WAS PRIVACY — as an idea and a reality — only a brief interlude, available to a few prosperous, modern Westerners? They could afford rooms of their own where they might experience genuine solitude, solitude without the certainty that family, society, government, or God were looking over their shoulder. But now that we have invented an artificial God, seemingly omnipresent and omniscient, such solitude is scarce. “A child born today,” warns Edward Snowden, “will grow up with no conception of privacy at all.” Coming generations will inhabit a world where (to quote Dave Eggers’s The Circle) “all that happens must be known.”
As I was researching the use of typewriters in the 21st century for my book The Typewriter Revolution, I learned that these humble devices are used by the Kremlin and MI6 to outwit the most sophisticated espionage techniques. No hacker can remotely access a typescript in a filing cabinet. Citizens, too, turn to typewriters when they want to communicate securely: although our government scans the exterior of every envelope, its contents remain relatively safe, and the typewritten letter you open from your friend has probably been read only by you and her.
Such quaint artifacts as postal letters have new significance in a time when free, instant, global, indelible publishing is available to us all — when the default setting for our existence is public, so much so that the term “publishing” has begun to sound obsolete. What we need in a time of consummate publicity is privacing: deliberate steps to create pockets of privacy in our overexposed lives.
Privacing is more than simply ensuring that information won’t fall into the wrong hands. Obviously, we don’t want thieves to use our credit cards. We all have something to hide from someone. But by the same token, the self-styled forces of good can always promise to protect us from those who would misuse our data. And if we don’t trust the forces of good — what’s wrong with us? What do we have to hide?
Even if we have nothing to be ashamed of, and even if those who store and analyze our data are just as secure and benevolent as they claim to be, we have lost something when we behave in a way that is open to such analysis. With the sense that our words and acts are under constant, automatic surveillance, we tend, consciously or not, to polish our persona, to behave as we want others to see us behaving. Whether we want to be perceived as harmless nobodies, as glamorous winners, or as fearless rebels, to be seen — and not to be — becomes our priority.
Privacing is not the protection of information, but the choice of being over seeming. It happens whenever we find occasions to have experiences that will be meaningful even if no one else ever learns of them, even if we tell no one about them, even if we take them with us to that place that so few secrets today survive long enough to reach: our grave.
Privacing can take the form of writing with a secure, nondigital tool, writing that need not be communicated to anyone. Privacing can consist in making music that is never recorded, sketching a scene and tearing up the sketch, or sinking into a novel that you read on that insensitive and oblivious old medium, paper. Privacing takes place when you explore an empty beach or a busy city without making any external record — nothing that could be published at all — but only your memories.
In her wistful reflection on “the day of the postman,” Rebecca Solnit writes in the London Review of Books that our digitized lives inhabit “a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” Ever exchanging images with our accumulating “friends,” we drift away from love and from self. Privacing not only reacquaints you with yourself but also opens doors to intimacy, should you choose to mail your letter or tell someone about your walk on the beach.
Privacing can even serve as a source of ideas that you choose to make public in a deliberate and thoughtful way, restoring significance to the word “publishing”—as when some of today’s typists “typecast” by posting images of their typescripts online.
Playwright and filmmaker Patrick Wang describes the heart of privacing on his typecast blog. Turning off his divisive devices —“expert dividers, of our attention, our understandings, our lives” — Wang establishes “digital quiet.”
But then in my mind, all things begin to flash and cry for attention. Enough abandoned memories to trip over, today’s passions beginning to smoke. It appears the housework of the soul has gone neglected. There is a chaos demanding a worthy opponent. There is feeling looking for form. God, even without our devices, we were already in pieces. But with time and the spaciousness of solitude, we can pull ourselves together.
Who knows? We may even manage to keep the concept of privacy alive a bit longer.