But in the contemporary world, mobile phones, tablets, and other GPS-equipped devices have made publicity our default setting. Again, being “always on” inverts or turns upside down earlier understandings of who we are and of our relationships with others. We will now see how this inversion and ransformation means, first of all, that we have to rethink our conceptions of privacy in dramatic ways. It may also well mean that we will likewise need to revisit and perhaps revise our earlier ethical and political philosophies. All of this is because, most fundamentally, these developments are profoundly reshaping our most basic assumptions about human selfhood and identity.
Cultural and philosophical considerations As “Waffles” reminds us at the opening of this chapter, individual privacy remains a core concern of contemporary teenagers – whatever their worried parents may think. Indeed, younger people have led the way in abandoning Facebook altogether in favor of more closed social media sites – including Snapchat and Instagram whose default is the erasure of postings within 24 hours. While the generations may disagree on the nature and limits of privacy, the key question is: what do we mean by “privacy?”
In the US context and tradition, the conception of privacy begins with primarily physical notions: as the examples of bedroom and bathroom privacy exemplify, what we initially wanted to protect was the privacy of spaces, first of all our homes. That is, “privacy” does not appear as a basic right in the US Constitution or Bill of Rights: rather, it emerges only gradually, beginning with the seminal paper by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890. As Bernhard Debatin points out, the concept is rooted in Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” of private property.
Such a conception may have worked well in the days before electric media, such as telegraph, radio, and then the internet. But with the advent of phone calls or radio transmissions that could be intercepted and recorded unbeknownst to their primary senders and receivers, it gradually becomes clear that “privacy” is not simply a matter of protecting specific spaces. Rather, as we have seen, Luciano Floridi makes clear that what we want protected in an information age is precisely our information – information that, in digital form, is that much easier to access, copy, and distribute. But why would we worry? As Judith DeCew points out: “The expectation of privacy is grounded in the fear concerning how the information might be used or appropriated to pressure or embarrass one, to damage one’s credibility or economic status, and so on”. In short, we are afraid that someone and/or some organization will be able to use information about us to harm us – and/or those close to us – in some way.
We will explore the legal and philosophical dimensions of privacy more fully below. Here we’ll continue with the cultural aspects, remaining with “Western” societies. To begin with, in German, Norwegian, and Danish, for example, there are certainly counterparts to the English term “privacy” – namely, Privatheit (German) and privathet (Norwegian, Danish). But, especially in Denmark and Norway, “privacy” discussions focus much more on privatlivet – “private life.” Such private life encompasses not simply the interests and pursuits of a solitary individual: in addition, privatlivet is understood to involve one’s intimsfære, an “intimate sphere” of close friendships and relationships. These concepts thus do not map neatly onto earlier US notions of privacy as primarily an individual private space. In contrast to such a static or substantive conception, these notions of privatlivet and the intimsfære bring to the foreground our close relationships – relationships that are ongoing, evolving, and in some important ways negotiated over time.
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