Like many things in the lives of modern Americans, our attempts at achieving privacy are paradoxical. While we decry the horrors of government infringement upon our rights to keep certain aspects of our lives confidential, fear the technological advances that could make our every action and transaction known, and live in an increasingly and unavoidably interconnected world, we also take extreme and unprecedented efforts to make our lives more private than they have ever been before. I began to think about our notions of privacy while house-sitting for my cousin Kristin. I found myself completely unsettled by the huge set of undressed triple windows overtaking the front wall of the family room. Even though no residences can be viewed from these windows and the nearest major road is 500 yards away, partially obscured by an old school, the open darkness felt as though it contained innumerable watching eyes, looking onto my own lighted activity. Though I wasn’t doing anything embarrassing or even exciting, the sense that someone could be watching me read without my knowledge was deeply unnerving.
But conversely, in my own home, I all too often feel stifled and entirely isolated when I spend a full day or two inside. No matter how many phone calls I may make, emails I send, or text messaging conversations I have, without any face to face interaction beyond my own family members, private life can feel rather unbearable. It is then that I find small tasks, errands to run or unnecessary shopping trips, just so I can come into contact with a public world, just so I can see the faces of strangers, just so I can know that I was seen by someone other than my dog and cat.
But is it really a public world into which I immersed myself? Without any interaction with others, without any impact on the community or the sharing of an experience, does leaving one’s house constitute a non-private action? Is public truly the opposite of private? And if not, what exactly are we seeking when we scorn excessive privacy measures? What are we trying to avoid when we fear that our privacy is being infringed upon? How do we conceptualize these terms, and who created these meanings?
In public, few people truly pay attention to those around them. In fact, I rarely find myself engaged in conversation or even nonverbal communication with strangers unless doing so is absolutely necessary. Completing a transaction, ordering a meal, telling the barista how you’d like your coffee: these are oftentimes the only ways in which we interact with others outside our private circles of friends and family.
How can we fail to notice the increasingly palpable absence of a true public space? I have become increasingly disillusioned with the public world as it becomes harder for me to penetrate. When I go out to coffee shops, record stores, local concerts, art museums, and even into the college classroom, I make an effort to be friendly to those I meet, to smile and say hello, foster whatever small talk I can, initiate any potential relationship to the best of my ability. Again and again, however, I fail to truly make a dent, to create lasting relationships or generate any common discourse.
Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m simply too socially awkward to forge friendship out of seemingly inconsequential interactions or maybe it is just the constraints of my life as a poor young person living in her hometown. But maybe it’s all of us. Maybe we no longer live in a society where outsiders can interact in such a way that the category of stranger is ever easily surpassed. The notion of a small town community, in which there is a town square or main street where people go to see and be seen, has become nearly obsolete. Walking down the streets you find people increasingly wrapped up in their own private worlds, engaged in phone conversation, text messaging furiously, averting their eyes, or walking far too quickly to take notice of their surroundings. It’s as though privacy has become increasingly accessible and in so doing, is infringing upon our public space.
And if people can find privacy on the busiest of streets and in the most crowded of rooms, what do we have to fear? Sure, the government can follow our credit card transactions, our internet activity, etc. but of what use is such information to anyone? Sure, technology has made it easier to gather information that was once entirely private, but by the same token, that technology has made it easier than ever for people to remain in their own private worlds. What is really at stake with culture’s increasing dependence on computer and other technologies? I would argue that it is not so much our privacy which is threatened, but rather our ability to exist and interact in a public realm.
When I leave my home, I am prepared to meet others, interact with them, share kind words and maybe even a few smiles. I enjoy receiving a greeting when I walk into a store or restaurant, getting looks of appreciation and gratitude for the exchange of pleasantries. Small though they may be, these interactions serve not only as a steady stream of pick-me-ups, they also allow us to feel a sense of connection to others. I’m not likely to share an enlightening conversation with the girl who prepares my chai tea at the local coffee shop, nor do I expect the guy that rings up my latest purchase at the record store to foster a lasting friendship with me based upon my presence in his place of work. Nonetheless, I enjoy small talk because it creates, at the very least, an illusion of a public space and, at the very most, the opportunity to create meaningful public connections. When my private world becomes too overwhelming, often by virtue of the comforts and conveniences of modern technology, I like knowing that I can still find a public space offering the option of interaction with others (those others are largely employed in service sector jobs, but they nonetheless remain public others).
Privacy must be defined before we can accuse anyone of taking it from us. Do we want more time to ourselves, unfettered by interactions with anyone at all, allowing reflection, “me-time,” a spare minute to think? Or are we seeking a stronger sense of connection to those in our personal worlds, an ability to create closer bonds with those we already call friends or family? Private, as described by Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus, can mean both confidential and privileged. In this sense, when we talk about privacy, our private worlds, and infringements on privacy, we are speaking of the ability to keep certain parts of our lives secret, reserved, concealed from the prying eyes of others. We want to maintain some semblance of exclusivity. In my eyes, our fight for privacy is not fueled by fear of the government or even of anything as ludicrous as stalkers but rather by a sense that nothing is sacred anymore. When we feel that our actions are visible to all, it is our vulnerability and loss of control that is most scary. It is a delicate balance between our fears of banality, the importance of individuality, and the threat of falling into obscurity. When all we do is on display, we run the risk of being exposed as identical to everyone else. But when there is something we can keep to ourselves, it is easy to retain a semblance of, if not fool ourselves into thinking that, we are special, individual, and original. Is it our own need to feel special that fuels our desire to maintain privacy, to trick ourselves into thinking we are unique because no one else knows the intricate details of our lives? Is our sense of self, our feelings of individuality, what has really come to be challenged when we talk about our lack of privacy?