Luxuriating in Privacy

 

In my writing over the past few years (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture, What is Ritual? The Essence of Peopling, A Bad Carver), I have been somewhat of a cheerleader for group ritual and small group agency, lamenting the capacities and mental states lost in the transition away from a communal, close-knit society, toward an atomized, market-driven society.

In reality, the thought of living in a communal, close-knit society, surrounded daily with family and friends, perhaps living in close quarters with many siblings or children, fills me with horror. Here I will allow my own heart its expression, and be a cheerleader for privacy. For something precious has been gained as well as lost in the transition to social modernity.

Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity. Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy.

Privacy is wonderful in and of itself, and privacy keeps the peace. Consider a finding from the 70s, mentioned in Baumeister et al.’s Bad Is Stronger Than Good, as an invitation to reflection and introspection. Does physical proximity cause friendship?

[N]early every psychology textbook teaches that propinquity breeds attraction. This conclusion is based on the landmark study by Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) in which the formation of friendships in a married students’ dormitory was tracked over time. Contrary to elaborate hypotheses about similarity, role complementarity, values, and other factors, the strongest predictor of who became friends was physical propinquity: Participants who lived closest to each other were most likely to become friends.

Yet a lesser known follow-up by Ebbesen, Kjos, and Konecni (1976) found that propinquity predicted the formation of disliking even more strongly than liking. Living near one another increased the likelihood that two people would become enemies even more strongly than it predicted the likelihood that they would become friends. Propinquity thus does not cause liking. More probably, it simply amplifies the effect of other variables and events. Because bad events are stronger than good ones, an identical increase in propinquity produces more enemies than friends.

It makes sense that shoving people together mostly makes them hate each other. Privacy allows us to be free from being annoyed by and intruded on by others. But privacy is a cooperative effort, composed of billions of people individually choosing to mostly leave each other alone. Each one of us is one nosy sociopath away from some level of disgrace, and yet such violation of privacy remains rare. Privacy is a component of well-being, a form of wealth, a luxury even, and the gains from supplying more privacy to a larger number of people must be weighed alongside alleged losses of social capital from atomization. What looks like a loneliness epidemic to a certain kind of observer may look like a golden age of privacy to another. Just as there are mental states that are only possible in crowds or with others, there are mental states that are only possible in privacy.

The Positive Experience of Privacy

One thing that people are said to do with privacy is to luxuriate in it. What are the determinants of this positive experience of privacy, of privacy experienced as a thing in itself, rather than through violation?

First, aloneness. The exclusion of most or all other people is core to the experience of privacy: to be alone in a room (even the bathroom), or perhaps alone with one’s spouse, or even with friends or family or the other people at a twelve-step meeting. The experience of “luxuriating” in privacy seems most connected to being alone in a room.

Second, the room: some kind of permeable enclosure protects one from intrusion – permeable, so that one is private, not trapped or claustrophobic. Different enclosures offer different levels of privacy: rooms in houses, rooms in hotels, tents, treehouses, cubicles, cars, gazebos. Some enclosure are more conducive to “luxuriating in privacy” than others. Permeability can enhance, rather than detract from, privacy: a window on the outside world reassures one that nobody is there, whereas a windowless wall does not. Ideal privacy is asymmetric surveillance: being able to see outside, but not being oneself visible.

Third, there is not just one layer of enclosure, but multiple layers: picture a room within a house, within a lot of “empty” distance with no people in it, surrounded by trees or a bramble of hedges, surrounded by a residential neighborhood. The same room would not be so private if excised from the house and transported to a shopping center. Layers allow greater permeability of enclosures. A window overlooking a private back yard provides a reassuring view and does not impede privacy, but a window looking right into one’s neighbor’s kitchen may.

Fourth, the outermost layer of enclosure, an invisible layer, is civilization. Compare the experience of spending an evening alone in a tent in the wilderness to the experience of spending an evening alone in a house in a residential neighborhood. Which is more private? The first experience is a cold and piercing kind of privacy, privacy underlined by adrenaline. Who’s there? What was that noise? The latter affords a warmer and more luxurious privacy, ensconced in a protective field of normalcy, an imaginary field created through the cooperative efforts of everyone nearby.

