Personal and private are not the same thing. As a genre which is defined by making the personal public, autobiography makes the point resoundingly obvious. If the personal can be made public, as is the case with an autobiography, then the personal was never intrinsically private in the first place. So although we sometimes use ‘personal’ and ‘private’ as synonyms, they are anything but. The two words are not interchangeable.
It is precisely because the personal is not intrinsically private that it can be made public or stolen. Recognising this fact has become one of the chief anxieties of our times.
The point can be put the other way round in order to make it starker. Namely, if the personal is not intrinsically private, it can always be made public. The possibility of becoming public lies in the very nature of the personal.
That axiom has consequences both practical and ethical. The practical consequences are the ones with which GDPR has made us all too familiar. Our data can always be made public, so change your passwords, read the cookies policy, etc. Do everything we have all been doing in the past few weeks and months.
The ethical aspects are different and point in almost the opposite direction. I am thinking of both Kant and Nietzsche and their most famous doctrines. Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ admonishes us not to do anything which we wouldn’t order other people to do. For example, don’t drop litter unless you think dropping litter should be mandatory.
Nietzsche’s philosophy of the ‘eternal return’ advises us to live our lives so that we can bear every detail being repeated ad infinitum. Under such a stricture, would you tolerate having the day you’ve just had? Or would you realize the future you’ve long been dreaming about?
In a way, Nietzsche was re-expressing Kant: whatever you do in life, ensure you are doing the right thing by your conscience.
What do such highfalutin ethics have to do with data and privacy? My answer is this. If the personal can always be made public, assume that everything personal about you is public already. If everything is fundamentally knowable and increasingly likely to become known, adapt accordingly. Live your life as though it was already under the spotlight.
If some of the great philosophers of the past were alive today, what would they think of People Analytics? Would Foucault, for example, dismiss it as yet another way organizations have control over their employees? Perhaps he would have been one of the drivers of GDPR. How about the other Philosophers?
It seems Nietzsche quite liked to ask questions. He believed that the more questions you ask, the more wisdom you gain and the better you develop – and if you went through a bit of suffering to get there, then all the better. Courage in the face of difficulty, permitting yourself to live experimentally, exploring boldly and then once you are done – glance back, be grateful you didn’t just take the easy path and continue on like a “dull, pampered loafer”. I thought his words were a bit harsh, but then he was known for being rather annoying for not letting people rest in contentment of what they think they know. Let’s put this into a process flow:
Nietzsche tied it all together by saying “it is only then that we can see ourselves and know ourselves and the surprises we find there are worth all the suffering.” Sound familiar?