When we talk about privacy, we are often talking about the right to privacy. That is something like the right to limit or constrain disclosure of information relating to oneself. I’ve often been puzzled by the concept of privacy, and I think that it helps to think first about self-disclosure.
Self-disclosure is something that we would probably all like to control. There’s a lot of literature on self-disclosure in many settings, and it is clearly recognised as important in several ways. I like the concept of self-disclosure, because it is a positive concept, in contrast to the rather negative idea of privacy. Privacy is, as its name suggests, a “privative” concept. Though definitions vary greatly, one common factor is that definitions of privacy tend to be in terms of the absence of something undesirable, rather than directly as the presence of something valuable.
Before I go on, let me explain my particular interest in privacy and self-disclosure – though everyone potentially has a strong legitimate interest in them. Privacy is a key aspect of e-portfolio technology. People are only happy with writing down reflections on personal matters, including personal development, if they can be assured that the information will only be shared with people they want it to be shared with. It is easy to understand this in terms of mistakes, for example. To learn from one’s mistakes, one needs to be aware of them, and it may help to be able to discuss mistakes with other trusted people. But we often naturally have a sense of shame about mistakes, and unless understanding and compassion can be assured, we reasonably worry that the knowledge of our mistakes may negatively influence other people’s perception of our value as people. So it is vital that e-portfolio technology allows us to record reflections on such sensitive matters privately, and share them only with carefully selected people, if anyone at all.
This central concept for e-portfolios, reflection, links straight back to self-disclosure and self-understanding, and indeed identity. Developing ourselves, our identity, qualities and values as well as our knowledge and skill, depends in part on reflection giving us a realistic appreciation of where we are now, and who we are now.
Let me make the perhaps obvious point that most of us want to be accepted and valued as we are, and ideally understood positively; and that this can even be a precondition of our personal growth and development. Privacy, being a negative concept, doesn’t directly help with that. What is vital to acceptance and understanding is appropriate self-disclosure, with the right people, at the right time and in the right context. Even in a world where there was no privacy, this would still be a challenge. How would we gain the attention of people we trust, to notice what we are, what we do, what we mean, and to help us make sense of that?
In our society, commercial interests see, in more and more detail, some selected aspects of what we do. Our information browsing behaviour is noted by Google, and helps to shape what we get in reply to our searches, as well as the adverts that are served up. On Amazon, our shopping behaviour is pooled, enabling us to be told what others in our position might have bought or looked at. The result of this kind of information gathering is that we are “understood”, but only superficially, in the dimensions that relate to what we might pay for. If this helps in our development, it is only in superficial ways. That is a problem.
A more sinister aspect is where much of the energy in the privacy discussion is used up. The patterns of our information search, added to the records of who we communicate with, and perhaps key words in the content of our communications, alert those in power to the possibility that we may pose a threat to the status quo, or to those who have a vested interest in maintaining that power. We have noticed the trend of growing inequality in our society over the last half century.
But, in focusing on these, albeit genuine and worrying issues, what is lost from focus is the rich subtlety of active self-disclosure. It is as if we are so worried by information about ourselves falling into undesirable hands that we forget about the value of knowledge of ourselves being shared with, and entrusted to, those who can really validate us, and who can help us to understand who we are and where we might want to go.
So, I say, let’s turn the spotlight instead onto how technology can help make self-disclosure not only easier, but directed to the right people. This could start along the lines of finding trustable people, and verifying their trustworthiness. Rather than these trustable people being establishment authorities, how about finding peers, or peer groups, where mutual trust can develop? Given a suitable peer group, it is easy to envisage tools helping with an ordered process of mutual self-disclosure, and increasing trust. Yes, privacy comes into this, because an ordered process of self-disclosure will avoid untimely and inappropriate disclosures. But what do we mean by appropriate? Beyond reciprocity, which is pretty much universally acknowledged as an essential part in friendship and other good relationships, I’d say that what is appropriate is a matter for negotiation, rather than assumption. So, there is a role for tools to help in the negotiation of what is appropriate. Tools could help expose assumptions, so that they can be questioned and laid open to change.
Let’s make and use tools like this to retake control, or perhaps take control for the first time, of the rules and processes of self-disclosure, so that we can genuinely improve mutual recognition, acceptance and understanding, and provide a more powerful and fertile ground for personal and collective development.
Even-handed peer-to-peer self-disclosure will be a stimulus to move towards more sharing, equality, co-operation, collaboration, and a better society.