Privacy as a bourgeois privilege

By Razib Khan | November 15, 2010 1:40 am

Ruchira Paul has her own reaction to Zadie Smith’s pretentious review of The Social Network. One of the aspects of Smith’s review which Ruchira focuses upon is her concern about the extinction of the “private person.” I have mooted this issue before, but I think it might be worthwhile to resurrect an old hobby-horse of mine: is privacy as we understand it in the “modern age” simply a function of the transient gap between information technology and mass society? In other words, for most of human history we lived in small bands or in modest villages. These were worlds where everyone was in everyone else’s business. There was very little privacy because the information technology was well suited to the scale of such societies. That “technology” being our own innate psychology and verbal capacities. With the rise of stratified cultures elites could withdraw into their own castles, manses and courtyards, veiled away from the unwashed masses. A shift toward urbanization, and greater anonymity made possible by the rise of the mega-city within the last few centuries, has allowed the common citizen to also become more of a stranger to their neighbors. It is far easier to shed “baggage” by simply moving to a place where everyone doesn’t know your name.

Or it was. Today neighbors can dig through the information trail you’ve left in the great data cloud. You can’t lie about your age if you give people your real name, it’s easy to find it on various services. You can’t lie about where you are  from, the same services usually track that too. can allow someone to confirm whether you actually graduated from the secondary school you claim to have graduated from. If you have left your Facebook friends list open then they can quickly see what sort of people you associate with. It takes 10 seconds to find out how much your house is worth on Zillow, what taxes you’ve paid on it, how much you’ve purchased it for, and, if you have a lien against you. If you dressed up like a ladybug for Halloween then everyone may know.

The power of the new technologies was brought home to me last weekend. Amos Zeeberg, Discover Magazine‘s web editor, mentioned my comment moderation style on a panel at a conference in New York City. Someone in the audience tweeted what Amos had said about me, and I saw the tweet since she added @razibkhan to her message. Five years ago I may have heard about this, but only later on from one of the other people in the audience, or another panelist. But there would have been a fair amount of latency. Now the information got to me in ~15 minutes. Not only did I see the tweet, but so did everyone else who was a follower of that individual.

The world is turning into a village. But only from your own perspective; in the aggregate there are millions of distinctive villages.

MORE ABOUT: Facebook, History, Sociology

Comments (7)

  1. Magoonski

    I think after this generation has passed there will actually be an improvement in human behavior because of all the transparency we now have. At the moment, the majority of people are not “reaping what they sow” but as more people become tech savvy and more sites require people to be accountable when they post (such as using a real name or Facebook sign-in), then things that are said on the net will become an even bigger part of real life.
    Imagine someday in the future when parents actually have to control their child’s behavior because they saw a television special about how kids who bullied over Facebook become as unemployable as a convict, or politicians who end up outing themselves simply because it’s only a matter of time before people find out.
    Given enough time, everyone will be scrutinized and that will make us all more honest (or at least better at hiding).

  2. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Big Blogger is watching me!

  3. @Razib said,
    “If you have left your Facebook friends list open then they can quickly see what sort of people you associate with.”

    A strategy against this is that you could add thousands and thousands of people, as Facebook friends, that you don’t really know, to add “noise” to the “signal”. If you play any Facebook games, then getting thousands and thousands of Facebook friends isn’t difficult.

    Of course, there’s ways of figuring out (some of) a person’s real associations. Ex: watch who they talk to and live near. (You’ll at least get the some of the person’s loose real-life associations from that. I.e., get some friends of friends.) But adding “noise” can make things more difficult than people just browsing your friend list.

  4. With “Privacy as a bourgeois privilege” don’t you have it exactly backwards?

    There has always been ample and well organized gossip about those at the top (for need to know reasons) and those at the top have historically lived their lives view of their subordinates. What is new is that gossip about those at the bottom, the proles, is now much more widely available.

  5. Mike M

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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