The Narrated Self (Identity and Privacy I)

The discussions and debates about privacy are key to trust in the information society. Yet, the our understanding of the concept of privacy is still in need of further exploration. This short essay is an attempt to highlight one aspect of the concept that seems to be crucial, and highlight a few observations about what we could conclude from studying this aspect. 

Privacy is not a concept that can be studied in isolation. It needs to be understood as a concept strongly related to identity. Wittgenstein notes that doubt is impossible to understand without having a clear concept of belief, since doubt as a concept is dependent on first believing something. You have to have believed something to be able to doubt something. 

The same applies for privacy. You have to have an identity in order to have privacy, and in order to have that privacy infringed upon in some way. Theories of identity, then, are key to theories of privacy. 

So far nothing new or surprising. As we then turn to theories of identity, we find that there are plenty to choose from. Here are a few, eclectically collected, qualities of identity that I think are rather basic.

1. Identity is not a noun, but a verb, it exists not as a quality in itself but as a relationship with someone else. You find yourself strewn in the eyes of the Others, to paraphrase (badly) Heidegger. Your identity is constructed, changed and developed over time. A corollary of this is that if you were the last human in the universe you would have no identity. And you would not enjoy any privacy. 

2. The means through which we create identity are simple, and were best laid out by philosopher Paul Ricoeur. We narrate our identity, we tell stories about ourselves, and others tell stories about us. That is how our identity is constituted. 

These two qualities then imply a few interesting observations about privacy. 

First, privacy is also relational, it is the negotiation of identity with different audiences and constituencies. At least this is how it has been. One of the key challenges with technology is that it flattens the identity landscape, unifies the islands of identity that you could previously enjoy. What once was a natural fragmentation of identity is flattened and clustered as the information sphere grows larger and information about us more prevalent. Our ability to tell different stories to different people almost disappears. 

An aside: this observation that privacy is the telling of different stories about ourselves has led some economists like Richard Posner to state that privacy enables lying, and so that transparency would be preferable, since it would allow people to minimize risk. The flaw in the argument is that it assumes that there is a single true identity, and that this identity is revealed in the flattening of the information space, and the transparency that this brings about. This is not necessarily true: there may not be any “true identity” in any meaningful way. Just as there is no absolute privacy. An infringement of privacy is not so much revealing a truth about you as negating your ability, your autonomy, in telling stories about yourself. 

Second, this means that any right to privacy is synonymous with a right to the narration of our identities. This is what several writers have observed when they have equated privacy and autonomy, I think, but the focus on autonomy easily devolves into a discussion about the autonomy of will, rather than the autonomy of identity narration. 

Third, a society with the strongest privacy protections would be one in which no one is allowed to narrate your identity other than yourself. It seems self-evident that this creates a tension with free expression in different ways, but it highlights the challenging and changing nature of privacy infringments in an age where everyone is telling stories about us on social media. 

To sum up, then: privacy is a concept secondary to identity, and identity is best understood as the narratives of the self. Privacy then becomes the right to narrate yourself, to tell your own story. The political control and power over the stories we tell is a key problem in the study of the information society. One could even imagine a work written entirely focusing on the power over stories in a technological world, and such a work could encompass controversial content, fake news, hate speech, defamation, privacy and perhaps even copyright — we have here a conceptual model that allows us to understand and study our world from a slightly different vantage point.