Privacy as ‘a Modern Invention’

by on May 27, 2009 · 26 comments

I’m reading a couple of interesting books right now [see my Shelfari list here] including Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy by Lawrence Friedman of the Stanford School of Law.  The book examines the legal and social norms governing privacy, reputation, sex, and morals over the past two centuries.  It’s worth putting on your reading list. [Here's a detailed review by Neil Richards.]  I might pen a full review later but for now I thought I would just snip this passage from the concluding chapter:

In an important sense, privacy is a modern invention. Medieval people had no concept of privacy.  They also had no actual privacy. Nobody was ever alone. No ordinary person had private space.  Houses were tiny and crowded.  Everyone was embedded in a face-to-face community. Privacy, as idea and reality, is the creation of a modern bourgeois society.  Above all, it is a creation of the nineteenth century.  In the twentieth century it became even more of a reality. [p. 258]

In a time when amorphous “rights” to privacy seem to be multiplying like wildflowers, this is an important insight from Friedman.  In my opinion, many of the creative privacy theories being concocted today are often based on false nostalgia about some forgotten time in the past when we supposedly all had our own little quiet spaces that were completely free from privacy intrusions.  But as Friedman makes clear, this is largely a myth.  It’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate issues out there today.  But it’s important that we place modern privacy issues in a larger historical context and understand how many of today’s concerns pale in comparison to the problems of the past.

[Note: If you're interested in this topic, you'll also want to read Daniel Solove's The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.  Also, here's Jim Harper's review of it.]

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    Yup. File privacy away with other pernicious modern amorphous 'rights' like universal suffrage and the 40 hour work week. Wouldn't want progress to sneak in anywhere ;)

  • Timon

    I think the quote is partly wrong. In the medieval period it was possible for a king to disguise himself as a commoner and move around unnoticed in his own city — nothing about a person's identity followed them beyond a tiny circle of intimates. And if you doubt they frequently had actual privacy you should read El Libro de buen amor!

    You could equally say that the 19th century origins of contemporary “privacy” were a reaction to the loss of the hard kind that existed prior to last names, state bureaucracies, passports, birth certificates, etc. There are two idealizations happening here — one of a mythic pre-privacy past, and then the “invention” of privacy — a concept that appears as early as traditional Jewish law (Bava Batra, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4, to the effect that you can't put windows where you would be looking into other people's homes.)

    Think back to when you were in college how ridiculous it was when people would talk about the “invention” of capitalism in 1880 via some Marxian logical contortion — as if people hadn't been buying and selling since Mammoths roamed free. It is very rare for animals to invent new behavior, humans included. People resent nosiness and intrusions into their business, there is a very heavy burden on anyone trying to prove that there was once a time when they didn't.

  • http://jerrybrito.com/ Jerry Brito

    You know what other rights people didn't have in the medieval period? Speech, religion, property, etc.

  • MikeRT

    In a time when amorphous “rights” to privacy seem to be multiplying like wildflowers, this is an important insight from Friedman. In my opinion, many of the creative privacy theories being concocted today are often based on false nostalgia about some forgotten time in the past when we supposedly all had our own little quiet spaces that were completely free from privacy intrusions.

    And at the top of them: Roe vs. Wade. That ruling did more to bring discredit to the notion of a legal right to privacy than any other since it put infanticide under the protection of privacy rights.

  • http://www.geekactivism.com/ Devan

    It's not a modern innovation, it's a modern problem. With pervasive electronic surveillance, Internet and other technologies, the problems associated with privacy never existed 30 years ago… let alone medievel times.

  • http://nolancaudill.com/ Nolan

    Privacy is not a modern invention at all. In fact, the founding fathers made sure to mention it as a right as the 4th amendment, allowing people to be secure in their possessions. This seems to give people a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  • Bob

    Whoever thinks that privacy is a new-fangled invention should read (among other things) David Flaherty's book on “Privacy in Colonial New England” I just turned to the section in chapter 3 titled “A Man's Home is his Castle”, which quotes a section from Sir Edward Coke (1605) about the sanctity of the home. Flaherty's analysis also points out that the immunity of a dwelling had its origins in acient times, biblical literature, and Roman law.

  • Bob

    Whoever thinks that privacy is a new-fangled invention should read (among other things) David Flaherty's book on “Privacy in Colonial New England” I just turned to the section in chapter 3 titled “A Man's Home is his Castle”, which quotes a section from Sir Edward Coke (1605) about the sanctity of the home. Flaherty's analysis also points out that the immunity of a dwelling had its origins in acient times, biblical literature, and Roman law.

  • Bob

    Whoever thinks that privacy is a new-fangled invention should read (among other things) David Flaherty's book on “Privacy in Colonial New England” I just turned to the section in chapter 3 titled “A Man's Home is his Castle”, which quotes a section from Sir Edward Coke (1605) about the sanctity of the home. Flaherty's analysis also points out that the immunity of a dwelling had its origins in acient times, biblical literature, and Roman law.

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