Wilfried Eckstein, Goethe-Institut Washington The Impulse for P3M5

Why privacy? Why theater? Why P3M5? At the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference 2016 in Washington, DC, Wilfried Eckstein, the director of the Goethe-Institut Washington, answered these questions as he gave the following remarks to a gathering of theaters from across the United States.

Privacy today is not what privacy used to be. Digitalization has changed the notion of privacy. Digitalization is in everything we do: the purchase with a debit card of a cup of coffee or a gallon of gas or some new shoes, or our orders on online platforms or a chat or a photo on one of the many social media sites. Whatever we do, whenever we expose ourselves, we are becoming part of the digital world. Whether we walk or drive on the Autobahn with GPS or location services turned on – we are part of the electronic traffic and we leave data shadows behind us which are beyond our control. We may call this virtual reality, but it is very real.

Digitalization has changed our world. Everything is in transformation nowadays: from early childhood education, to friendship requests, to the production and distribution of local or world news, to, last but not least, our privacy. However, the speed and extent of this transformation is perceived differently. Some people don’t notice. Some trade their privacy for the promise of security. Others they feel comfortable and welcome suggestions for new friends or new books or new clothes from big data.

But all this implies a reformatting of privacy not as an abstract legal term but as our basis for self-determination: what we want to keep to ourselves and what and when we want to share with whomever.

You all remember, of course, Edward Snowden, who revealed secrets of the NSA spying program. The European tensions surrounding the so-called NSA Scandal revealed that the belief in one universal notion of privacy can become a source of misunderstanding.

A few months later, the European Court of Justice confirmed the Right to be Forgotten. The idea behind this right is that people can determine the development of their life in an autonomous way. In practical terms, they can demand social media companies delete certain things about them. This has caused consternation on the American side. In the US, some fear that this opens a backdoor to censorship, so they reject this as an infringement on the Freedom of Expression. There are many more examples which can illustrate different interpretations of privacy.  What we learn from this is that there are dramatically different approaches when it comes to privacy.

The transatlantic discord over privacy and data protection is still going on. It exposes fissures in what is supposed to be a foundation of shared social and political ideals among western democracies. If we actually compare our habits and traditions as they are expressed in social norms and codes of interaction, we discover that values vary from country to country. And so does the notion of privacy. Therefore, we have developed this Plurality of Privacy Project [P3] and invite you to join. We want to discover the variety of viewpoints within our globalized world.

This project examines the assumption that there is not only one notion of privacy – but many notions and nuances. We assume that a concept such as privacy reflects that country’s culture and identity.

And this is where the arts are essential in this discussion. The human interest in autonomy and security is modulated by the culture that shapes each of us as individuals in a distinct society. Art is the medium in which cultural identity is expressed best. The arts speak to matters of self-reflection and self-determination. Theater creates a space in which existential questions can be asked, where we can challenge whether something makes sense and modify societal relationships. That’s why we’re attempting our approach on the stage. It’s there that we can develop diverse ideas and challenge a calm, reflective audience. It’s on the stage that our authors’ varying views find space for elaboration and exchange. Five American and ten European playwrights have prepared five-minute-long pieces for you and your theater. We and the authors look forward to exciting transatlantic dialogues within the realm of P3M5.