Sometimes civilization is the only “enclosure” necessary to create the experience of privacy. In the order of civil disattention, in which strangers in public politely ignore each other while giving cues that they are harmlessly aware of each other, one can go almost anywhere swaddled in a high degree of personal privacy and anonymity.

Fifth, the light is low. Luxuriating in privacy is best conducted in enough light to see (unless one is sleeping), but not in bright fluorescent light or direct sunlight. Generalizing this, privacy is not only freedom from surveillance, but from sensory cues of possible surveillance or intrusion: bright light, loud or sudden noises, vibration, smell. To be in private is to be free from cognitive as well as physical intrusions from others. Headphones and sunglasses act as sensory blockers to help produce the experience of privacy in public.

Now consider the internet. It operates as a window that seems to allow you to see out all over the world, without others being able to see you. Of course, the mirror is not really one-way, nor would it be as satisfying if it were: the ability to display identities and get attention is part of the allure. Satisfying internet selves are often private, in the sense that, even if not anonymous or pseudonymous, they are distanced or walled-off from one’s socially responsible identity. Internet identities are perhaps examples of the layers of permeable enclosures described above.

Besides privacy, another thing people are said to luxuriate in is hot water – a bath, a shower, a hot springs. Part of this is the pleasure of not having to expend energy maintaining temperature homeostasis. The pleasure of privacy is similar: freedom from having to expend cognitive energy in modeling others and conforming one’s behavior to the standards of public self-presentation, in order to maintain status homeostasis. Privacy is a form of rest.

An important aspect of privacy is that it is not absolute, but a matter of degree. Humans have many social selves to express. There are professional selves, one for interacting with clients or customers, one for interacting with colleagues, another for interacting with management. One can “be oneself” in private with friends, shedding the constraints of professionalism, protected from the attentions of hostile busybodies. And one can “be oneself” all alone. There is no single bright line between public and private, and efforts to construct one (as with a “real name” policy) deny human nature.

Privacy and Past Selves

Times change. One of the cases mentioned by Warren and Brandeis in their influential paper “The Right to Privacy” (Harvard Law Review, 1890) concerned an actress who was playing a role in a theater production that “required her to appear in tights,” and a devious paparazzo, by use of a flashlight, managed to photograph her thus. She was able to enjoin the publication of the photos. In our own time, tights have become normal exercise and leisure apparel commonly worn in public, and the vigorously contested privacy case of our time involved the unwanted publication of a hardcore sex tape.

At any moment, the self is using social and environmental cues of appropriateness to decide what to do and what to say. Proper behavior in 1890 was different from proper behavior now, because it arose from different informational and societal contexts. One’s behavior at 15 is different from behavior at 35, as it arises from different emotional and developmental contexts.

Every action and utterance of a past self was a performance under a particular set of constraints, a particular emotional mood, a particular worldview, a particular set of knowledge, a particular fashion milieu. When past selves’ performances are recorded, as in writing, photographs, or video, the performance becomes frozen in time. Meanwhile, the world changes around it. Fashion and sensibilities change, old knowledge is discarded, cool and uncool shift. A past self’s recorded performance can thus grow to be very much at odds with present fashion and standards. The past self is improper and uncool, or at the very least different from the present self, and threatens the present self’s social status by association.

Viewed in a vacuum, from the perspective of reputation, it seems like it would be a good strategy to be stable and predictable as a cooperation partner, to establish a highly predictable persona. Evidence of being different in the past not only pokes holes in the persona, but the change itself casts doubt on the sincerity (and durability) of the present self. So perhaps we should self-modify to change less, and we should prefer cooperation partners who have remained stable and predictable.

However, the rapidly-changing self may be better suited to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and being able to change rapidly is a strong response to increasing complexity. A rapidly-changing self in a rapidly-changing environment will accumulate increasing amounts of recorded performances that are at odds with the present self – especially since part of the changing environment is that more performances are recorded. These can be an albatross around one’s neck, a messy closet that one can never clean out. Privacy – the freedom from making performances, recorded or otherwise – allows one rest from this gradual accumulation of temporal baggage.

