Review by Alfie Bown
David Vincent, Privacy: A Short History (Polity, 2016)
As an academic researching in the field of medieval studies, I have often come up against the loose argument that ‘in the old days’ people didn’t need or want privacy, even that they had no idea what it was. Everyone slept in the same bed, toileted in the same bathroom and ate at the same table, while never considering any alternatives, or so the medievalist’s story goes. Until sometime around the seventeenth-century, it is assumed, privacy just wasn’t really a thing. Working on Chaucer’s comedy, I have long been struck by how inaccurate this assumption seems to be. Chaucer’s tales are full of hidden acts, closed windows and attempts to escape the watchful eyes of husbands, officials and moralizers. David Vincent’s book redresses this assumption, giving a short history of privacy from the 14th century to the Edward Snowden saga, showing just how complex notions of privacy have been in every century.
Vincent’s book makes a skilled historian’s use of primary sources, and they are rich with fascinating detail. From accounts of medieval subjects complaining about snoopers looking through their windows to building plans for sixteenth-century halls with specially designed ‘private’ spaces, Vincent gives a history of privacy that is not linear but which shows how radically different notions of privacy have been throughout history. At some points in time trends in ideas of privacy have developed slowly, whereas at other points radical breaks have transformed our social conceptions of public and private spaces.
The early history includes some of the most interesting material which, as I’ve said, throws open some of the historical assumptions often made about privacy. Whilst it is true that even well into the seventeenth-century there was a good deal of ad-hoc room use and single rooms serving multiple functions, there was also a development of a need for private and personal space, an emphasis on specific bedrooms and an increase in expenditure on beds as a private space. This continued to develop throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries into something like the 20th century notion of privacy. In each century and within each century, the meanings and associations of the word privacy undergo change.
One of the clearer breaks in the history of privacy is the idea that from the mid-1960s privacy begins to come to its end. Indeed, as Vincent shows, people were declaring the end of the privacy era as early as 1969 as increasing surveillance technology came to characterize life in the modern city. Again using a variety of modern case-studies, Vincent explores the idea that identity itself is open and accessible, no longer private and personal. Even here though, in the open surveillance society, there remain contradictions and complexities. Vincent explores, for example, a survey in which participants were asked ‘how certain do you feel that, if domestic violence was regularly taking place in the five homes or apartments closest to yours, you would know about it?’ Only 6% answer ‘yes’ to the question, pointing to the fact that surveillance does not mean safety and that in certain ways there are forms of private spaces that remain unpenetrated.
Finishing with a powerful discussion of Snowden, Facebook and digital intercourse today, Vincent makes the convincing argument that we suffer from a belief that the internet is organized and centralized, ‘that at the center of the web of surveillance there exists a single all-comprehending mind.’ We could think here of Slavoj Zizek’s idea of the Big Other to whom we address our behavior and who, we imagine, sees everything. When Snowden referred to the NSA as a Foucauldian ‘panopticon’ it demonstrated exactly this assumption: that an all seeing information-gathering eye is penetrating every aspect of our lives at every moment. In fact if Vincent’s book shows anything it is that things are a lot more complex than this, and that they probably always have been. Vincent talks of ‘epistolary anxiety,’ the fear of letters and private words falling into the wrong hands, as a feature of communication since the 15th century. In any case, communication has always been out of our control.
Vincent’s argument has something of an unexpected twist, and he finishes with the suggestion that privacy is not so much dead but distorted. In the age of multiple communication, a proliferation of messages and information and new forms of multi-layered digital communication between friends, comrades and colleagues, there remain forms of private contact between individuals that refuse to be made visible to the panopticon state, the NSA and the eyes of others, forms of communication which remain, in a new way, as private as ever.
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Alfie Bown is the author of ‘Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism‘ (Zero Books, 2015) and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry and Existential Gamer.