Monday, August 5, 2013

The Doors of Privacy

“… there must be unity without confusion and distinction without separation.
Vladimir Solovyov, The Justification of the Good

Following closely on the previous article on meaning, let us try to apply our thinking to one situation blowing up in the world today. A quick survey shows that Edward Snowden’s flight across the globe is being followed by many, while Wikileaks and the Right to Information Acts have been opening up closets all over the globe. The chances of the governments, corporations and the public getting to know one’s specific details are higher than ever, via technology. Simultaneously, there is a demand for transparency and privacy. The paparazzi phenomenon and gossip columns have created a virtual industry by themselves, detailing every move taken by a celebrity or a public figure. The trial of Bradley Manning has shown how he was caught between guarding secrets and making them transparent. If one can clear out this thicket of publicized debates and arguments on security, the scandals and gossip columns, public and private information, the hacking of passwords and the withholding of information on product labels, if one can keep the mind off all those branches, in the very midst of them lies The Question, the elephant in the room which has been shrunk to the size of a dog, which raises it trunk and trumpets meekly “If I may ask, what IS privacy?” Yes, indeed, what is privacy, what is the point of it, and how does it relate to secrecy? 

It is not that the question is not addressed, but it is talked about, assumed, referred to, discussed, elaborated, argued… basically everything except providing a real answer. And there are good reasons for this hesitation, as normally, the answer is elusive… most often, one relies on an inner “comfort sense” to decide on questions of privacy. It is quite impossible to think about questions of privacy without thinking of the effects of spilling one’s own secrets to the world… and hence it is much easier to allow that inner sense to rule, to tell us when to keep quiet and when to disclose, when to be outraged by an invasion and when to demand information. And hence, relying on this sense, we run our lives, and the law-makers have drafted a maze of laws, of what is legal and what is not. So on the one hand we look outwards to what is legal, (resulting from an ‘average’ of the comfort sense of the law-makers) and on the other, inwards to our own inner sense of comfort to help us decide what is what regarding privacy.

However, this situation cannot be sustained… for one thing, not everyone’s inner sense is the same. Every culture has a different inner sense compared to the others, and also varying laws. In one culture, asking about one’s family can be seen as invasive, in another, questioning one’s superior can be seen as probing. In one culture, sexuality might be kept under wraps, while in another, mental trouble can remain unacknowledged. Similarly, by scanning its historical development, one can see that notions of privacy have undergone tremendous upheaval in the times gone by, depending a lot on the century and even the decade. In other words, with such widely varying answers given by this ‘comfort sense’ of privacy, how can we make sense of it? Today, people of every cultural background and personality encounter one another on a daily basis. Do we just throw up our hands, let the different “senses” average themselves out, and then be satisfied with the outcome? Is what we deem private something that is up for a public vote? What is to become of our own inner sense, if what we thought was private suddenly becomes public, or vice versa? That is precisely the situation being faced by individuals at the present moment, and that is the direction for our journey of understanding.

Hence, from different sides, one can see that it is necessary to get to the bottom of it, to identify some clear foundation for our thinking, about what privacy actually is, and what its role is. It will involve some discomfort as we poke and prod our sense of comfort, the sense that is generally not dislodged as we flip between public and private every day.

First off, if we attempt to define privacy with respect to the individual in some way, there are immediate obstacles. For instance, if we say that a private matter is whatever a person does that does not negatively affect others, we will have to specify what does NOT affect the persons around us, and what is negative. Is it possible for one to be isolated and not affect the surroundings? Being in a society, our innermost judgments and feelings, sympathies and antipathies have an effect that passes over into daily life. A private indulgence, say, one obtained by purchasing a diamond or fur, can have repercussions in Africa or Indonesia. Even a single hostile feeling, which we hold in our “private” minds, can have massive repercussions, be it the effect on a child who can directly sense it, be it the extra aggression at the wheel, or the beggar whom we ignore on our way to work, or the shade of bias that tilts the scale in a murder case. For every definition we provide for privacy, reality will provide an exception, and for every reason we can consider a human being as isolated from his environment, reality will give a way in which that isolation is seen not to be absolute. 

