I recently acquired a vintage postcard depicting a lake in Minnesota. On the back is a note written by Magnus Johnson to his wife in 1925. What he said to her is none of my business or yours. Still, in 2018, we accept that postcards are open to prying eyes, even traded by strangers.
This was adamantly not the case in the late 1800s, when, shortly after their invention, postcards were denounced as an appalling surrender of privacy. As Sarah E. Igo notes in her fascinating survey, “The Known Citizen — a History of Privacy in Modern America,” the postcard uproar is just one of many critical episodes that have marked Americans’ reckoning with personal disclosure. Thanks to computer technology, we have come to another pivotal moment. Yet as Igo somewhat reassuringly demonstrates, the current privacy debates recast questions that have been with us since the end of the Civil War.
Books on privacy appear united on one point: The word resists all attempts at a final definition. Calling privacy “society’s limiting principle,” Igo argues that it is more helpful to ponder how thinking about privacy has evolved than to seek an all-encompassing theory.
Over the past 150 years, new technologies have periodically caused anxieties about privacy to spike. Igo moves artfully from the distress inspired by early photography to suspicions of German spying, which brought increased government surveillance in the 1910s.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, American lives began to feature a paper trail that included birth and death certificates, mortgage and tax records and, finally, Social Security numbers. For a time, Americans accepted and even embraced the need for a documented identity. Some tattooed their Social Security numbers on their bodies or had them inscribed on the equivalent of class rings.
While early privacy concerns were often related to property, psychological privacy gradually turned precious. Communist sympathies could be rooted out by wiretapping, and even classified by behavioral scientists as mental illness. In 1957, Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders” opened Americans’ eyes to the power of marketing to manipulate their behavior. The tradition lustily continues, as commerce adapts to the information age. In “The Aisles Have Eyes — How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power,” communications professor Joseph Turow explores how brick-and-mortar stores exploit smartphones to stimulate purchases. Shoppers who lack the devices can be shut out of deals. Conversely, instead of rewarding loyalty-program members, retailers may sometimes slap higher prices on them.
Turow argues that retailers are pushing a “hidden curriculum” that teaches Americans what they have to give up to get along in the 21st century. In exchange, retailers get improved sales and a valuable harvest of consumer data. Without greater understanding of how this brave new marketing world works, Americans are at a decided disadvantage. Many have resigned themselves to the situation, believing they have little choice but to accept invasions of their privacy.
Daniel J. Solove might suggest fighting back incrementally, through the courts. A professor at George Washington University Law School, Solove has become one of our leading privacy experts. In “Understanding Privacy,” he cautions against embracing any overarching legal concept, arguing instead for a bottom-up approach. (A gentle word of advice: Come for the theory, not for the prose.)
In Solove’s inventive taxonomy, privacy problems can be grouped, and addressed, by family resemblance. For instance, “information collection” encompasses activities such as surveillance and interrogation. Especially intriguing is Solove’s suggestion that courts broaden their notions of harm to include “vulnerability.” Even if, for example, data leaks cause no immediate damage, they can be likened to a disease that weakens the immune system. Immediate loss may be nothing. Future harm could be disastrous.
Classic fictional works trained on privacy tend to link its destruction with totalitarianism. Among those that resonate alarmingly today are George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” To these I would add Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity” — which might almost have been titled “Privacy,” if the word weren’t so colorless. Among the main characters is Andreas Wolf, a German activist celebrated for piercing secrets through The Sunlight Project. “Purity” is as insightful as any current book can be on the glories and hazards of transparency, our attempt to turn the tables on government surveillance.
Igo observes that today, individuals desire both to be anonymous and to control their personal narratives. A confessional culture has exploded, perhaps precisely because so much of our personal data is irretrievably out of our hands. We want to set the record straight. The Internet has become the great enabler, inviting an outpouring of autobiography.
Whether Americans eventually manage to claim some private space for themselves, future pages must tell. In the meantime, Magnus Johnson — “Your loving hubby” — seems to be looking over my shoulder, along with who knows how many others.
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M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.