Kevin Place, P3M5 Coordinator
The Values behind Privacy

At the core of P3M5 is the idea that there is a discord between the understanding of privacy in Europe and in the United States. What led to this discord? What was the consensus before? Why does it matter?

To understand why the United States and Europe have grown apart on the issue of privacy, we have to go beyond the laws which have been enacted in both countries (or lack thereof) and examine the framework of values and cultural conditions—especially history, economy, politics, and art—which shape the different perceptions.

A suitable place to begin is the Enlightenment, when the idea of the autonomous individual was developed. Without an acceptance of individual autonomy, it is difficult to understand privacy in a modern context. Before the development of the idea of the autonomous individual, a person’s decisions were made for them and behavior handed down to them by state law or religious decree, and there was no space for privacy. After you accept that an individual has autonomy, there becomes a need to protect decision-making and other behavior from outside surveillance. Though the Enlightenment takes place in Europe and is led intellectually by figures such as Voltaire, Kant, and Smith, American founding fathers like Jefferson and Franklin are deeply influenced by its thinking, and use its ideas in the creation of their new country.

Relevant to the existence of individual autonomy as developed in the Enlightenment is national sovereignty. Modern sovereignty comes out of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, in which European powers put an end to the Thirty Years War and agreed to a system of territorial integrity in which they would not meddle in one another’s domestic affairs and would treat states of differing sizes as equal under the law. The so-called Westphalian system of international order with its individual sovereign states, as exported by European colonialism throughout the globe, reigned supreme for hundreds of years. But in a post-9/11 world, the relevancy of the Westphalian system is questioned by many, who see the rise of terrorism and the global fight against it as fundamentally altering state sovereignty. While the rise of surveillance for counter-terrorism purposes has been most prominently witnessed in the United States, European government surveillance systems have also grown and one can imagine their growth might continue with 2016’s uptick in terrorist incidents.

Another important factor is the divergent cultural history of America and various regions of Europe, especially with regard to religious influences. In Northern European countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, the history of Protestantism and its conception of an individuality that is “pleasing to God,” transparent with neighbors, and morally sound has led to a public relationship that is generally open to verification and accounting. The United States’ particular history of Protestantism has been informed by the prevalent socio-economic profile of the peasant or artisan small entrepreneur:  this individual was not inclined to build a relationship with a – remote –public order that levies taxes. Therefore, understandings of privacy in the United States are largely shaped by limitations on the power of the state. In countries with Catholic heritage, especially Spain and Italy (but also Germany to an extent), the individual is framed in a subsidiary position to the authorities and controlled by the fear of unregulated observations from external powers and the threat of shame.

Any effects of historical and cultural factors on attitudes towards privacy have been dramatically altered by increases in the quality and use of technology.  New modes of digital communication have put people from many various backgrounds in close contact with one another while leading to the exposure of private information on an unprecedented scale.  Thus, small differences in American and European understandings of privacy became a full-fledged rift with Edward Snowden’s revelations and the European Union Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten.

Some might go so far as to argue that a rift between the American and European perspectives is immaterial because privacy itself is not an issue to be concerned about: only those who are doing something wrong would object to being monitored and those who are in the right have nothing to hide.  While this understanding comforts some, others argue that it is impossible to classify “right” and “wrong” in such black-and-white terms, and that many innocent people will be caught in the “wrong” or “bad” group.

Furthermore, many contend that simply the idea we might be watched changes the way we behave, often in nearly imperceptible ways. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist involved in the Edward Snowden revelations, explains in his 2014 TED talk Why Privacy Matters: “When we’re in a state where we can be monitored or can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically...mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle, though much more effective means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, and is much more effective than brute force could ever be.”

P3M5 will engage with the critical issue of privacy by bringing together the work of diverse playwrights from various cultural contexts who, in engaging with the prompt “What does privacy mean to you in the digital age?,” will shed light through their artistry on perspectives regarding privacy. And, perhaps, the project will bring American and European thinking on the issue a little closer together.