Mass Surveillance is the antithesis of privacy, and also of solitude. We give up a certain amount of privacy in choosing to live public lives. There are benefits to being connected to a network of people and the vast arrays of fire optic cables connecting computers that give us the world's information. But we always need the option, the choice, the ability, to step out, to take solace within ourselves, to have solitude with no one watching, recording, or tracking us.
The minute we step online, the minute we turn on our supercomputing smartphones, we are tracked and analyzed. We are conditioning ourselves, and to some degree, being conditioned, to accept this as the new normal. There are many anti-surveillance efforts going on, to increase our privacy while we are connected to the world, to push back against the surveillance state. Many of us want to connect to people and information in a anonymous or pseudo-anonymous way. But we don't often talk about access to solitude.
Solitude is the ability to disconnect, to leave the electronic tracking devices home, and take a quiet walk in the forest. It may sound like luddism but the inescapable feeling of being watched does have an affect on the psyche. The Groklaw farewell post really hit this home for me. Especially in the quote from a book by Janna Malamud Smith, "Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life":
One way of beginning to understand privacy is by looking at what happens to people in extreme situations where it is absent. Recalling his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed that "solitude in a Camp is more precious and rare than bread." Solitude is one state of privacy, and even amidst the overwhelming death, starvation, and horror of the camps, Levi knew he missed it.... Levi spent much of his life finding words for his camp experience. How, he wonders aloud in Survival in Auschwitz, do you describe "the demolition of a man," an offense for which "our language lacks words."...
One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
The amount of privacy, and control over that privacy, online in a connected world is constantly shifting. We may express that we have "nothing to hide"--maybe that is so for some. I like having control about what I am public about and what I am private about. The access to solitude is the last vestige of privacy, the one particular aspect of privacy that should never be wavered from.
"Ode on Solitude"
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.
– Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl (Public Domain)