Monday, June 18, 2007

What is Privacy?

Scott McNealy once famously said, "You have no privacy. Get over it."

I doubt that even Mr. McNealy believes this. Mr. McNealy would not like it if somebody continually accosted him while he tried to go about his business (what lawyers would call the tort of intrusion). He wouldn't like it if people tapped his phone. He wouldn't like it if somebody tried subvert his relationships by spreading falsehoods (or worse, cunningly chosen truths).

We all cherish our privacy. Unfortunately we're often asked to trade off privacy for some other thing, say money or national security, without really considering what it is we're giving away. The philosophical definitions of privacy I have seen tend to be too complex, miss important elements of the privacy, or both. On the other hand, the simplest definitions don't give much real guidance. Justice Brandeis defined privacy as "the right to be left alone." While this is on the right track, it doesn't really capture the full spectrum of rights.

Privacy is not just about being left alone, but about the right to control our engagements with other people. Who you choose as your friends is clearly a personal matter and interference with this choice is clearly a privacy intrusion.

After considering this for a while, I believe that every privacy concern boils down in some way to the issue of autonomy or self-direction. This is most easily seen when it comes to issues of intrusion. If you are in a public place, you must expect to be seen and observed by others. But if somebody begins to follow you around as you go about your business, they cross the line. They're interfering with your freedom of choice of places to go and things to do.

Autonomy is also behind other privacy concerns, but in less obvious ways. The neighbor who makes loud noises interferes with your autonomy of attention. The person who spreads misleading facts about you interferes with your ability to control your reputation through your own choices. The person who goes through your trash in order to find out about your private habits places curbs upon those habits.

Privacy is not autonomy in the sense of absolute freedom; it is about freedom to make choices in light of reasonable consequences of those choices. Therefore, I would offer this as a definition of privacy:

Privacy is the right of an individual or group to be free from unreasonable interference in the conduct of their affairs or in their thoughts.

I believe this covers every form of privacy concern there is, as well as the normal excpetions and trade offs to privacy. In every case, issues of privacy turn out to be issues of freedom, and exceptions to privacy turn out to be reasonable consequences of our freely chosen actions -- or at least they should be.

I started to think about privacy again after reading some posts by people who were struggling with the question of whether privacy was really needed in a free society. I believe that privacy in fact defines a free society, both in the way it limits intrusions of others in our affairs, and in how it limits our expectations to be free from the consequences of our actions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lloyd Alexander 1924-2007 An Appreciation

Sometimes prospective writers consider writing juvenile literature as a way of breaking into the business. Writing for children well is a lot harder than it sounds.

Young readers do not have patience with long, rambling setups where the author clumsily expounds everything he thinks the reader might need to know, before letting his characters do anything. It's important to get things moving fairly quickly.

On the other hand, this advice can be taken too much to heart, with frenetic but ultimately dull results. It is possible that some authors, after the layers of exposition have been stripped away, don't have anything interesting or important to say.

But a few, a very few, have the gift to produce true children's literature. John Bellairs. C.S. Lewis. Katherine Patterson. And Lloyd Alexander.

What puts Alexander among the greats of this field is not easy to put your finger on. Craft and economy, certainly these are requirements to create passable works. But this doesn't capture what makes a children's author great. I've heard some say that Alexander's works are founded in a profound and humane philosophy. But while I think such a philosophy might be created from the raw material of Alexander's writing, it is only a by-product of Alexander's true gift.

Lloyd Alexander's gift is that he writes as somebody who still experiences things like love, anger, pride, and loss in the vivid springtime colors of youth. Even so, he understands them with the gravity of experience. He is Taran and Dallben at the same time.

My feelings on Lloyd Alexander's death are not entirely ones of unmixed sadness. Wonder is what predominates. That he could continue to write over so many decades without the well running dry. That he could have run such a long race and died within two weeks of his wife of many decades.

It pleases some people to think that age gives them an automatic claim to wisdom, or at least authority. They are fond of saying things like "if I only knew then what I know now." Lloyd Alexander teaches us by his example and through his writing, to turn that dull and absurd notion on its head. What we should be saying is, "if we only knew now what we knew then." Only then can we unlock the secret of seeing the world and the people in it as new, and abounding in possibility.

I cannot feel very sad in a world so full of hope.