Privacy Isn’t What It Used to Be

By Mark Silk 06-10-2013
Photo courtesy RNS/Wikipedia.

Confessional booth for private confessions. Photo courtesy RNS/Wikipedia.

On Slate, Emily Bazelon laments her colleagues’ lack of outrage at the revelations of the National Security Agency’s vacuuming up of data on what all of us are doing. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat explains it in terms of an internet motto: “abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.”

Privacy is soooo 20th century, no?

Yes. We now live in a world where we are constantly making choices that trade our privacy for convenience, from Easy Pass to global positioning to, of course, all the on-line services and commerce that we indulge in. No wonder the collective yawn at news that the federal government is doing what we assume Google is doing, in the (presumed) interest of public safety.

But what’s going on here is not just a loss of privacy. The conception of privacy itself is becoming attenuated in contemporary society. Diaries and letters used to be a staple of middle-class life. Now we post our reflections, our photos — our formerly private things — on public or semi-public websites. We share them, in effect inviting others, whom we quaintly call friends, to take a piece of us.

Of course, privacy had to be invented, and much of the invention had to do with religion. Confession of sins begins as a public act. It took centuries for Christians in the West to do it privately, in the ear of a confessor. Jesuits developed self-examination to a fine art.

In America, Puritans took to minutely scrutinizing their thoughts and feelings, and recording the results in journals. The Victorian novel is nothing if not an exercise in the exploration of individual privacy — perhaps brought to its apotheosis by that most proper of Bostonians, Henry James. It’s no wonder that the Boston lawyers Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel Warren should have discerned a constitutional right to privacy — a right to live one’s life “screened from public observation” — in 1890.

What the implications of the attenuation of privacy will be for religion is anyone’s guess. But one way of understanding what is happening is via the increasing number of Americans who say they have no religion. In the Digital Age, what you are is what you do in public, and if you don’t do religion in public, you’re not doing it. The habits of the heart don’t count for as much as they once did.

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. Via RNS.

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