“Information wants to be free” used to be a cheerful rallying cry against censorship, but now sounds like a curse. As culture changes, new disputes emerge, and sides are taken, the past must be reinterpreted according to the new organizing principles and sensitivities, or written off as mess and hidden. But even if obscure, the mess of the past is there in that closet, that closet that perhaps anyone can access, waiting to be sifted through. Long-forgotten recorded performances of past selves might emerge suddenly to mock the present self. In privacy there is relief from such worries.

Private vs. Shameful

Everybody knows that everybody poops. Still, you’re not supposed to poop in front of people. The domain of defecation is tacitly edited out of our interactions with other people: for most social purposes, we are expected to pretend that we neither produce nor dispose of bodily wastes, and to keep any evidence of such private. Polite social relations exclude parts of reality by tacit agreement; scatological humor is a reminder of common knowledge that is typically screened off by social agreement. Sex and masturbation are similar.

But not all that is private is shameful, and not all that is shameful is private. Sleep, for instance, is normally performed in privacy, but it is not particularly shameful or embarrassing. Crying is embarrassing, but seems especially mediated by the presence of others.

Privacy means that your behavior is not constrained by other people’s ideas of what you should be doing or saying. It’s tempting to imagine that behind closed doors, everyone is engaged in all kinds of illicit and licentious behavior. However, I suspect that most of what is performed while luxuriating in privacy is more procrastination and laziness than debauchery.

In private, people are free to do what they want, and what they want, according to Seth Roberts, is to do the same thing they always do, over and over. In private, people watch television, read low-status books, play video games, tweet. Do you want to judge them for it, or say that these things are not the pinnacle of human achievement? Too bad – they’re doing them in private, where your disapproval can’t reach.

Privacy allows for the possibility of deep absorption, relaxing the cognitive demands of modeling others and regulating one’s behavior and appearance. Privacy allows executive function to take a break.

The more public the persona, the less challenging, strange, and interesting the ideas presented by it, the more self-conscious and halting its language, and the more excluded it is from intimacy and genuine communion. The most difficult audience to speak to is the public as a whole; this is reflected in the stereotyped and somewhat impoverished communications of politicians and advertisers.

Privacy Gains

In the early days of television, televisions were expensive, and a family would usually only have one. Decades later, as electronics became cheaper to produce, it became normal to have a television in every bedroom. Instead of watching television together, people chose to watch in private as soon as they were able to. This is usually presented as a sad fact of modernity, but perhaps we should view it as anything but sad: more people were able to express their preferences.

As I wrote in A Bad Carver, social interaction has increasingly become “unbundled” from other things. This may not be a coincidence: it may be that people have specifically desired more privacy, and the great unbundling took place along that axis especially, in response to demand. Modern people have more room, more autonomy, more time alone, and fewer social constraints than their ancestors had a hundred years ago. To scoff at this luxury, to call it “alienation,” is to ignore that it is the choices of those who are allegedly alienated that create this privacy-friendly social order.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Comments

  1. Excellent piece as usual. Privacy certainly does need a defense.

    That said, the conclusion seems a bit overoptimistic. Privacy isn’t an unalloyed good. As you mention, we are getting ever-increasing levels of privacy to “luxuriate” in. But who’s to say we’re not just coping with the change modernity constantly imposes on us? Why should we elevate the coping mechanism, when it may well be merely a means to lessen the pain of an unnecessarily “alienating” constructed environment.

    • In the ancient hunter-gatherer and pastoral-nomad past, we had rites of passage and hunting trips and spirit quests, depending on the culture.

      Oh and hermits. And monasteries.

      Privacy has always been desired if not by all then at least by many. It was just always bundled with one justifying cultural practice or the other. Now, we don’t have to bundle because privacy in and of itself is something we both want and can have.

    • Privacy is an unalloyed good.

      It is something intrinsically worthwhile, and a feature of modernity, not a bug. Historically reserved for only the most fortunate, privacy is optimized as people become less and less burdened with inescapable social interaction. The newly upward-mobilized downtrodden could collectively double-down on community interaction but observation (and gut instinct) tells us what they really want is some peace and quiet.