On the other hand, the same reasoning also works in the opposite fashion. For every reason that we can provide to prove that a person is the NOT distinct from his environment, that he is merged with it, there is an opposition as well. Every genius born in the midst of war and poverty, every person who has raised himself or herself above circumstances which have discouraged others, every teenager opposing the house rules, every twin that has a single different feeling from the other twin is living proof that a person is not just the stereotype of his origins or his environment. So, in trying to establish the boundary of a human being, to determine privacy, we have two opposing ideas. One says that the individual is isolated, and there is a clear boundary. The other says, that the individual is not separated, but simply a part of the collective. Both appear to be true and both appear to be false. This is a logical contradiction, and we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Since the reality is what it is, it makes no sense to find fault in it, we can only question our logic. Our search for the boundary of a human being has brought us to a boundary of logic itself, at least as old as Aristotle. No wonder that this aspect is generally passed on to our inner sense, and also no wonder that debates, all based on this logic, continue to rage. Hence, pictorially or conceptually we can never draw a static diagram like this:

At this point, we must ask, is there a way of really grasping a concept in without the above form? Does this mean that our concepts have to be illogical and irrational? On the contrary, it means that we must associate the right reality with the right concept, for example, the above diagram would work very well for anything in the mineral world. One can keep a stone in vacuum, and the boundary will not disintegrate. That is the hint about the perfect suitability of Aristotlean logic to solid objects with defined shapes.

What is the next level of thinking that is possible? Here is where the key provided by Solovyov in the opening quote is so valuable, it is a form of thinking that is capable of keeping things united without confusion and distinct without separation. To anyone steeped in mathematics and the natural sciences, those words might appear gibberish or completely abstract. But what is being described is a form of organic thinking, indeed a thinking that is in agreement with living organisms. Centuries ago, zen koans and many other scriptures had precisely this sort of content, to enable the mind to grasp life. Take the simplest cell, and it is indeed at one with its environment (unity), as it constantly circulates matter in and out of it, and yet it is distinct from the environment, as a cell. The boundary is not absolute and not blurred, but semi-permeable, fluid and mobile. Just as exact logical thinking works very well with rocks and mechanics, at the very least an equally exact organic thinking will be necessary to understand the living world, of which humans are a part.

It should be noted that there is a vital difference here, between thinking about the organic world and thinking organically. One can still define, describe and elaborate all sorts of functions in the biological world using straightforward mechanical logic, such as the DNA structure, chemical reactions, nutrient intake, or bone densities. Even the contradictory concept of “open system” can be juggled with. But it is impossible to apply this line of thought to really describe the process of life itself; hence due to this form of thought, life has always remained enigmatic to scientific understanding.

So now, only by adopting this living idea of thinking, can we come back to the enigma of the individual within the society, and hence of privacy. An individual is by no means isolated, nor a stereotype of his surroundings, but unique and distinct. There is a unique “point”-- the conscious individual -- that can never be diagrammed but is present nevertheless. This distinct individual concerns himself or herself with the likes and dislikes, and the deep inner drives for acting in the outside world, which forms the sphere of influence, or “body” of this private world. The only door of entry and exit for accessing this private world, is the conscious individual, and all that proceeds from the person to the outside world, as a transformation of these impulses, is the “public domain”. For an inaccurate visual (all the boundaries are intrinsically false), we can use the following image:

By studying this concept, and working with it, we can derive the answers in a living fashion to the questions raised at the beginning of this article. We can understand the private domain of an individual as the portion of passions, drives and feelings which the person is working with, and organizing into something that is of use to all, and reaches the public domain. We can also understand the work of the society to nourish the individual, and to provide the right impulses from outside. Both must exist simultaneously, when individuals are not sufficiently interested in each other’s well being (no external nourishment) or when the individual does not interest himself or herself with anything in the public domain but resides solely in one’s likes and dislikes, the “cell” breaks down and starts dying.

From this aspect, we can observe that the analysis of the lives of people by others can accurately be described as dissection, when done without permission. This is particularly true with respect to those in artistic fields, who reach deepest down into their impulses and perturb their private world a lot, leading to perturbed private lives. The responsibility of society is to protect and nourish such individuals, as opposed to the paparazzi nature of dissection, or the spying undertaken of individual data. Both these actions cruelly rip open the private being of the individual, one due to curiosity and one due to a misplaced sense of justice. Transparency in the public domain, and privacy of the personal domain, with the conscious mutual interworking of both would be necessary for law to exist. It is on this basis that laws can be drawn up, otherwise any law that rests on the isolated side or the publicity side alone will only work harm.

Taking this further, just as individuals are unique, every collection of individuals is also unique; hence the cultural variations in privacy can be understood. Cultures vary in the level of interest of the community in the individual, AND the individual’s capacity and natural desire to work for the entire community. With time, both the individual and the community have to evolve, and as cultures and traditions derive from earlier forms of community, we can identify how the two are balanced within every culture, and how it varies within a single culture over a time period. The balance and regulation that exists in the organic world has to penetrate our thought processes, and proceed to regulate the private and the public world. This appears to be the vital prerequisite to cease the endless debates and open the door to more useful work.

Knock knock.