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“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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