Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Privacy has always been an illusion, but a necessary one. The word comes from Latin privus, which means "one's own". The idea that we can own something that nobody else can touch is what makes us persons; if everything we had was shared to some extent, then the only unique thing about us would be the specific configuration of things we shared.

But this age of free information flow is beginning to deprive (to separate, to alienate) us of privacy's illusion. The logical consequence of everything about you being shared to some extent by others is that you may no longer be a unique identity; your information can be duplicated and the sum of what you are may be shared.

Hold on, though. Most people would agree that a person is more than just a state of being, but a time-bound entity filled with memories and experiences. That, unfortunately, is more accurately described as 'an entity with the perception of being time-bound, filled with edited information purporting to be a record of past events, bearing the marks of experiences which are ill-defined and sometimes imaginary.'

The problem, as we have learnt over the last 20 years, is that our brains are always shifting. The curse of humanity, we have come to know, is not that our brains don't regenerate, but that they do, and they also shift configurations and modify memories and change the nuances of what we think, even before we know anything is there to be thought. We are the sum of mental processes we can't control, if we are the sum of such things at all.

In fact, some people have come to realise that the more people share a person, the more that person lives on in more dimensions. A person who is 'larger than life' is simply one whose total impact on others is much more than the usual. My grandparents, all deceased, live on in some legendary sense — people who were taught by them, who had experiences with them, tell me stories that seem true to me (and probably are true as far as those people know) about them. When we say that memories live on, that is true; but like living things, they change and mutate before reproducing again.

This is a problem of cultural anthropology and ethnography. You grow up in an environment. You tacitly learn its rules. You learn what you can say, what you should do, and so on. But if you don't commit all these things meticulously to another medium, it remains tacit knowledge, shifty and ill-defined. It becomes private knowledge, set apart only for you, and perhaps applicable only to you; in the extreme, there's something schizoid about it.

But all cultures thrive on shared experiences and shared rules, no matter how untrue or unreal they are. That is how myths and legends define societies — in this day and age, none more so than the myths and legends of science and information technology. 'Privacy' used to mean 'deprivation' — it may yet come full cycle in this age.

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