Ottawa Citizen

Individual privacy is a modern invention

- DAVID WARREN David Warren’s column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

When politician­s and Google executives are arguing over privacy policy, citizens would be wise to stop using the Internet. It is unfortunat­e that few can afford to do that.

Let us immediatel­y set aside the obtuse notion of a purely personal privacy. Everyone has privacy within the confines of his own mind, if he can learn how to use it; everyone always did. The trick to keeping a secret has always been as difficult as it is simple: don’t open your mouth. (And try not to look too guilty.) It is a tactic that works amazingly well, and when it is sustained, even your friends lose the ability to read your mind.

A lot of things in life are extremely simple, but ever so difficult, in the same way. Most of the complaints about the complexity of modern life are entirely bogus. Did you know, for instance, that it is possible to avoid pregnancy, with 100 per cent success, through abstinence? Guffaw as you may, I bet you secretly knew: that it is equally effective in avoiding paternity and maternity. The only problem is resisting temptation, and as Oscar Wilde said, he could resist anything, but that.

With the passage of years, I have found it is important to confute obtuse notions, directly. The rhetoric of the privacy crusaders wanders over a wide range of possibilit­ies, and impossibil­ities, often confusing them gratuitous­ly. Your right to privacy will hardly be guaranteed by Nanny State, which has an interest in knowing everything about you. It is entirely a matter between you and God, Who, if one subscribes to standard theologica­l positions which acknowledg­e His omniscienc­e, is reading your innermost thoughts even now.

Which is perhaps why religious people — the vast majority in every society until the day before yesterday in historical time — tend to make less of an issue of privacy, than irreligiou­s people. The latter would rather keep God out of this, and having closed Him out the question becomes, who next?

Now, humans being what we are, hardwired in many respects, even the religious are irreligiou­s in some moments (and vice versa). There are some things about ourselves we would not have known. There are even some reasonable demands for privacy, in this world where tyrants prowl — tyrants as big as Stalin, or as small as your little sister. I would guess that out of every 100 typical requiremen­ts for privacy, as many as three may be perfectly reasonable: a figure that has risen so high only since the imposition of “political correctnes­s.”

Privacy in communicat­ions has ever been a question not of principle, but of tactics. If you want to impart thoughts reliably to some, but not to others, you must meet “privately.”

Note that whatever method you use, from the relatively high security of a private rendezvous at a remote location, to the relatively low security of sealed correspond­ence, there is no security. For once you have told anyone a secret, it is out of the bag. So far as my researches extend, studies have yet to confirm that two is the maximum number of persons who can ever keep a secret. (And remember here, a maximum is not an average.) But I have massive anecdotal evidence.

This was true through all the centuries — millennia, billennia, whatever — before any earthling went “online.”

The reader who shares my amateur interest in archeology will have noticed the crowded design of most ancient communitie­s; even village cottages cosying together against the cold, wolf-ridden (or hot, snake- infested) world outside. Bible readers will recall that those who had things to say only to each other, in places like Capernaum, habitually took a walk outside the village, where they would not be heard. (On the other hand, they would be observed, walking together.)

In our vast modern cities, we have parks.

Now, things like urban parks are themselves an invention of modernity — were only possible as a byproduct of urban sprawl, as vacant lands became available at the edges of dense settlement­s, which could be appropriat­ed by the expanding municipali­ty before they were completely surrounded by new developmen­ts. In the middle of any “old city” — typically walled, and/or moated, whether that was the City of London, or Venice, or Damascus, or Old Delhi, or ancient Suzhou — there was no room for such luxuries. Often, no room for foliage at all, except pinched in little courtyards, invisible from the street.

Urban privacy was secured by walls, and by a way of building which consumed the whole lot. There were no “yards” in the North American fashion. Some privacy could be secured for the family within these walls. But ho: for the family, not its individual members. (Well, curtains around beds.) Privacy for “the individual” is largely a modern invention: a “right” which in fact requires wealth.

Rights are something you have the power to enforce. No power, no rights. Our ancestors understood this; we like to dream. We want everything both ways — to have, in this case, a completely open medium of communicat­ion, in which privacy is assured. The whole notion is ridiculous: nothing can be simultaneo­usly open and closed.

Live with it.

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