Private Lives in a Digital Age

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Free Radical - Private Lives in a Digital Age

There are many lessons that we might take from the massive data dump of 37 million accounts following the hack of marriage infidelity site Ashley Madison. Not least of which is the seemingly obvious revelation that there were very few actual women using the site that weren’t fictitious creations of the site itself.

That’s a sad irony for those – government employees, husbands, fathers – whose lives are now potentially upended, but of little lasting import. More significant should be the revelation of just how vulnerable we’ve all become as technology has rapidly ripped away the cloak of privacy, while our social norms and behaviors have failed to similarly keep pace.

Hacks are common in this day and age – Target, Sony, the IRS – but none have come with quite the same social fallout as that of Ashley Madison. The consequences are not just a few stolen credit cards or new cases of identity theft, but personal animosity, divorces, and even suicides. Millions have had their public and private lives forced together and into an unexpected reckoning.

It’s worth asking, just how many more such reckonings can society take?

Not every society conceives of things like privacy in precisely the same fashion. Humans are capable of adopting a variety of social norms depending on the needs of a particular place and time. Japanese homes, for instance, were once made from bamboo and paper walls so that they could be easily rebuilt after any of the region’s many natural disasters. It is little surprise then that some have argued that traditional Japanese didn’t even have a word for privacy, though they had conventions that somewhat replicated the idea. When everything is public, culture adapts by adopting customs geared toward preserving individual dignity, whether that be not prying in the affairs of others even when they are right in front of you, or by reacting in such a way as to allow them to “save face.”

There is no real concept of face in America, and prying is practically a national pastime. It consumes entire sections of newspapers and fills gossip rags. It also contributes to one of the biggest genre’s on television – so-called reality TV.

How many were tempted to check the email addresses of their friends and neighbors, much less their spouses, against the Ashley Madison database? It’s in our blood to be nosy.

As an individualist nation where space is plentiful, guarding privacy in America has historically not been much of a challenge. In contrast to Japan and other dense Asian countries, that has allowed individuals more freedom to deviate from the norm. But that poses a challenge for the human impulse to police the boundaries of the ingroup. To compensate we implicitly assume that if one infraction is discovered, no doubt many more must be lurking behind closed doors. So we judge harshly, and to hell with face.

Those days are gone. Technology has shrunk America along with the rest of the world. More and more infractions once kept secret can now be easily brought to light. Yet we judge just as harshly as ever before.

Ask Justine Sacco, who before getting on a plane to Africa quipped to her tiny group of Twitter followers, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” While she was in the air the ill-considered joke, ironically satirical of ignorant attitudes rather than necessarily a display of one, trended worldwide. She was heaped with abuse, accused of bigotry and all sorts of modern faux pas. By the time she landed, someone – a stranger – was at the airport waiting for her in order to tweet about that, too.

Modern communication is vastly different than humans have ever known. Gone are the days when we can say something thoughtless or stupid to a group of friends, who know us and can put it in the proper context of who we really are, and quickly forget about it as at worst a small embarrassment. There are no more small embarrassments, just public shamings.

To avoid tearing ourselves apart we either have to change how we speak or, more realistically, change how we listen. The same for how we behave and observe.

I’m reminded of a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter called The Light of Other Days. In it, a company develops wormhole technology that can first send digital information and eventually improves to light waves. Thanks to the laws of space-time, this means they can also access light waves from the past, and effectively see into any place at any time.

When released to the public the technology brings about an end to all privacy. Society scrambles to pick up the pieces after the inevitable upheaval, as individuals struggle to come to grips with a world in which anyone could be watching or, perhaps even worse, where they can be tempted to watch anyone without their knowledge.

Our own erosion of privacy has not happened quite as suddenly, and the light picked up by our version of wormholes is less clear. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we have yet to come to grips with our own changing circumstances.

We talk often about our loss of privacy when it comes to government, and devote considerable time to debating just how to deal with it as a matter of policy. We spend far less time discussing how the changing privacy landscape affects our personal interactions.

As we learn ever more about those we don’t know and have likely never met, can we also learn to be as forgiving of strangers as we are ourselves? Or, as more of the kinds of indiscretions that can be found if looking closely enough at any of us become public, will we still try to hold others up to a standard that is increasingly impossible to meet? And if so, how can we possibly hope to get along?

They say the internet is forever, but if society is going to survive in this new age, it may need to learn how to forget, or at the very least, to pretend like it didn’t notice.

Photo by Bartłomiej Szewczyk / Getty Images

Brian Garst is an advocate for economic and individual liberty. He works as Director of Policy and Communications at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free market think-tank dedicated to preserving tax competition. His writings have been published in major domestic and international papers, and he is a regular contributor for Cayman Financial Review. He also blogs at and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.

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