“The Loss of Privacy” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Microsoft

Image Source: Microsoft

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and deals with an issue that has been getting a lot of attention lately: privacy.

Eco begins by discussing boundaries and their importance. He points out that the concept of boundaries applies to humans and animals, and that when someone or something crosses these boundaries and invades our space, or natural inclination is to feel threatened.

Ethology teaches us that every animal recognizes around itself, and its fellows, a bubble of respect, a territorial area within which it feels safe, and that it will see as an adversary whoever steps over that boundary.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 77)

To define and secure our boundaries, we often erect walls, either physical or emotional. Eco cites examples of walls constructed by governments to create a sort of communal privacy and states that “people have always paid for the communal privacy by accepting the loss of individual privacy.” (ibid: p. 78) I am reminded of the walled and gated communities that were dominant in Miami when I lived there, where people subjected themselves to the scrutiny of the all-mighty Homeowners’ Association for the false sense of security gain by living within the enclosed walls.

It seems as if every week there is news about a computer hacker accessing a system and stealing personal information. This is blown up in the media as a major threat to our privacy. But Eco claims that this is not the biggest threat to our privacy, that online tracking used by corporations is much more insidious and dangerous.

The big problem facing a citizen’s private life is not hackers, which are no more frequent and dangerous than the highwaymen who beset travelling merchants, but cookies and all those other technical marvels that make it possible to collect information about every one of us.

(ibid: p. 79)

So then the million-dollar question is: How did we allow ourselves and our society to get to this point? Eco claims it is because we have become an exhibitionist society.

It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of mass society, of the press, television, and Internet, is the voluntary renunciation of privacy. The extreme expression of this renunciation is, at its pathological limit, exhibitionism. It strikes me as paradoxical that someone has to struggle for the defense of privacy in a society of exhibitionists.

(ibid: p. 82)

It is kind of ironic when you consider this. We love to put ourselves out there for the world, sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram. Even blogging is a form of exhibitionism. I accept this about myself. I put my thoughts, my ideas, and my reading preferences out there for the world to see. When I was younger, this would have been part of my private world. I would hide in my room and read under the covers. Questionable books my friends and I read were discussed in closed rooms, away from the prying eyes of those who want to market to my tastes or track any subversive books I read. I remember there was a time when the government wanted to collect records from libraries regarding the books that people checked out and the public outcry against this. Now, your reading habits are tracked online. All you have to do is look at a book on Amazon, you don’t even have to purchase it, and immediately ads begin popping up based upon the fact the you just clicked on that one link.

Eco concludes by stating that most of us have come to accept the loss of our privacy and have taken it to the next step. We now believe that the best way to keep our secrets is to just put everything out there. If everyone’s secrets are made public, then ours will not seem that interesting anymore when compared with those of everyone else.

But it’s a vicious cycle. The assault on privacy accustoms everyone to the disappearance of privacy. Already many of us have decided that the best way to keep a secret is to make it public, so people write e-mails or make phone calls in which they say everything openly, certain that no one listening in will find interesting any statement made with no attempt at concealment. Little by little we become exhibitionists, having learned that nothing can be kept confidential anymore and that no behavior is considered scandalous. Those who are attacking our privacy, seeing that the victims themselves consent, will no longer stop at any violation.

(ibid: p. 87)

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16 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction

16 responses to ““The Loss of Privacy” by Umberto Eco

  1. Interesting. I too dislike commercial interests tracking my every move on the internet to try to sell me things they think I may like. But I don’t see my interactions on twitter or FB or blogging as intruding on my privacy because I only share things I don’t mind people knowing about me, and usually to start a conversation. I truly see it as a form of “socializing.” On the other hand I don’t want my address and phone number and financial info, etc., to become public. And that does worry me.

    • Hi Deborah. I agree that blogging is not an intrusion on our privacy, but I think it is a form of exhibitionism, and as Eco points out in his essay, this has opened ourselves to a different level of public exposure. I don’t know about Twitter (because I don’t tweet), but I know with FB, if you “like” something or click a link that a friend posts, that is tracked. To me, that’s something people need to be much more conscientious about, because I don’t think people realize that those actions are tracked.

      Anyway, I found the essay interesting and thought it was relevant. Hope you have a great day.

      Jeff

  2. Very interesting. Not sure I totally agree with Eco here:

    “The big problem facing a citizen’s private life is not hackers, which are no more frequent and dangerous than the highwaymen who beset travelling merchants.”

    My gut feeling is that personal transgressions are far more common than most of us realize. And the bigger we get, the more vulnerable we become. I can’t prove this because the activity would be illegal. No email snoop would dare to admit they are doing it. But, again, my gut suggests that it might be so.

    Whether or not Eco would (privately) agree with me, I don’t know. But I imagine he writes within a small-p political environment, just like anyone else. So I take his words cum grano salis…

    • Hi Michael.

      Yeah, it’s hard to gauge the veracity of that claim, but I found it interesting none-the-less. What really struck me as true, though, is his claim that we have become a more exhibitionist society. It sometimes boggles my brain to see how eager so many people are to put themselves out there for the world to see.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. Have a great day!!

  3. Actually, I just re-read your entry.

    “Already many of us have decided that the best way to keep a secret is to make it public, so people write e-mails or make phone calls in which they say everything openly, certain that no one listening in will find interesting any statement made with no attempt at concealment.”

