Earlier today, Amanda Marcotte posted an interesting tweet:
This reminded me of a couple of things. One was this old xkcd:
Another was this even older post of mine about “Why I Post Under a Pseudonym,” in which I say, among other things:
First, I teach at a college. Many of my students look me up on Google. If I blogged under my real name, they would immediately find this site. I already catch them spouting opinions which they take to be mine in an attempt to make points. If I were to make hundreds of posts in which I give my opinions about virtually every possible subject so easy for them to find, I could expect to encounter that sort of thing every day.
Second, I often tell little stories about people I know. Since I use a pseudonym and do not identify these people, the reader cannot be expected to know who they are. Even readers who know me and recognize the characters may find something of the detachment of fiction in a story published under a pseudonym. If I were to use my real name, however, I would have an obligation to give the others a right to rebut what I have written about them.
Third, I am not the sole author of this site. Others post here, still others comment here. Some of these are people who are connected to me in some identifiable way (for example, my wife) and who may occasionally make remarks here that they would not want to share with everyone in the world. If I obscure my identity by using a pseudonym, those others may be able to preserve some measure of privacy.
When I first read the xkcd comic above, I thought of that phrase “some measure of privacy,” and saw it as potentially misleading. “Privacy” is a problematic word for anything that one puts online. “Detachment” might be better. That I’ve published hundreds of items over a period of more than seven years, some of them quite lengthy, some expressed with fervor, under the name “Acilius” shows that Acilius and his creator are to some extent the same person. But only to some extent; important as the opinions expressed in those items may be to Acilius’ creator, he is at the end of the day a human being, who would still exist even if he changed or abandoned every opinion he had ever held, while Acilius, as an online persona, is nothing more than the sum of those opinions and the sensibility that informs them. That’s why I don’t take any steps to make it particularly difficult for tech-savvy readers to identify Acilius with his creator.
“Private sex photos” would for this reason be in a different category from online commenting personae. Bodies and their sexual responses are usually closer to the core of what makes a human being into a coherent self than are any set of opinions. I’m not saying that it’s always easy to draw bright lines between opinions and sexual responses; one opinion might translate into disgust where another might promote arousal, and vice versa. But I would say that if someone confronted me, in real life, with an opinion that had appeared under the name of Acilius, I would have an entirely different set of options as to how to respond to that confrontation than I would have if someone were to confront me with a graphic image of me engaged in sexual activity.
That also suggests the difference between data-hacking that results in the public exposure of “private sex photos” and data-hacking that results in the hijacking of financial information. Banks, credit card companies, and other financial services companies usually offer at least partial refunds of moneys stolen by that sort of hijacking, and those refunds represent at least partial remedies for the injury caused. But there is no refunding any part of that which is lost when “private sex photos” become public.
While “privacy” is not the same thing today that it was before the digital revolution, it still isn’t some of the things it wasn’t then. It isn’t now, and never has been, at all the same thing as secrecy. A secret is something that cannot be made general knowledge unless those who know it choose to reveal it. So the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes are not secret; anyone looking at you can probably form an estimate of these things to a rather high degree of accuracy.
Privacy, though, is a concept from the economy of the gift. We as a society have decided that definite knowledge of the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes is a gift which you have the right to share with or withhold from certain people under certain circumstances. Granted, there are other people to whom we must give this knowledge because of some relation in which they stand to us; for example, medical professionals attending our cases, fellow members of military organizations in which we may find ourselves obligated to serve, etc. But most of us are in these situations for a finite portion of our lives, and when all is well these situations are themselves governed by well-defined and rigorously enforced rules.
If, as Ms Marcotte puts it, “men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos,” and these claims carry the day, then privacy disappears altogether. If people who do not stand in any specific relation to us can take as a matter of right what previously we had made available only as a gift, then such things cease to be possible as gifts. Not only do photos and other graphic representations of nudity or sexual behavior under those circumstances, but also nudity and sexual behavior themselves lose some of the fragile qualities that make each revelation of nudity and each sexual act such an uncommonly precious gift. The body responds to every stimulus in its environment, consciously or unconsciously; a sex act involves every aspect of the context in which its participants find themselves. To make a gift of nudity, to make a gift of a sex act, is to make a gift of oneself as one is at that moment, to give everything and withhold nothing. Even disguises and role-playing and the like only reveal oneself to one’s partner. Surrender that, not as a gift to a partner, but as payment of a debt collected by a third party, and the economy of gift yields everything to the economy of the marketplace.