Let’s Talk about Privacy, the Anti-Human “Human” Right.
In today’s world where freedom equals emancipation from all unchosen bonds and we live more and more in a digital panopticon, privacy can seem like a necessary civil right. This is a mistake.
I am trying something new with this piece: writing a Substack on my phone rather that at the keyboard. Hopefully, this will force me into a space somewhere between a Twitter thread and some of the very long form pieces I am capable of writing, especially when discussing a book. I am at the mall, sipping on a coffee in the food court, while my teenage daughter and her friends are shopping.
Privacy. It seems like the “right to privacy” is a no brainer in the age of big data and the emerging surveillance state. The fact that we are discussing this at all is indicative of the state of our society and the degree to which the influence Christian teaching has declined, as well as the amount of social decay with which we live. The right to privacy is little more than the right to social dissolution, alienation and loneliness.
I started thinking about this while watching the Netflix original Anon (Warning: it contains nudity and a couple of fairly graphic sex scenes. It’s ponderously paced, so you will have time to avert your eyes).
The movie is set in what I assume is supposed to be a dystopian future, although that is never clear. In this future, a decision was made: what society needed was complete “openness.” Everything everyone sees is recorded through their eyes and can be played back by the authorities. Suspect your spouse of cheating? Demand they show you their feed. Think housekeeping stole something while cleaning your hotel room? Demand to see their feeds. There are no physical computers. All computing happens within your head through your eyes. The tech is never discussed and you don’t ever see it. It’s seamless and invisible. You are connected to the “ether” full time and there is no escape, no opting out.
The world is remarkably clean. There is virtually no crime. Yet the spaces are mostly empty, inhabited by few people. The architecture is predominantly Brutalist. Concrete, concrete and more concrete. The pace is intentionally slow. There being no devices with which to interact, the entirety of your digital life occurs within your head, overlaid upon your vision. People sit in near empty minimalist rooms seemingly staring off into nowhere. There is little talking. The world of “openness” is given a profoundly alienating feel. The unspoken message is that humans need privacy.
But do we?
While it seems somehow natural that we would rebel against the coming digital panopticon, we must remind ourselves that such an idea is in fact “utopian.” Like most “solutions,” it is an attempt to overcome a problem. The problem-solution binary is in many ways the materialist version of the sin-salvation binary. The more that such technical solutions attempt to solve the bigger problems of humanity, the more they take on the character of a soteriology, a path to salvation. And with so many things since the enlightenment rejection of Christianity, once you bore into what is happening, you generally discover a human, often technical, attempt at self-salvation.
As we delve into this, we need to go back to very beginning. Unfortunately, most of you, even if you are devout Christians, are terrible at theology. Nobody has taught you to think theologically. This negatively affects your political thinking. To understand the problem of privacy, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden and come to grips with the origin of the human desire to hide ourselves and our actions from others. The end of the second creation account in Genesis 2 closes off with these words:
“The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”
To properly understand this, we must recognize that the stories of first 11 chapters of Genesis are not told so much with the purpose of telling us how the earth began; rather, they are told to explain to us why the world is the way it is today. It is important we know that human beings were created naked, without shame. This is the means by which we are told that sin had not yet entered the world. A world without sin is a world where we feel no need to cover ourselves, to hide ourselves. We feel no shame. There is no need to protect one’s self from the other. We were completely open with each other. In the Garden of Eden, there was no privacy, and this was a sign of the pre-sin goodness of the world.
So what happens, then, once human beings transgressed (shattered, broke down) the boundary, the barrier God had set for them when he commanded them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
The interpretations which see this as a story about humanity becoming self-conscious are not unjustified. I would argue that this is an effect of sinfulness, rather than trying to argue that consciousness is sin. Either way, this act of transgression is accompanied by an “awakening” in which human beings become aware of each other and themselves and with this comes the subsequent need to hide themselves from others and especially from God. Our desire for privacy is itself a sign that we live in a fallen world. This need to separate ourselves from other human beings, to “clothe” and wall ourselves off from others and even from ourselves. A case can be made that the conscious/subconscious split is also something which results from sin, which is why the dreaming of dreams is tied to redemption. The subconscious and the supernatural are once again seamlessly opened to us again.
But to properly understand this, we should not stop here. We must remember that immediately after the fall, God steps in and makes a promise to Adam and Eve that one of her offspring will eventually come and crush, will defeat, the snake. We thus live in an intermediate period between the promise of God and its complete fulfillment (as we will learn later) in the second coming of Jesus Christ. In the interim, there are no full solutions. We as human beings cannot accomplish what can only be done by God. Our call is to trust and wait upon God and do the best we can for now. God himself recognizes this and so creates an institution for humanity.
“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
Here is God’s acknowledgement that things have changed. He makes clothes. He allows them to protect their nakedness from each other. They can hide their shame. They do not have to endure being fully open with each other.
But privacy creates another dilemma. It encourages us to hide our actions from each other. But God knows our thoughts:
“…the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.”