      • As Sarah mentions, privacy is a respite from “having to expend cognitive energy in modeling others and conforming one’s behavior to the standards of public self-presentation, in order to maintain status homeostasis. Privacy is a form of rest.”

        But isn’t the tiresomeness of having to model the social environment itself contingent on the structural precariousness of one’s place in an ambiguous, constantly changing status hierarchy?

        In this way Sarah’s essay is a sort of straw man. Few would say privacy itself is our problem. The critique is that the modern social environment is the problem, and that excesses of privacy, retreats to hermitage, are a weak substitute for a stable social order. Observation (and gut instinct) tell us what we really want is a sense of belonging, with privacy available in healthy doses.

        • Scrambles says:

          I don’t think a social environment that offers the sense of belonging you proposed as a goal is possible without a precarious social hierarchy. Without in-group and out-group status, belonging doesn’t mean anything. The facets that deplete its participants are the same things that give the social structure its desirability.

          Having privacy available as a refuge allows former non-participants to regroup, and dive back in, accomplishing social maneuvers that may have been previously impossible while existing in a constant state of addled social-energy-depletion. In this way, broad increases in available privacy may act as a force-multiplier to social evolution through increased participation. This seems like it could be worth the loss of fringe participants to (voluntary) hermitage, as they were only begrudgingly in the game in the first place.

          I think we might be dancing around an introversion/extroversion duality here. Introverts are often defined as those who are depleted by social interaction, with extroverts being replenished by it. My opinion is that breakthroughs in privacy have allowed introverts much wider inroads to effective social interaction, if they want it.

          I’m not sure any of this matters if you’re rebooting the social fabric… but without some type of authoritarian control or biological reprogramming I’d imagine a very similar system developing on its own… because primates.

          • > I don’t think a social environment that offers the sense of belonging you proposed as a goal is possible without a precarious social hierarchy. Without in-group and out-group status, belonging doesn’t mean anything

            The “in-group” under neoliberalism is near ten billion people. Belonging is against the ethos of the order.

            > Having privacy available as a refuge allows former non-participants to regroup, and dive back in

            I’m not against privacy.

            > This seems like it could be worth the loss of fringe participants to (voluntary) hermitage

            We’re all hermits now.

    • @Eli – You make a good point. I wrote an extensive post sometime back:
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/28/music-and-dance-on-the-mind/
      I was writing specifically about this issue and coming at it from the same angle as you. Interestingly, I quoted from another piece by Sarah Perry. It so happens to be the first link in her above writing:
      https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/01/08/ritual-and-the-consciousness-monoculture/

      Perry discusses Keeping Together in Time by William H. McNeill. His central idea is “muscular bonding” that creates, maintains, and expresses a visceral sense of group-feeling and fellow-feeling. This can happen through marching, dancing, rhythmic movements, drumming, chanting, choral singing, etc.

      McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).

      The individual is lost, at least temporarily, an experience humans are drawn to in many forms. Individuality is tiresome and we moderns feel compelled to take a vacation from it. Having forgotten earlier ways of being, maybe privacy is the closest most of us get to lowering our stressful defenses of hyper-individualistic pose and performance. The problem is privacy so easily reinforces the very individualistic isolation that drains us of energy.

      This might create the addictive cycle that Johann Hari discusses and would relate to the topic of depression in his most recent book. Hari refers to much research to show the importance of relationships of intimacy, bonding, and caring.
      https://www.alternet.org/personal-health/it-will-take-political-revolution-cure-epidemic-depression
      In particular, the rat park research is fascinating:
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/to-put-the-rat-back-in-the-rat-park/

      The problem with addiction is that it simultaneously relieves the pain of our isolation while further isolating us. Or at least this is what happens in a punitive society with weak community and culture of trust. For that reason, we should look to other cultures for comparison. In a comment below, I mentioned the Piraha as a prime example of how not all cultures have a dualistic conflict between self and community. But more interesting is a quote by Julian Jaynes that I included in writing “Music and Dance On the Mind” — from his book that Perry is familiar with:

      “Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.”

