One of the constant themes of our time is the protection of personal data. Sometimes we are shocked to discover what is collected about us not only by governments, but also by private corporations. This happens regardless of whether we agree with it or not.
Many laws regarding it have been passed, but the situation has not actually improved. Quite the opposite: Increasingly sophisticated technology is making it possible to store more and more data and to find a larger amount of information about specific people, and in many cases the law allows for it to be collected. For example, in many European countries the police can track mobile phone data without a warrant.
There are some people who are trying to oppose this trend, but the main problem the data protection community runs into is that the vast majority of people don’t mind it at all. If you ask a clerk at your nearest store whether she is bothered by the fact that her children’s health data is being stored in a central database somewhere, will she have a problem with it? Probably not. Similarly, most people who use Google and Microsoft every day likewise have no idea what information of theirs is being tracked and stored by them, nor who they sell it to. And they don’t care.
This raises two key questions: What are the reasons for this loss of interest in privacy, and what further developments we can expect in this area?
More surveillance than under the Communists
The loss of interest in privacy is a relatively new issue. I still remember a student party in Prague that took place in February 1990, shortly after the overthrow of the Communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia. The party was held in a school that had previously trained the Communist cadres.
There were security cameras set up all over the building, and I still remember how sick we felt when we found out. We thought that such things had disappeared for good with the Communist regime.
But this isn’t only about cameras anymore, nor is it solely about the traditional privacy concerns surrounding cash and gun ownership. In 1990 we never would have believed that there would soon come a time when a democratic government
- would collect data on every single purchase, regardless of how small, made by every single citizen;
- would deploy sensors in private homes to track every time its residents turn on the water;
- would give its agents the power to search through the trash of ordinary citizens; and
- would deploy cameras in some family-owned businesses to monitor what is going on them.
This isn’t only the result of the development of new technologies, either. Much of what I mentioned was already technologically feasible, at least to some extent, in the 1980s, but it would have been expensive, and the Communist regime was not that rich. Most importantly, even if such things had been done then, the regime would have been ashamed of it and denied it. This fact makes the fact that the allegedly democratic regimes of today’s West don’t even bother to hide the fact that they are doing these things all the more absurd.
What do we need privacy for?
What has changed that makes it perfectly normal for a democratic regime to breach privacy in a way that was difficult to imagine under Communism? A superficial explanation might be that the new ideologies, which regard us as being on the edge of man-made environmental catastrophe, see it as absolutely necessary and justified to monitor every individual’s carbon footprint, even to the point of allowing drastic intrusions into personal freedoms. The same could be said about sexual harassment and terrorism.
But in fact massive surveillance of citizens was already underway before 2000, and even then it did not meet with much public resistance. The new woke ideologies may have reinforced it, but they are not the root cause. I therefore offer a different explanation — one that is not the only factor, but I believe is nevertheless a key one.
There have been fairly radical changes in marriage and reproductive behavior, and this has brought about a new conception of intimacy as a result. If the view of marriage and partnership is changing, and if typical life plans are also changing, so too is the view of what parts of the body, what situations, and what details can be shared and what needs to be protected. If I am no longer bothered that detailed information about my sexuality is freely available, then I probably won’t see it as something I need to protect. The idea is also becoming more widespread that the only people who want to keep their data private are those who are engaged in illegal or immoral conduct. Privacy is thus becoming an obsolete joke.
On erotic capital
I refer those who want to understand more about this idea to the relevant literature, especially Professor Catherine Hakim’s theory of erotic capital. To summarize:
- In Western societies, and in the vast majority of societies I know, the guardians of sexual morality are women. Women decide what practices are permissible, under what circumstances, how quickly intimacy can occur, what they can share of their intimacy and with whom, and so on.
- We all have a tendency to behave rationally (or to choose a morality that is compatible with our rational interests), and this includes sexuality. A woman therefore behaves in such a way as to get the most she can for what she provides to a man.
- Changes in the economy, and especially changes in welfare programs, have dramatically changed the conditions in this “market.” If women of my mother’s generation could exchange their sexuality for a lifetime of protection and fidelity, women of my daughters’ generation only think of a few hours or days of romantic behavior.
- If the exchange value of what is being provided is reduced, more aggressive marketing is needed and, conversely, the need to protect assets disappears. It is no longer something that can be exchanged for a lifelong relationship. Should any woman choose such a strategy, a man can easily buy the same thing elsewhere more cheaply. Instead, there is a need to provide free tastings, introduce product bundles, and apply other aggressive sales techniques.
- Thus, it makes no sense to invest in hiding the body and other intimate matters. In the last decade, women have routinely shown parts of their bodies on beaches that even prostitutes did not show a few decades ago. Leaked intimate photos are an embarrassment, but they are certainly no longer devastating. A few years ago photographs of the breasts of the Czech Republic’s Minister of Education were leaked to the media without any negative impact on her career. Moreover, they were not stolen photos, but had been taken in public.
- Sexuality cannot be separated from other areas of life. If we resign ourselves to protecting something so intimate, we have resigned ourselves to protecting privacy altogether. The trend is spreading, and affects both men and women as well as all areas of life.
What is the prognosis for the future? We can probably we count on the overall impoverishment of societies to lead to the recovery of families and other small groups. Social benefits will be reduced, because indebted Western countries will not be able to afford them. The ability to grow or produce something will be very important for a segment of society. The role of men with physical strength and technical skills will increase.
But will this also entail a return of traditional sexual morality? Personally, I’m skeptical. Putting aside the transgender craze, it seems that Western societies are returning to older, pre-Christian patterns characterized by looser behavior and fewer demands for privacy. If this is indeed the case, then we will not get rid of surveillance. Most people won’t mind. Only a few weirdos will protect their privacy, at a fairly high cost.
One of the things that distinguishes our civilization will then disappear because the Chinese, for example, don’t mind being monitored by the authorities. It’s not only a question of Communism, ether, as this has been a distinguishing feature of their civilization even prior to that time.
But I could be wrong, of course.
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