As such, it allows man to free himself from the moral law set down by God and set forth his own values, his own laws. More importantly, it allows, or empowers, other organisations, such as the state, to take God’s place in defining values and laws.
Surveillance technology makes us see our nakedness
With God dead, man can be private. He does not have to worry about God’s surveillance. He exists within the state with rights separate from and defensible against the state. Man is respected and left alone by his peers based on a reciprocal arrangement. All that remains is to “hide” from his fellow man. Here is where the modern surveillance state becomes problematic. Just as Adam and Eve, once they ate of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, had to worry about their nakedness before God; so modern man and women have to worry about their nakedness before the digital surveillance state.
Privacy is a means to an end; what is the end?
Here the issue comes into relief. Privacy is only a means to an end. As such, when we argue about privacy, or the need for privacy, we are making a secondary or proxy argument for something else. We are arguing for a different concept of the public good. As such, I would suggest that privacy is a proxy argument about government’s role but also about democracy. In much as the same way that people wanted to “kill God” so as to liberate themselves, the arguments for privacy today have a secondary aim.
Will privacy arguments be a proxy to avoid democratic accountability?
My concern is that these arguments for privacy are a way to subvert the democratic process by arguing that the state be limited in non-democratic ways. What I am suggesting is that arguments about privacy today represents a different view of the individual’s relationship to the state, and most importantly a different understanding of what the political good is for society.
What remains to be seen is what the good is defined as by those arguing for privacy in the technological age. More often than not, the argument boils down to a crude anarchism that government is bad. Yet, privacy is only a means to an end; it is not an end in itself like government. As such, privacy remains as hollow of meaning until it is filled by someone’s intent. What we need is a discussion of that intent. We need a renewed discussion of law and the rule of law. More fundamentally, we need to remind ourselves of what a government is for and why citizens have formed governments. What we need is a renewed discussion of the best way to live and the best government for achieving it.
We must consider what was achieved when modern man could declare “God is dead”. Will we usher in a new era of “freedom” and “liberation” or will that only be an invitation to further barbarity as we move further from what makes us human as we attempt to hide our nakedness and remain private?
- Jacob Sullum on How New Surveillance Technologies Threaten Privacy (reason.com)
- Smart meters are ‘massive surveillance’ tech – privacy supremo (sott.net)
- Austin on Privacy & Shame (lsolum.typepad.com)
- A framework for understanding online privacy (jonworth.eu)