Privacy and Personhood in a World Without Mystery

The old adage, “Know your customer,” has been carried to extremes. Are these invasions of privacy starting to unravel our very notion of personhood? Credit: Creative Commons/Deyan Sedlarski (

It will not do merely to complain about the widespread and outrageous invasions of privacy that citizens of the developed world constantly suffer, nor to legislate against them one by one. If we really want to fix the privacy problem, we have to identify the underlying shift in society’s attitudes towards what it means to be a person.

These invasions of our privacy come from government, which subjects our emails, our phone calls, our movements, our financial affairs, and many aspects of our behavior to meticulous surveillance. These invasions come from our employers, who monitor our performance and nonperformance in the workplace. They come from the marketplace, where the old adage, “know your customer,” has been carried to extremes that could not have been imagined as recently as ten years ago. From grocery store loyalty cards and the “customer analytics” that they support to our credit card transaction histories and our web browsing histories—these data sources are now all collated and analyzed to allow prospective vendors to target us in their advertising ever more accurately. Our mere participation in the marketplace exposes us to a never-ending onslaught of intrusive appeals to purchase and to consume.

We may ask ourselves whether these invasions of privacy are something new, or whether they are merely contemporary versions of perennial patterns of social behavior. Naturally, the technology that supports information-gathering and analysis is quite new. But government surveillance has often been intense; before electronic eavesdropping was available, neighbors were enlisted to spy on each other and report to the intelligence-gathering bureaucracy. The sweatshops and factory floors of the nineteenth and early twentieth century did not allow any solitude or privacy in the first place, and supervisors constantly monitored the workplace. The consumer marketplace, however, does appear to have been a less monitored environment in the years leading up to the 1960s. Before credit cards became widespread, when most transactions were carried out with cash rather than bank checks, one could buy a vanilla ice cream cone without being solicited to buy vanilla milkshakes and related products because the purchase of the cone left no “tracks.” It was the shift to credit cards and other “money substitutes” that facilitated the intense monitoring we take for granted today—and perhaps we should view that as something new.

But the real shift is something much, much deeper. It has to do with our conception of personhood and the notion of mystery as it relates to personhood.

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