      Considering that, it could be argued that privacy is part of the same social order, ideological paradigm, and reality tunnel that tires us out so much in the first place. Endlessly without respite, we feel socially compelled to perform our individuality. And even in retreating into privacy, we go on performing our individuality for our own private audience, as played out on the internalized stage of self-consciousness that Jaynes writes about. That said, even though the cost is high, it leads to great benefits for society as a whole. Modern civilization wouldn’t be possible without it. The question is whether the costs outweigh the benefits and also whether the costs are sustainable or self-destructive in the long term.

  2. The example of crying as a behavior in the embarrassing/social quadrant I think suggests a whole line of inquiry relating to your post on dares.

    Truth/dare games, crying in public, many hazing rituals, and gang initiation rites (from wearing a public gang tattoo to killing) all seem designed to redraw the private/social boundary with varying degrees of coercion. So “mediated by the presence of others” is an ambiguous phrase that needs some unpacking. It suggests a whole space of mediation mechanisms ranging from coercion and shaming/humiliation to ritual evocations of responses we might actually prefer to keep private in more social settings. Some use fear of violence, others use naturally triggered responses (like crying).

    Social crying/weeping is interesting. For women, it can be a free behavior carrying no penalties, and even expected, with penalties for NOT crying. For men, it’s an urge to be fought because except in rare conditions like a funeral, it is seen as a sign of weakness (and therefore communal practices designed to make men cry outside of the whitelisted conditions can be understood as a way to control them using coercive private/social boundary redrawing).

    An interesting recent example was Obama publicly shedding tears after the Newtown shootings contrasted with Trump’s clearly undisturbed affect after the Florida shooting. I think both were genuine, and both fed into very different scripts of manliness. ie Obama won points for shedding tears, and Trump for not shedding tears.

    • Except that weakness can be strength.
      My tear ducts are connected in such a way that I find myself crying when I am telling someone something that I hold to be deeply true.
      Social interactions being what they are, this doesn’t happen much in public, however when it does, my voice will waver, but I will continue to say what I have to say, and weep in public.
      I take it as a sign of strength to demonstrate a little bit of not giving a shit about what my culture says about men crying.

      I have no idea if this has any relation to any of our presidents or school shootings.

  3. Interesting write up. Respectfully disagreeing in general with what I believe is your advocacy for the luxury that is privacy.

    While there are times where privacy is desirable, needed and certainly not something as extreme as isolation, two thoughts strike me as I skimmed what you wrote. One, we are not born alone and we do not die alone. Two, divide and conquer. Think Chomsky, I guess. That’s something else though.

    Depending on the individual and the situation, I feel like much can be gained in either situation, whether one is connected to oneself by oneself – or connected and grounded through others. Mind you, privacy is a double edge sword, luxuriate in it too much and you could lose touch with reality, among other things. On a further note – autonomy does not necessarily lead to agency. I would be careful to assign judgement to the observation of this unbundling.

    You do bring up an interesting point about cultivating the self in private without judgment and repercussion. Forgiveness is not a common strong point, so perhaps growth, as messy as it can get, is best done in private. I did not know the rally cry of “information wants to be free” had anything to do with the attempts at persona constructions. I thought it had more to do with a desire to know everything and anything? As a personal aside – I actually don’t think information wants to be free. Real wisdom and knowledge can present it self whenever it wants. The constructions of online public personas have created a torrent of fake realities and fake privacy spheres. I give you that the outing of privacy helps to facilitate hard goods and services. But now I think I’m rambling on a slightly different domain.

    Thanks for reading. But also thanks for writing!

  4. Privacy is a right, and perhaps a luxury too, sometimes. But what a person *does* in privacy is what makes them of the noble or the vile.

    • And if you’ve ever been to an overcrowded city like the inner slums of Mumbai, you will really see how privacy can be a true luxury. It seems that they live their entire lives never being farther than 6 feet from another human.

  5. In some traditional societies, there is a balance and freedom to choose between community and privacy. I specifically had the Piraha in mind, as described by Daniel Everett.

