I imagine, and not entirely without reason, that there was a time when nothing was ‘private’, except maybe the goings on inside your head. Life was lived mostly in the open, communities were small, kinship-related, and so people knew everybody in their vicinity, and so everyone knew, to some extent, what everyone was like, and what everyone was up to.
But then our civilisations grew up. Villages turned into towns turned into cities. People stopped living in family compounds, and began to live in family units, and very recently, alone. What went on inside a property wasn’t known to those on the outside. And not only did we create the ‘private’, but we enshrined it as a right – the right not to have others know.
And yet now, in the most isolated time in history, technology is turning it all on its head again. The nature of the internet, and the spawning of social networking, is restructuring our society. People are giving up their privacy for connection. Once you share on the internet, you have shared with everybody. It’s there, always, for everyone to see, despite what ‘privacy’ settings you have. And as other technology invades our society – device tracking, proliferation of cctv, integration of databases, consumer profiling – the internet becomes the gateway to a kind of public life many of aren’t even aware we’re having.
Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen. What it does mean is that we will need to make a psychological shift: the private is public again. In fact, we are better off assuming that all our life is public. Despite society’s late 20th century rejection of public or social morality, I suspect the internet will mean the end of private morality in one sense, and the rebirth of a public morality, though of a very different kind in this post-Christendom context. The censure and judgment of online life will become, in its own way, the social ostracism and exclusion of many far earlier close-knit public communities.