The idea of morality is based on the divine panopticon. God watches everything and we will be answerable to God for all of our thoughts, feelings and actions. The judgement of God involves all the things we want hidden being exposed:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of the light, and will not come into the light for the fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
There is a lot going on in this text. Part of the whole process of salvation is that “in Christ” we are able to pass through the judgement process into eternal life. But this process involves our being completely exposed. But if we enter into this process within the grace of God in Christ Jesus, what is exposed is the work of God’s grace in Jesus, and not the darkness of our sin. Part of the process of salvation is overcoming our being “clothed.” Part of the salvation process is God overcoming the need for privacy. But all of the process is wrapped up in God. Morality. His watchful and knowing eye. His redemption. It all comes from him.
This is important to recognize. Since we live in the interim stage between God’s promise, Christ’s death and resurrection and his second coming, any experience of this grace will be partial. That means we are never getting rid of the need for privacy because, even as Christians, we still cannot endure our own nakedness. So we have partial institutions.
One of the primary institutions is marriage. Man and wife. Naked. The two become one. Not just physically but also psychically and spiritually. This is why casual sex and sexual revolution with easy divorce and the pursuit of pleasure as an end in and of itself is so devastating. Marriage was meant as a means to overcome, in part, however imperfectly, the alienation of sin. The safety of the marriage bond is supposed to allow us to overcome our hidden, clothed state of shame and be naked and joined to another person. Marriage, seen in this way, is a partial restoration of the state of the Garden of Eden.
If marriage is the foundational institution of a flourishing community, this then sets the agenda of a healthy community. In a thriving community, there is not a lot of privacy. It is a context in which everyone knows your business. Yes, we are still clothed. We are not all married to each other. But the direction is clear. A community is a context within which the people live such close lives that they are quite exposed to each other. The impulse to argue that the things I do in my bedroom or in my own home are no one’s business but my own, move in the opposite direction to the move of grace, which is always towards greater openness. A community must be a place of trust. This is also why true communities are in involuntary in some form or another. This lack of choice forces you to deal with each other over time.
Another institution is that of confession, and the confessional. There is something about the ritual of confessing one’s sins to another that helps overcome this temptation to privacy. It is also a clear declaration, as an institution, as a practice, that the proper direction of a flourishing society is away from hidden, private actions, out of sight from other towards greater openness and transparency. Fighting for the “right to privacy” is dangerously like fighting for your right to be secretly immoral and sinful.
So, after all this, what are we supposed to think about the digital panopticon? It should be rejected as a false God. It is an attempt to replace God with a technology that does the same thing: watches us all the time and knows our thoughts. It is ironic that the same people who reject their Creator and the moral obligation created by acknowledging his presence/existence, want to replace him with a technological surveillance state, a pseudo god. Whether in the real world, or in art, film or literature, the surveillance state is always put forward as a way to build trust, reduce crime, create social adhesion. But, as a soteriology, it cannot deliver what it promises. Forced nakedness in a sinful world creates a psychic terror. Forever being forced to walk around naked makes you withdraw even further, become even more careful with one’s self. God gave us clothes for a reason. Even as you are exposed everywhere all the time, your internal movement is to hide and retreat into the shadows, into the darkness. As we retreat away from the light, it opens us to ever greater amounts of darkness, that is, immortality. It also alienates us from each other. Digital surveillance should be resisted, but not by using a “right to privacy” as a basis. It is a false god, offering a kind of salvation in which many of society’s problems are promised to be solved through through a kind of forced nakedness. Knowing Ellul’s four laws of technological “progress,” we know that this kind of technology does not care. It will come with good and ills which cannot be separated from each other. The ills cannot be avoided and many cannot be predicted. We can scratch the surface by speculating on the kinds of problems it will unleash, but we don’t really know what we are doing to ourselves. Think of how putting people on camera all the time in reality TV shows changes their behavior and then magnify that over a whole society.
The alternative to the digital panopticon is community. However imperfect, real communities have given mankind a context within which to overcome some of the alienation of sin. If we enhance the community, building it around a soteriological system which understands the problem of sin, and, can, through a process called discipleship, encourage greater openness and connection between real people, then we can build an institution within which people can really flourish. We call this “the church.”
Privacy creates a space in which you can authentically embody yourself without fear of judgement or retribution from others.
This is desirable when you are virtuous and have the discipline to be moral even when you are not being watched (except by God). It is especially desirable when those that would judge you are corrupted and unjust.
Given that we live in a corrupted society, I believe this makes privacy for those on the side of good necessary. Privacy can allow you to do good that you might otherwise struggle to achieve (ie. the privacy of the confessional allows you to be totally honest).
When that balance changes, and you are morally suspect and attempting to hide your actions from good people, then privacy can be a bad and corruptive force.
Privacy is a moral catalyst but does not have an inherent moral value (in this life).
Excellent insights! The parallel panopticons you’ve sketched was something I hadn’t thought of in quite that way, but it’s a wonderful starting point when engaging in discussion with those who don’t seem to see the dangers of the tech version (“I have nothing to hide!”), yet balk at any suggestion of moral transgressions being based on anything more than “nonconsensual” acts. I’ve joined an online book study of René Girard’s “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and in the last reading, one phrase of Girard’s, “the insipid modern fascination with transgression,” jumped out at me. What happens to a society whose fundamental ethos seems to be the “right” to transgress? It would seem that a tech panopticon is the current “solution” - a dystopian one indeed!