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Privacy fetish

By Annalee Newitz

I'M NOT a very private person. I save personal email on my work computer, and I even left a bunch of my confessional writing on the hard drive of my beloved old Power Computing box that I recycled recently. Sure, I have passwords to various on-line accounts that a random person could never guess in a million years--so I take precautions. But the fact is, I don't really have much to hide.

And yet everyone wants to remind me that I'm rather freakish in my ease with openness and personal information-sharing. Not only do I allow people to peek at my email far too often, but I occasionally let fetching strangers peek into my heart, or borrow my books, or mess up the sheets on my bed without any promises that they'll be there to plump the pillows later.

Our culture is going through a phase of privacy fetishism. Without really thinking through what "privacy" truly means, many of us are jingoistically endorsing it, as if it were obvious why it's desirable to keep people from knowing which pages on Salon.com you read most, what you buy for your cats or which pornographic images you adore to the point of distraction.

Privacy is all the rage in tech circles. David Burke, the brainy paranoiac behind the recent book Spy TV, is not alone in his worry that collaborative filtering and user tracking will bring us into a Big Brother world where the corporate-entertainment complex discovers our most secret desires and uses them to manipulate us into ... what? Nobody is completely sure.

The generalized, free-floating angst seems to hover around a worry that we'll start electing bad presidents, eating unhealthy candy, watching fascistic movies and changing our minds in ways we would never want. Another concern is that bosses or political leaders could find out what you're doing on-line and use that information essentially to blackmail you, threaten you or punish you by taking away the things they know you love.

Sure, we need to be wondering about this crap. If Bush.com figures out you like sexy tomboys dressed in Doc Martens, they can try to sell Prez Bush to you in a banner ad featuring one such babe. And if you lead a secret life as an S/M exhibitionist, you don't want the principal of the school where you teach to have access to this information.

But I'm not convinced that these reasons alone justify the near-hysteria about privacy on- and off-line. First of all, if you're worried about targeted ads that will force you to consume out of control, get real. If advertising actually worked that well, everyone would be buying everything that was pitched to them in commercials. There are plenty of ways that we get manipulated by forces other than advertising.

As for the fear that evil bosses and leaders will threaten to "out" us and destroy our lives, well, that's certainly a cause for alarm. And a cause for privacy. But looked at another way, it's also a cause for the abolition of privacy. The problem may not lie in our being "discovered" doing something private, but the idea that what we do is so bad that it needs to be kept secret. Why should we have to care what our leaders and peers think of our life choices, as long as those choices are safe and consensual?

Then again, if we're doing something in private because it's cruel or nefarious, well, there's another reason to abolish privacy. Of course, the problem is who gets to determine what exactly "cruel and nefarious" are. If the government or the corporate-entertainment complex gains access to our on-line habits, then who's to say which of us will be arrested or humiliated for doing things the dominant culture deems horrific?

But that brings me back to my earlier point. As long as we fetishize privacy, we'll never change what counts as acceptable public behavior. Moreover, the fetish for privacy in the lives of "private citizens" also forms the basis for a poisonous privacy in the cultures of corporations whose NDAs are as much a form of thought-control as collaborative filtering might become.

When we fetishize privacy, we essentially drop out of public discourse. We refuse to engage, to say that our secret lives are nothing to be ashamed of. I'd rather speak out on the side of disclosure, and reject the idea of keeping myself private anymore.

And as long as we allow corporations to cash in on the privacy fetish, we'll never gain access to any business plans they may have to manipulate us into making those "bad" decisions by virtue of manipulating our private--and therefore vulnerable--selves.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose private life is compelling but hardly secret.

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From the June 8-14, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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