Monday, January 23, 2006

Private self vs Public self

So tonight I was initially planning on writing something about stores that keep track of what you buy - what the stores gain and lose from this, what you gain and lose from this, what other customers gains and lose from this, and what society as a whole gains and loses from this. I thought I would start stimulating my thoughts on the subject by visiting NoCards.org, a site dedicated to revealing the problems caused by supermarket savings-card programmes. (In short, prices go up overall, product selection decreases, and poor people (those who least closely match the shopping profile of the most profitable shoppers) are affected the worst. All good points, but you can't really blame a business for optimizing their products and prices like that. Catering to the poor is often not good business. Who knew).

In any case, that site contains a variety of essays about many aspects of the supermarket-card programs. They are very interesting, thoughtful, insightful essays - Check them out. One in particular caught my eye, in their FAQ. The title:

"Why shouldn't my life be an open book? Only people with something to hide worry about surveillance and tracking."

The essay's response:

If you really believe that your life is an open book, let me ask you a few questions. Do you close the door when you go to the bathroom? Do you try not to pass gas in mid-conversation? Do you resist the urge to scratch your genitals or pick your nose while others are watching you? Do you tone down arguments with your mate when your boss walks in the room? Do you sit a little straighter and dress a little nicer when you want to impress someone?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you are a normal human being. You are also -- like it or not -- a privacy advocate. Everything I just named involves a distinction between the private self and the public self.

As far as I'm concerned, as long as we are not hurting anyone, all of our other activities have the same right to be protected from the observation of others. Do you have a terrible singing voice but occasionally like to belt out a tune in the shower? Do you write gushy love poetry? Draw moustaches on photos of supermodels? Drink milk from the carton? Bite your fingernails? Bite your toenails? Suck your thumb? Sleep with a teddy bear? Perform rain dances in your living room? Wear a superman cape to mop your kitchen? Have meaningful conversations with your goldfish? Actually, you probably don't do any of these things (and it's absolutely none of my business if you do), but I'm sure we could each expand the list with a few idiosyncrasies of our own.

Do these sorts of things hurt anybody? Sheesh, no. Are they weird? Yeah, maybe, which is why we might not want our neighbor, or the NBC film crew, or the agent from the NSA watching us do them.

The need to have time alone, to engage in activities (or make purchases) in private is not the guilty response of a person who has something to hide, it is a place of refuge for our psyche which, for good or bad, is highly attuned to other's opinions and needs to let its hair down once in a while. The stresses of living in society with other people are enormous. If we never had the opportunity to relax, be ourselves, do something maybe a little bit weird (though ultimately harmless) I think we'd all go mad.


As far as I'm concerned, that article shot itself in the foot right there at the end. There are two things fundamentally wrong with this argument - one of which is practually pointed out by the text itself:

The fact is, EVERYONE does weird things. We should not judge each other by the weird things we do. Everyone has strange habits, strange curiosities, strange fascinations, strange pleasures. And that's fine. This means everyone should realize that, if someone does something odd and disgusting but ultimately harmless, then there's nothing wrong with that. A person does not have the right to be judgmental about people's weird idiosyncrasies unless that person is completely free of them - which almost no one is. A world where people were comfortable with each other's idiosyncrasies would be a world where everyone realizes how pointless it is to try to be private about everything in fear that someone else disapproves of it.

(To which you might respond: Yes, but sadly we live in a world of irrational, unreasonable, ignorant, judgmental people, and there are such things as standards for civilized social behavior, and we need to pretend to not be weird in order to fit in. As long as that is the case, privacy is needed. To that I would say, you are right, but it makes you think about how absurd, arbitrary, and impossible those standards really are. I will even confess I have hidden aspects of my beliefs from people because I wanted approval from them, but this kind of intolerance is uncivilized, and we should all hope (and ensure) that it will not be around forever).

Now, the second thing wrong with the argument of that essay is even clearer. It is this: Your shopping habits ought to be a part of your public self. Sure, you may have physically disgusting habits and/or interests in strange and disturbing things, but none of this makes itself evident during a day out shopping. The fact is, when you go shopping, you are in public spaces - stores, markets, the street - and the things you buy are visible to anyone who cares to notice. If your disgusting habits or strange interests require the purchase of speciaized... stuff, you will probably not find that stuff in the supermarket or at your local electronics store. If you do, then it probably has more "normal" uses. To get that stuff, you will probably have to go online, and the website that caters to your odd interest will probably fulfill your desire for privacy, otherwise they'd go out of business.

Things you do out in public are simply not private. If you're doing something in a public space - a store, a market, a mall, an internet cafe, a restaurant, a school, your workplace, or just out on the street - then this will not, cannot, and should not, be private. Expecting actions done "out in the open" to be private is ridiculous.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to say. Just as acts done in public (where others are watching) cannot be private, it is similarly unnatural to expect that all aspects of an interaction with another entity should be kept private. If you bought something from someone, you can't expect that fact to be private unless that someone said it would be. Take your phone company, for example. What information do they have about you? You name, where you live, your phone number, with whom you talk on the phone and when, how you pay your phone bills (credit card, bank account). How much of that information did they explicitly tell you they would not share? Why would you expect that they cannot share any of it? (It all comes down to reading the privacy policy so as to have realistic expectations. I'm not saying those things should not be private. They should. I'm just saying that simply assuming they will be private (without having read the privacy policy) is stupid).

What about your interactions with your ISP (which sites you looked at, what your email says) and with your search engine (what you searched for and when, plus where those searches led)? How private ought all THAT to be? That's a whole separate (if related) issue I want to address sometime very soon. Stay tuned!

3 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

1) How is it I have the right to be weird in the privacy of my own home, but I don't have the right to be judgemental about someone else's weird habits? Isn't that "right" just as legitimate? It may be wrong to be judgemental (in many people's opinion), but if I want to look down on someone who bites their toenails, I think I have the right to do so, no? Now, of course, that rights takes an ugly turn if I take some kind of action based on these feelings that injure the person in some way, but aside from that, I don't see how it's any different than anything else you describe above.

2) Your argument would be stronger if you stop comparing online shopping with shopping in a store. The former is more private than the latter, at least in terms of how many people can easily observe your behavior.

I think you contradict yourself here - you say we ought to expect things we do in public to be public, and then you say that our expectations should be based on the privacy policy of the people we're doing business with. I agree with the latter statement much more so than the former.

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Bernardo said...

"It may be wrong to be judgemental (in many people's opinion), but if I want to look down on someone who bites their toenails, I think I have the right to do so, no? Now, of course, that rights takes an ugly turn if I take some kind of action based on these feelings that injure the person in some way, but aside from that..."

Hmmm, that's a really interesting point. I'm going to have to think about that.

"Your argument would be stronger if you stop comparing online shopping with shopping in a store".

I'm just drawing parallels, I'm not saying they're the same thing. You are right, shopping online is more private than shopping in a public place. I never said it is not. I only said nothing could be LESS private than shopping in a public space, which conflicts with the idea that stores should not track what you buy.

"You say we ought to expect things we do in public to be public, and then you say that our expectations should be based on the privacy policy of the people we're doing business with."

I don't think this is contradictory. Things you do in plain sight of other people, in a public space, are public, while a one-on-one dealing with a business done through a computer, phone, etc, is up to the the business to "reveal" or not.

I like your comments! Please keep'em coming. Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Raju Kumar said...

very nice article.Thanks for sharing the post...!
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5:09 AM  

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