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What privacy?

The State increasingly snoops and intrudes into our lives.   It shouldn't be allowed to do so!  Period.    Reflections on where we are in all of this in this op-ed piece "Privacy is starting to seem like a very 20th-century anomaly" in The Guardian.

"Medieval villagers couldn’t afford to be too proud. In Montaillou, home to some 200 souls, people would often sleep several to a bed. That meant that they were constantly picking up lice. No matter: in 14th-century France, delousing was a just another opportunity to socialise. A woman called Raymonde Guilhou, the historian Emmanuel Le Roy LaDurie tells us, publicly deloused her lover, who also happened to be a priest. She performed the same task for his mother, “in full view of everybody in the doorway of the ostal [house], retailing the latest gossip as she did so”.

It’s probably fair to say that Guilhou didn’t have many secrets. The village was her entire world, and that world in turn knew everything about her: family ties, sexual liaisons, personal hygiene. Anything she said might be overheard, or passed on. Anything she wrote – well, she couldn’t write. There was no secret diary of Raymonde Guilhou. Her whole life was shared, and there was nowhere to hide.

This world without privacy still seems alien to us. I say still, because there are growing parallels between the medieval village and its modern, global counterpart. This week, the government published a draft bill to enable it to track citizens’ internet use. The novelist Robert Harris wondered how these kind of powers would have struck us just 40 years ago: “Theresa May’s proposal quite staggering. Imagine if in the 70s, to fight the IRA, MI5 had demanded to know every shop visited, book read, inquiry made.” But state surveillance is only the half of it. With varying levels of enthusiasm and consent, we regularly submit ourselves to the surveillance of our peers. We broadcast our location, our relationships, what we eat and drink. We invite strangers to pore over every inch of our existence, so that they might as well be delousing us.

And the end result may be an experience not too far removed from Guilhou’s. Go on a date and the whole village (read: all your friends, their friends and whoever else is interested) knows. Give money to charity and the whole village knows. Fly into a rage while out shopping and the whole village knows. Read some heretical text and you might just receive a visit from the sheriff.

This is not quite the “global village” of Marshall McLuhan’s imagination: “These new media of ours,” he said in 1964, “have made our world into a single unit. The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England, we all hear about it … an earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk, away go the drums again.” Then, the communication was mostly one way. In 2015, the villagers answer back. The result is arguably a more censorious environment, one in which your movements and behaviour are more strictly policed, officially and unofficially. And it replaces a period of “privacy” that is beginning to look like a bit of an anomaly."


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