“Privacy means that everyone can seek his own happiness, and do it in his own way. Privacy worthy of the name includes freedom of belief and thought, freedom from unwanted disturbance and harassment, from being pressured by the community, by society, or the state”
Wolfgang Sofsky’s “Privacy – A Manifesto” is a 130-page reflection on some of the deepest, most intimate, and intrinsically self-protecting concerns that human beings have had since the dawn of time, as individuals who are part of a community and under a form of government. With a particular attention to details and a touch of finesse that is reminiscent to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, the author manages to deconstruct every aspect that lays at the foundation of the notion of privacy, while also employing a sociological perspective for the purpose of pointing to the various actions, conducts, and norms that lead to infringements of intimacy. However, unlike Orwell’s magnum opus, there isn’t a Winston Smith around whom the story revolves – instead, Anton B., a completely ordinary middle-aged man of our times, is the protagonist only during the first chapter of the book, as a mean of legitimizing the issue of privacy and helping the reader relate to the idea that in the contemporary society, the concepts of secrecy, solitude, and intimacy are ambiguous and rely on a consensual absence of recording means. Anton B., despite temporarily living under the illusion of privacy, has his digital data stored whenever he makes calls, browses the internet, makes purchases with his credit card, or uses the GPS device in his car; furthermore, he is being recorded by security cameras during almost every step he takes outside the house, and has his arrival and departure times monitored by the administrators of the building he lives in and of the company he works for. Unlike Winston Smith, he still has a certain amount of free will to exercise throughout his daily life and doesn’t have to fear being taken to Room 101 for his disapproving thoughts. Yet the developments of human societies have led to the point in which privacy was declared a universal and fundamental right – as stipulated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and it is this very reason that becomes a subject of concern in the status-quo surveillance-obsessed social conduct.
The author does a remarkable job at encapsulating the key historic moments when the notion of privacy has shifted, in relation to the various forms of government and the religious institutions involved: first of all there is the example of Ancient Rome where the citizen’s life was separated between publicus (the actions performed in an open, inclusive place that provided for unconcealed exchanges), and privatus (apart from the state affairs, performed as an individual; connected with, or pertaining, a private person; privately, in a private capacity). Afterwards, the early Renaissance period is presented as an era of increased restrictions and the emergence of laws and customs concerning what can and what cannot be done within the walls of the household. Wealth had to be declared to the local authorities, constructions were regulated, and family affairs have become a subject of public interest. Additionally, the Church had become an important collaborator of the polity, by providing a model of conduct for families and individuals, thus ensuring a high degree of social uniformity and obedience. The French Revolution, despite separating the state affairs from those of the church, had imposed unprecedented norms whose infringement could result in one’s head being put through a guillotine: the families and their children, who now belonged to the republic, had to drop their traditional dialects and speak a standardized French, sport national flag-colored clothing, and adopt a corresponding common-will-oriented lifestyle. A breakthrough of the pre-Napoleonic era, as emphasized by the author, had been that of allowing married couples to divorce on grounds that also include irreconcilable differences – though, for considerations regarding his external policies, Napoleon would broaden the husband’s rights and prohibit divorce by 1816.
The presented facts are not meant constitute just a history lesson, but rather an overview on the way in which privacy has evolved. Furthermore, in the seventh chapter, entitled “Private Spaces”, the author mentions how the contemporary concept of having a personal room was regarded as a luxury until the second half of the 20th century when urbanization became more widespread. Therefore, the relationship that leads to the attainment of privacy is not linked only to the social and political movements, but also to the various stages of human development.
If one was to define the book from the point of view of political philosophy, it would be a very liberal statement against any third party actor who might be interested in an individual’s affairs – regardless the nature of the considerations that lie behind the reasons. The paternalistic state is not presented as being better than the malicious criminal. The individual is sovereign over his or her actions to the extent that even suicide is depicted as an act of profound and radical freedom that the polity tries to blame on various external factors and mental illnesses (when, in fact, nobody will ever be able to tell what the one who took his or her life actually had in mind).
In a way, Wolfgang Sofsky reiterates the Rousseaunian “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” idea: since the individual is sovereign, he or she possesses the free will and legitimate right to withdraw from certain activities or acts, even though they are a part of the norm. An important emphasis is put on the “reality show” culture that revolves around a transparent lifestyle in which people willingly expose details about their personal lives just because it is a heavily-promoted cultural phenomenon. Thus it is not just the state, the church, and human communities that take the blame for the sheep-like behavior of the individual. Every person is responsible for the creation and assertion of the personal public identity, and the extent to which this identity resembles or reflects the inner-self is a matter of choice.
Whilst some observations of the author might seem far-fetched and outdated in various political contexts, one must keep in mind that one of the most significant premises of the book is that privacy changes over time and it is the sum of all the actors involved that produces the outcome. Therefore, despite governmental claims for increased security and commercial interest showed towards their costumers’ lifestyle, it is the individual around whom the actions revolve around, and his actions and decisions also influence the process. The readers are encouraged to reconsider their behavior and think critically in regard to the way they are subjected to surveillance, so that they might find a way to withdraw from certain undertakings and thus regain a part of their sovereignty. “Privacy – A Manifesto” is a manifesto for decency and discretion; the readers are not encouraged to start violent protests and try to regain their rights by virtue of force, but are made aware of the various ways in which their privacy had been compromised and are thus invited to reflect upon their lifestyle’s transparency.
The reviewed edition of the book is a translation done by Steven Randall in 2008, one year after the original was published in German as “Verteidigung des Privaten: Eine Streitschrift”. A hard copy can be purchased from Amazon by following the link: http://www.amazon.com/Privacy-A-Manifesto-Wolfgang-Sofsky/dp/0691136726