    This seems to hint at the idea that it’s not just about cookies. But I disagree. I don’t think people are as naive as he seems to imply. How does he know that folks are still not being selective in what they write? I think most of us are… even those who use the “F” word and talk about their sex lives, etc. Eco might be falling into that typical (and arrogant) sociological error of “We know better than the masses… because we’re smarter than the masses.” Sometimes I think the reverse might be true!

    Also, could we not say that people are being “creative” instead of “exhibitionist”? It’s a far more positive, optimistic view of web activity. One sociology prof., whom I did admire, emphasized that we are ALL creative. Not just rock stars, writers, and Hollywood idols. And, for the most part, I agree with that view.

    At any rate, I have ordered the book from our library. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I enjoyed Foucault’s shorter pieces back in the day. And I might find the same thing here, with Eco.

    One other thing… I’m not sure if this works with Apple computers, but I find that this free software helps with cookie removal.

    https://www.piriform.com/ccleaner

    • Hi. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! This is certainly a complex issue and one that can be debated. As with most social issues, I don’t think any person has all the answers; if someone did, well, it probably wouldn’t be an issue anymore 🙂

      Anyway, you bring up some really interesting points, especially regarding creativity. I agree we all have a creative nature and we choose our own way of expressing it. So this begs the question: Are people using social media as a way to emulate the ideal of what creative people are as presented by mass media? I’d say in some cases yes, and in some no. There will always be the two sides, like yin and yang. Which is why there will always be room for healthy debates.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and insights. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

      Cheers!

  4. “Are people using social media as a way to emulate the ideal of what creative people are as presented by mass media?”

    That’s a very good point. I might add that, if some are, is that necessarily a bad thing? My question brings in a whole bunch of other issues. For instance, we know that not a few use the web to try to “make it.” And the best way to do that is to conform, somewhat, with what’s “hot,” “in,” “cool,” etc. And imho making a living through creativity usually isn’t a bad thing.

    Now, as for Eco, I really have to read more of his stuff to be fair. I’ve just been talking off the cuff, with what little I’ve seen here and read myself. So when that book comes in, I’ll give it a good scan. It’s too easy to take snippets and generalize. I imagine his thought is pretty complex, from what I’ve seen of him so far.

    Thanks again for keeping such an open mind, and maybe for seeing through me and some of my motivations! 🙂

  5. I am still amazed how many people don’t know that cookies are on websites. And businesses say it’s in the consumers’ interests that they are tracking them, in order to craft a personalized experience lol

    • Hi Christy.

      LOL – you’re so right. I don’t need anyone personalizing my experiences. I can do that just fine on my own, thank you.

      Hope you are having a great day! Thanks for taking the time to visit my humble blog 😉

      Jeff

  6. Christy, it’s so obvious now. If I search for, say, audio speakers at various sellers, all I see is audio speaker deals in subsequent ads. Someone told me that the same thing happened when they needed a new toilet! All they saw for the next few days was ads for toilets… (smh)

  7. So Jeff, to flog this dead horse a little longer… I got my hands on the book and I must say that I’m still ambivalent. There was one section about travel. Tourists. They go to Italy (or somewhere, I can’t remember exactly) and depart, leaving their hotdog wrappers and mustard behind! (para).

    That seemed pretty cynical and judgmental. Not only there. If I went and got the book now, I could find more examples that seemed pretty small and petty. But I’m not out to do a hatchet job on Eco. Just thought I’d say that if we view other people as souls on a journey, then all perspectives have some validity.

    I mean, who’s to say that a hometown boy or girl’s perspective is more “valid” than a tourist’s? We’re all tourists in way. And immigrants too… if we take into account global population shifts, the constancy of migration, conquest, and so on.

    Anyhow, just thought I’d update on that one.

    • Hi Michael. I understand what you’re saying. I live in a mountain town that is a big tourist destination and there is always this big debate about too many tourists ruining the town, or the need to increase tourism to fuel the local economy, or the effects of development, etc. Both sides can be pretty vitriolic. I try to stay objective and usually I can see valid points on both sides. That it usually the case when I read, too. It is rare indeed that I read something and agree with everything or disagree with everything. So for me, I try to focus on what resonates with me, and if something doesn’t, well, I’ve gained insight into a different perspective, which is never a bad thing.

      As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I do hope that you find something worthwhile in Eco’s book 🙂

      Cheers!

      Jeff

  8. Excellent reply, Jeff. I guess I have a bit of a (latent) artist’s temperament. Usually I’m pretty calm and cool but if something rubs me the wrong way, I can get quite passionate. Who knows, maybe I was also projecting onto Eco. I recall during my doctorate that I got pretty ticked off at a professor cos I thought he was being stupid. Later on, I realized he wasn’t stupid. He was just being smart. Shrewd.

    One reason I like Nietzsche is that he’s a good example of an edgy person who gave us some great insights. I certainly don’t agree with everything Nietzsche says. But I uphold him as a counterexample to all those Jungians who advocate their ideal of integration. Nothing wrong with integrating our personality as much as possible. But what a boring and stagnant world it would be if everything was perfectly or robotically “balanced.”

    • Yeah, I like Nietzche. I don’t agree with everything he says, but like I said, there are few instances when I do agree 100%, especially when it comes to social commentary and such. Bottom line, I just try to be a critical thinker.

      I hope you have a wonderful and inspiring weekend. Cheers!

  9. Pingback: A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee | Stuff Jeff Reads

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