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How privacy became a forgotten virtue

Dave Eggers book, "The Circle," uses satire to illuminate how privacy is fast becoming a lost virtue in the digital age.
Camera lens. (Credit: Bernard Hermant via Unsplash)
Key Takeaways
  • In Dave Eggers' book, The Circle, we are told to imagine a world where "secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft."

  • We live in a world where sharing our most intimate moments, as well as our day-to-day banality, is the norm. Openness is a virtue while privacy is on the decline.

  • But privacy is essential to who we are as human beings. It's a virtue we need to bring back. 

In Dave Eggers book, The Circle, we are introduced to a near-future where practically everyone and everything is plugged into a definitely-not-Facebook-or-Google social network called The Circle. The protagonist of the novel, Mae, works for the company, whose slogans are:

SECRETS ARE LIES

SHARING IS CARING

PRIVACY IS THEFT

Mae comes to learn that, in the world of The Circle, everything you do and say must be transparent and open. When you don’t tell us what you’re doing all the time, that’s a form of deception. It’s duplicitous and rude. When you don’t share photos of your honeymoon, or your baby’s first words, that’s denying us — the people who love you! — access to your life. When you cordon off your garden or your bedroom from us, you’re actively saying we’re not wanted. How do you think that makes us feel?!

It’s not hard to see the truth in the satire. Drip by drip, social media and the internet ensnare themselves in our lives. But what is lost in these mantras? Why do privacy, secrets, and modesty matter?

Sharing is caring

More than half of the global population is on social media. When you discount populous nations like Nigeria and India (where technology uptake is less), the share is much greater. In Europe, Southeast Asia, and North and South America, the number is approximately 80 percent. It’s highly likely someone you know will have shared photos of themselves or their loved ones on social media in the last 24 hours.

Our most cherished moments are out there for public consumption. It’s said that the “sharent” generation — parents in their 30s and 40s who came of age in the digital era — are flooding social media with photos of their children. By the time a child is age 5, they will already have “well over 1,000 pictures of them on social media.” A 2010 study showed that more than 90 percent of children in the U.S. had an online presence before age 2.

More than half of brides share photos of the planning and preparation stage of their wedding, while 70 percent had their own wedding hashtag. More and more people will post photos of their honeymoon, their engagement, their baby’s first words, their granddad’s 90th birthday, their graduation, and so on. All of the most significant events in our lives are documented on social media for everyone to see. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft, from all our curious little eyes.

Context collapse

The problem with constantly sharing and presenting yourself on social media is that it creates what researchers call “context collapse.” According to Jessica Vitak, the term refers to “the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients.” In other words, it’s when all of the people in our lives (including random strangers, if we’re not strict on privacy settings) all have equal access to the same content we share.

In our normal life, we each subtly adapt our behavior and language to suit the context or social grouping we are in. You might swear, banter, and swap ribald jokes with your close friends on the weekend, but then become the picture of respectability and etiquette when having Sunday lunch with your grandparents. You might share secrets and get deeply meaningful with your brother or sister, but stay resolutely within the bounds of small talk with your boss.

On social media, however, this context collapses. It’s disorienting and disturbing that your half-naked beach photos are being seen by your mates, but also by your dad and your colleagues. There’s something oddly invasive when some distant acquaintance likes a comment you wrote or gives a thumbs-up emoji to an intimate photo. It reveals just how exposed we are. It blurs, or collapses, our various identities into some uncomfortable mono-self — neither this nor that.

The value of a door

We all need our own context-spaces to share with the people we choose. It’s not rude to sit with a good friend and whisper in hushed tones. Privacy is not a dirty word. Closing your curtains, locking your door, and turning off your phone does not make you some deviant with something to hide. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Privacy is the necessary space in which to grow and to develop who we are. When we give ourselves long, quiet moments to reflect on things and enjoy the moment without crunching the numbers on its shareability, we become better, wiser, and happier.

The reason The Circle is so sinister is that it pokes at that part of us we know is a bit wrong. Most of us know that sharing the most important and intimate moments in our lives, simply to garner likes and attention, will also cheapen and dirty them. Even if we ourselves are fairly modest in sharing images, we often still ogle and stalk others’ accounts. We relish the voyeurism that comes with looking into someone else’s life. But privacy is not only something owed to us, it’s also something we owe others.

Giving people space, letting them be alone or with whom they choose, and looking away when they choose to share or flaunt themselves — these are virtues that go underappreciated in a digital age. They’re ones we should consider bringing back.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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