As the name of this blog suggests, I was born and brought up in Calcutta. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it seems reasonable for me to assume that my core thoughts about privacy were formed during the 23 years I lived there.
It’s a crowded city. A lot of middle-class people live “vertically”, in highrise apartments. My family were no different; while the number of people at home fluctuated between 7 and 12, the floor area remained at the 1500 sq. ft. mark. So you could say we were densely packed at home.
The school I went to may have been thought of as elitist, but it was no different from many others when you look at the numbers. Around 40 students per class, 4 classes per year, 1500 students in the school. Normal. Dense.
Most people I knew used public transport, which was plentiful. And dense.
Amidst all this denseness, the sense of community was very high. And it was normal for things to be communally owned. Particularly at home, ownership was something associated with a family and not a person.
This sense of community pervaded everything we did. We tended to play together, study together, work together, laugh together, cry together. Memories of home, of school, of college, all revolved around spending time with others. And eating.
Even the food we ate was communal; easily stretched to accommodate more people. The adda was really a physical blogosphere.
No surprise then that our identities were also communal; who we were quite quickly became a function of family and neighbourhood and occupation and employment. [In this particular case, when one looks at naming conventions, there was no real difference between east and west. Maybe the difference came with affluence and with disruption of the social fabric, as single-person dwellings and single-parent families became more common in the west].
Communal ownership. Communal identities. Communal rites of passage and communal meeting places. All in an environment where everything was densely packed: the home, the school, the neighbourhood, the workplace, public transportation, the city itself.
Against this backdrop, you can imagine how intriguing I found concepts of privacy when I turned up in the UK. Of course we had privacy in India, but not the twitching-net-curtains variety. Much of our privacy was what we made of it, and it was out in the open. There was nowhere else.
So maybe it’s an environment thing, maybe it’s a culture thing. If that’s the case, then the results of a recent Pew Internet study, entitled Digital Footprints, make interesting reading. I quote from the summary (my emphasis):
Internet users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint; 47% have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22% five years ago. However, few monitor their online presence with great regularity. Just 3% of self-searchers report that they make a regular habit of it and 74% have checked up on their digital footprints only once or twice.
Indeed, most internet users are not concerned about the amount of information available about them online, and most do not take steps to limit that information. Fully 60% of internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online. Similarly, the majority of online adults (61%) do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online.
Maybe things are changing; that’s what I am trying to work on.
Now there are a hundred experts out there working on this, so why would I be arrogant enough to think I can do better? Don’t worry, I’m not. I try my best to read what they have to say, and to discuss it with as many of the experts as I can meet. Those active in the Identity space tend to be accessible and gregarious, which is a good thing.
The difference between what the experts are doing and what I am doing is one of perspective. I am asking myself the question “what happens if I take my beliefs on abundance and scarcity and overlay that on public and private, if I start thinking that abundant equals public and scarce equals private?”
That’s the question that keeps me awake when I want to be kept awake. I’m too old to be kept awake any other way, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. And often do.