I don’t know what prompted the FaceBook conversation with my almost-cousin-Bruce but, somewhere along the line, he said he didn’t really think any of us had ‘privacy’ any more. “I think you should write about that sometime,” he said. Easy-Peasy I thought. But, as it turned out, no it wasn’t.
For one thing, it came as a great surprise to me that our concept of privacy is relatively new. Take the idea of personal space, for instance. Most homes didn’t have interior walls until after 1500. It wasn’t until the development of the brick chimney with its supporting beams that the idea of separating areas inside a living space became structurally possible. Until then, the entire family ate, worked, played, slept in communal proximity.
And then there is a matter as simple as reading. Although Gutenberg invented moveable type in the mid-1400s, it would be another three hundred years before books became inexpensive enough for individual ownership and silent (i.e. private) reading became feasible. That’s about the same time that solo beds came into vogue and, come to think of it, reading in bed might have become trendy, except for the tricky business of keeping candles lit under those down comforters.
One, two, three: Roll over!
Surprisingly, even in affairs as personal as sleep, the private bed concept actually developed quite gradually. As one of the most expensive items in the home, a single large bed became a place for social gatherings where guests were invited to sleep with the entire family and, perhaps, some of the servants as well. Individual beds first came into use about 1500, not for the wealthy or more educated classes, but in hospitals to help prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
It wasn’t until 1700-ish that beds became affordable enough for a family to consider having more than one and, still, it would be a shared space. Good manners dictated that the best bed be vacated by the regular occupants and offered to overnight guests. I shudder to think about the bedding situation. It wasn’t as if laundromats were available in the mall near the village well.
Our idea of privacy as a legal concept is even more recent than our attention to bedtime solitude. In 1776, patriot and future president John Adams wrote that it had been the British right to search houses without justification that sparked the fight for independence. What he deemed unacceptable was the groundless intrusion into people’s private sphere. Years later Louis Brandeis (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 1916 to 1939.) put it more succinctly. Privacy, he wrote, is the right to “being let alone.”
But, even as the legal concept was taking hold, technology began to bump up against our good sense. Here in remote Oysterville, for instance, the telephone inserted itself into our lives in the early twentieth century. My grandparent had a hand-cranked, wall-mounted “instrument” with a party line well into my childhood. A short, a long, and a short was their ring and, if they were expecting news from far-off family members, interested neighbors often picked up their earpiece and listened in. I can remember my rather deaf grandfather saying to the next-door neighbor, “I’m having trouble hearing, Horace. Could you please hang up?” Post cards were another threat to individual privacy. In 1914, my grandmother wrote to her eldest daughter: Be careful what you say on postals as the post mistress reads everything.
I don’t remember many privacy issues during the 1940s and ‘50s. There were some things we just knew to keep to ourselves. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was a mantra we grew up with. We obeyed Keep Out signs and followed the unwritten law that a woman’s purse was her private domain. Otherwise, our privacy was covered by sticking out our tongues and yelling “None of your beeswax” if our friends got too snoopy.
Now, here we are just a few decades later, and the privacy issue has become complicated beyond belief. And it kills trees! When we go to the doctor or to the hospital, we joke about that, but without humor. As we sign all those papers and then consign them to the shredder, the admitting clerks say apologetically. “It’s the HIPAA law.” And as most of us know (vaguely), HIPAA, stands for the “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which is United States legislation that sets data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information…”
We try to ignore that relentless niggling in the back of our mind: “Privacy is a myth, you know.” That we continue to believe this privacy myth even after countless cyberattacks on banks, insurance companies, the FBI – you name it – has something to do with our “Persistence of Discredited Beliefs.” Truly! A number of studies have been done on that gobbledygook-sounding proclivity of ours to continue to act and believe irrationally, despite all information that should give us better guidance.
Data Privacy Day
But like lots of other studies and research… it all goes nowhere. Or so I thought until I discovered… drum roll… that Sunday before last was Data Privacy Day. Really? We’re paying attention at last? Yep! Since 2008, many nations of the world (including ours) have annually commemorated an international effort to create awareness about the importance of respecting privacy, safeguarding data and enabling trust. Yep! Really!
And yet, the data breaches have continued. Of the sixteen gigantic ones in the twenty-first century, the largest was an attack on Yahoo in 2013 and 2014. Three billion user accounts were compromised. Adobe, Target, Home Depot, Sony’s PlayStation Network, JP Morgan Chase… The list seems endless. Three billion breaches! We have been mesmerized into inertia. Or maybe we are simply reverting back to a time when this worrisome, new-wave, litigious concept of ‘privacy’ did not exist.
I’m eager to hear what my almost-cousin-Bruce will have to say about all this. I’ll let you know… unless there are privacy issues involved.