WORTHY TO READ: The Birth And Death Of Privacy: 3,000 Years of History Told Through 46 Images

Greg Ferenstein, tech journalist, delivers with this article a great illustrated overview about the history of privacy. Despite his slightly pessimistic, disputable outlook, whereby privacy will lose its importance, this work is worthy to read for everyone who is interested in the issue and more of that, in the estimation of the own privacy.

The main theses of Ferenstein (citation):

  • Privacy, as we understand it, is only about 150 years old.
  • Humans do have an instinctual desire for privacy. However, for 3,000 years, cultures have nearly always prioritized convenience and wealth over privacy.
  • How cutting edge health technology will force people to choose between an early, costly death and a world without any semblance of privacy. Given historical trends, the most likely outcome is that we will forgo privacy and return to our traditional, transparent existence.

The author starts his historical tour about 200.000 BC describing first privacy attempts in tribal life. Seemingly, the desire for privacy ignited when couples wanted having sex not to be observed by their relatives and children. This tendency intensified with the rise of ancient cities like Athens and even more in Rome. Privacy turned out to be a privilege of the wealthy whereas the majority had to live in crowded circumstances with few means to separate from each others.

In the early Middle Ages privacy turned out to be a kind of isolation, influenced by Christian values. The late Middle Ages caused the “birth or privacy” as we know today, as achievement of the renaissance. Citation Peter Loy: “The apparatus of moral governance was shifted inward, to a private space that no longer had anything to do with the community,” . In morality, solitude now gained a powerful ally. Another reason for enhanced privacy was caused by the horrible effects of the “black death” which decimated whole populations in Europe. To inhibit fast spreading of the plague, separate rooms were helpful.

In pre-industrialisation individual homes became more private. The author takes John Adams, president of the U.S. as witness for the increasing importance of privacy by this note: ““I am under no moral or other Obligation…to publish to the World how much my Expences or my Incomes amount to yearly.” Ferenstein describes the “Post Office Act” (1710) as first privacy regulating law. With growing common wealth (1850 onwards), privacy became a standard of citizen’s everyday life, at least for the wealthy and the middle class.

Harvard Law Review (December 15, 1890): “The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.”

Noteworthy: the new attitude of privacy was misused for the relationship between men and women insofar “privacy was practically upheld as a way of maintaining a man’s ownership over his wife’s public and private life — including physical abuse.”
The author addresses the development of first, though imperfect privacy technology, postal services and telephone. As the first “secure” privacy technology he describes the headphone.
In the last part of this article, the focus is on a shift from hyper-individualistic privacy to more cooperative spaces. The author predicts a deliberate sacrifice of privacy for conveniences through the use of big data.

The last chapter leaves the reader with questions. The rationale, only sacrifice of privacy will give us more convenience and value in every day life, is questionable. Future technology should be able to serve both, privacy and big data, without contradicting one the other. The secret sauce for this outlook is sovereignty. As long individuals keep their data sovereignty, they decide themselves if they give private information to big data for whatever use or keep them for themselves. This emphasis distinguishes a free society from a tyrannic society where private data can be acquired by executive order. To find a viable way between both, privacy and big data, demands an ongoing endeavour to reach an equilibrium between both justified interests.

The article is part of Ferenstein’s book “The Age of Optimists – Silicon Valley’s political endgame, summarized in 12 visuals”