    Their communities are loosely structured and the individual is largely self-determined in how and with whom they use their time. They lack much in the way of formal social structure, since there are no permanent positions of hierarchical authority (e.g., no tribal council of elders), although any given individual might temporarily take a leadership position in order to help accomplish an immediate task. Nor do they have much in the way of ritual or religion.

    Accordingly, Everett observes how laid back, relaxed, and happy they seem. Depression, anxiety, and suicide appear foreign to them. When he told them about a depressed family member who killed herself, the Piraha laughed because assumed he was joking. There was no known case of suicide in the tribe. Even more interesting is that, growing up, the Piraha don’t exhibit transitional periods such as the terrible twos or teenage rebelliousness. They simply go from being weaned to joining adult activities with no one telling them to what to do.

    The modern perceived conflict between group and individual might not be a universal and intrinsic aspect of human society. But it does seem a major issue for WEIRD societies, in particular. Maybe has to do with how ego-bound is our sense of identity. The other thing the Piraha lack is a permanent, unchanging self-identity because such as a meeting with a spirit in the jungle might lead to a change of name and, to the Piraha, the person who went by the previous name no longer is there. They feel no need to defend their individuality because any given individual self can be set aside.

    It is hard for Westerners and Americans most of all to imagine a society that is this far different. It is outside of the mainstream capacity of imagining what is humanly possible. It’s similar to why so many people reject out of hand such theories as Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. Such worldviews simply don’t fit into what we know. But maybe this sense of conflict we cling to is entirely unnecessary.

  6. Romeo Stevens says:

    “The past is a foreign country.” -Hartley

    One that, it seems, must be continually reconquered.

  7. Coming back to this piece, I find so much to respond to. It is thought-provoking, even with my misgivings about the conclusion.

    I understand where the author is coming from, as I’m very much an introvert who values my alone time, although I can’t say that close and regular social contact “fills me with horror.” Having spent years living alone in an apartment and barely knowing my neighbors, I spend little time at my ‘home’ and instead spend most of my time with my family at my parents’ house. Decades of depression has caused me to be acutely aware of the double-edged sword of privacy.

    Let me respond to some specifics of Perry’s argument:

    “Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity.”

    Researchers have compared eating practices. Not all modern societies with equal access to food have equal levels of obesity. Among many other health problems, obesity can result from stress because our bodies prepare for challenging times by accumulating fat reserves. And if there is enough stress, studies have found this is epigenetically passed onto children.

    As a contrast, consider the French culture surrounding food. The French don’t eat much fast food, don’t eat or drink on the go. They sit down to enjoy their coffee in the morning, rather than putting it in a traveling mug to drink on the way to work. Also, they take long lunches to eat leisurely and typically do so with others. For the French, meals are to be enjoyed as a social experience and so they organize their entire society accordingly. Even though they eat many foods that some consider unhealthy, they don’t have the same high rates of stress-related diseases as do Americans.

    “Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy.”

    Using Johan Hari’s perspective, I might rephrase it: Addiction is economically profitable within the hyper-individualism of capitalist realism, and people show a great willingness to pay high costs to feed their addiction. Sure, alleviating the symptom makes people feel better. But what is it a symptom of? That question is key to understanding.

    “One thing that people are said to do with privacy is to luxuriate in it. What are the determinants of this positive experience of privacy, of privacy experienced as a thing in itself, rather than through violation?”

    Perry goes on to describes on to describes the features of privacy, various forms of personal space and enclosure. Of course, Julian Jaynes argued that the ultimate privacy that was invented was individuality itself, the experience of space metaphorically internalized and interiorized. Further development of privacy, however, is a rather modern invention. For example, it wasn’t until recent centuries that private bedrooms became common, having been popularized in Anglo-American culture by Quakers. Before that, full privacy was a rare experience and far from having been considered a human necessity or human right.

