The Rise and Fall of Privacy: An Interview

Tiffany Jenkins discusses her upcoming book with the Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University

Tiffany Jenkins, Edinburgh-based author and Doctor of Sociology, is working on a longue durée investigation into the history of privacy.

The provisional title for Jenkins’ book is Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life. Impressively, Jenkins begins her enquiry with the Ancient Greeks and traces the history of privacy through the early modern period to the present.

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical.

Two PRIVACY scholars, Anni Haahr Henriksen and Frank Ejby Poulsen, had the chance to sit down with Jenkins and ask her a few questions about her interest in privacy, her experience with tracing the complex concept historically and her impression of the Centre.

Why privacy?

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical. Much of it focuses on the last few decades and on the changes brought with technology, but I thought one piece of technology can’t change human behaviour completely. There must be something else going on.

I wanted to ask whether privacy was natural. Eternal? So, I began an investigation. Where does it come from? What causes it? What threatens it? And how novel is it?

Can a historical awareness of privacy inform contemporary discussions?

A longer view allows us to understand not just where privacy comes from and what brings it about, but what is or is not unique about the contemporary period. It allows a broader and deeper study of the influences at play than you get in the many discussions today.

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life

Tiffany Jenkins and PRIVACY scholars in June 2022

At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we focus on the early modern period as a birthplace of privacy. Do your results align with this hypothesis, and what were your expectations when starting out?

When I started my investigation, I thought privacy might be tied to prosperity and bourgeois society, and to developments in architecture. These are important, but not as important as the idea of conscience, which is the real beginning of privacy.

The dawn of private life has three components: freedom of conscience and religious freedom; what would become known as civil liberties; and the establishment of sexual and domestic mores as private matters. Each does not start out fully formed, nor does one inevitably lead to the other. Nor they do emerge at the same time, or develop in a straight line, at the same rate.

The early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life.  That, over the course of centuries, with many twists and turns, brought about freedom of conscience. Of course, conscience was limited, and it was supposed to stop at religion. But once these ideas were out in the world, it was not possible to contain them.

All that means, that I too reached the conclusion that the early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy!

Have you identified other cornerstones or patterns of development in the history of privacy?

The most important factor is the relationship between the public and private spheres: most discussions of privacy are shallow and don’t account for that broader determining relationship, which sets the role of authority and where its borders lie. Another key influence is the conception of human beings – what are they capable of and what do they need.

If you understand the relationship between public and private, and the conception of the self at any given period, you can tell what the vision of privacy will be. Essentially, it comes down to ideas about authority – what is it for and the limits to it and the conception of the self.

Conscience […] is the real beginning of privacy

Which would you identify as the major epochs in the history of privacy?

I would say, the seventeenth century: conscience. That was the foundation stone.

The birth of the public and the private sphere is the second – in the eighteenth century. For it is important to understand that for the rise and fall of private life is not a simple story of the progressive growth and decline of a private space free from the reach of authority. One of the most critical influences on the private sphere, on its expansion and definition, is the rise of public life.

The third is the nineteenth century and the liberal arrangement with between the state and the liberal subject.

The divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded

For the twentieth century, progressivism in the early part of the century triggered a shift in the relationship between the state and the individual, which meant authority creeped into the private world.

Then, a key moment that brought us to where we are in today, was in the sixties and seventies which saw the rise of the authentic self and the politicisation of private life encapsulated in the feminist mantra the ‘personal is political’. That changed everything for public and private life: the private self was projected ever outwards, whilst political scrutiny and activities had the private world in sight. Thus, the divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded. And all this this happened before the age of the internet.

That is what we are living with today and that explains a lot of our ambivalence about public and private.

Privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas.

What were your biggest insights about privacy and its history?

My biggest insight is that privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas. And that technology is not the driver many think it to be.

Sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it?

No, it sounds ground-breaking.

Has the Centre for Privacy Studies, its research, and your discussions with us enlightened you or changed your perceptions?

It was a really informing and invigorating visit for me. And it actually has given me some ideas that will go into the book, and may help also with the conclusion.

Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life will be published by Picador in 2023. Find out more about Tiffany Jenkins’ work here: https://tiffanyjenkinsinfo.com



Cite this blog post
Anni Haahr Henriksen (2022, June 24). The Rise and Fall of Privacy: An Interview. Centre for Privacy Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/t0uf

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