    “Everybody knows that everybody poops. Still, you’re not supposed to poop in front of people. The domain of defecation is tacitly edited out of our interactions with other people: for most social purposes, we are expected to pretend that we neither produce nor dispose of bodily wastes, and to keep any evidence of such private. Polite social relations exclude parts of reality by tacit agreement; scatological humor is a reminder of common knowledge that is typically screened off by social agreement. Sex and masturbation are similar.”

    Defecation is a great example. There is no universal experience about the privatization of the act of pooping. In early Europe, relieving oneself in public was common and considered well within social norms. It was a slow ‘civilizing’ process to teach people to be ashamed of bodily functions, even simple things like farting and belching in public. I was intrigued by Susan P. Mattern’s The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/galen-and-the-roman-empire/

    She describes how almost everything in the ancient world was a social experience. Even taking a shit was an opportunity meet and talk with one’s family, friends, and neighbors. They apparently felt no drain of energy or need to perform in this social way of being in the world. It was relaxed and normal to them, simply how they lived and they knew nothing else.

    Even sex and masturbation haven’t always been private acts. We have little knowledge of the ancient world. But Jaynes note that sexuality wasn’t treated as anything particularly concerning and worrisome during the bicameral era. Obsession with sex, positive or negative, only came later. Still, as late as Feudalism, heavily Christianized Europe maintained an open attitude about sexuality during many public celebrations, specifically Carnival, and they spent an amazing amount of their time in public celebrations. Barbara Ehrenreich describes this in Dancing in the Streets. Like the Piraha, these earlier Europeans had a more social and fluid sense of identity.
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/christians-dancing/

    “As I wrote in A Bad Carver, social interaction has increasingly become “unbundled” from other things. This may not be a coincidence: it may be that people have specifically desired more privacy, and the great unbundling took place along that axis especially, in response to demand. Modern people have more room, more autonomy, more time alone, and fewer social constraints than their ancestors had a hundred years ago. To scoff at this luxury, to call it “alienation,” is to ignore that it is the choices of those who are allegedly alienated that create this privacy-friendly social order.”

    There is no doubt what people desire. In any given society, most people desire whatever they are acculturated to desire. Example after example of this can be found the anthropological literature and in classical studies. It’s not obvious to me that there is any evidence that modern people have fewer social constraints. What is clear is that they have different social constraints and that difference seems to have led to immense stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses the rise in depression in particular, as have others such as Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism. The studies on WEIRD cultures are also telling.

    The issue isn’t simply what choices we make but what choices we are offered and denied, what choices we can and cannot perceive or even imagine. And that relates to how we lose contact with the human realities of other societies that embody other possibilities not chosen or even considered within the constraints of our society.

  8. Senthil Gandhi says:

    Privacy is rest. Rest is understood to be a state of non-activity after a period of often intense activity. Primarily aimed at recovery. Rest is in service of the preceding or following activity. I think the inactivity that privacy permits can be rest or sloth depending on the context.

    Humans evolved to be social first, and this grew the brain size to a certain level – which then got diverted into other activities like tool use and exploration. Given this background, I wonder what sort of evolutionary possibility space humans will enter once privacy is taken to its limit. The word muscular atrophy keeps coming to my mind, it could be that these muscles have served their purpose and are no longer needed and will evolve out – or we will enter a new period of Gollums defined more by our atrophies than our abilities. We might already have entered this stage.

  9. “Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity.” It has become increasingly clear that this isn’t true. It is the hormonal effect of highly glycemic carbs and sugar that alter how calories are partitioned. People overeat because they are getting fat, they don’t get fat because they overeat. That is, owing to the actions of insulin and insulin resistance, too many calories are earmarked for storage leaving the person in a state of having to either eat more or move less to replace the calories lost to adipose. Calories in/out is merely descriptive, it is not “why”. I didn’t grow to be 6’4″ during puberty because I “ate more than I burned” though I clearly did do that – hormones partitioned my calories to building height and I got hungry in response to that partitioning. Lowering fasting insulin via carb reduction has been shown to increase satiety, reduce consumption and increase movement spontaneously as the signal to store fat is muted and stored fat is seen by the body as food that can be “eaten”. By far the most successful intervention for obesity in a free living environment is drastic carb reduction with no conscious calorie control.