Kai Ryssdal: Remember when you were a kid and your parents — or some older kid maybe — told you to mind your own business? In the very macro sense, that whole philosophy of minding one’s own business doesn’t doesn’t happen a whole lot nowadays. Privacy just ain’t what it used to be, which is a theme of Gerret Keizer’s new book called “Privacy.” Good to have you with us.
Garret Keizer: It’s good to be here.
Ryssdal: We talk — especially now in this digital age — all the time about privacy. We talk about it digitally, we talk about it in media, we talk about it socially. But it’s curious, as you point out, that privacy appears nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in the Declaration of the Independence. It’s a reasonably recent phenomenon or discovery, I guess.
Keizer: It is. It has been derived certainly from a thoughtful consideration and application of the Constitution, but it doesn’t appear in a U.S. court case until 1881 and it doesn’t appear in a Supreme Court case, to my knowledge, until the ’20s. You could aruge that in the original Constitution, there’s nothing to outlaw chattel slavery; there’s nothing that addresses the equality of the sexes; there’s nothing that guarantees people the right to love whom they please, and yet we’ve derived that understanding from that document. What I like to say is that love can appear in a relationship long before the word actually gets said. I think privacy appeared in our social contract long before we began to use the word.
Ryssdal: The thing about privacy today, though, I would offer the reason that so many people get so upset about it — aside from the ease with which it is dispensed of by other people, if you take my meaining — is that our privacy is used to make corporations money. Whether it’s Facebook or cell phone advertising, or take your pick.
Keizer: It’s an example, I suppose, of what happens when monetary value and other kinds of value begin to merge. We put a price on everything or else we see everything as good only to the extent that it can be exploited for gain. So you’ve got a bird singing and well that’s all well and good, but what’s it cost or what can we do with it? And if there’s nothing that we can do with it and the bird’s singing is in the way of something that we want to build that will make money, then any protest against that is for the birds.
Ryssdal: I wonder, though, if there isn’t a fairly sizeable generational issue here. You are a child of what, the ’50s/’60s, plus or minus?
Keizer: I grew up in the ’50s, yes.
Ryssdal: OK. You have a view shaped by that time when the technology that we have today didn’t exist. My kids and your grandkids, I imagine, have a different view and have become acculturated to this world where privacy is, first of all, more of a commodity, but second of all, less valued. Do you buy that?
Keizer: I don’t necessarily buy it. I don’t know all the young people in the world or in our society, so I can’t make a definitive statement about that. But I do tend to distrust it somewhat. In other words, if we wanted to know that privacy meant less to young people today than it did to previous generations, how would we find that out? By taking a poll on Facebook? That would be like going into a crackhouse in order to discover what people’s drug habits are. I’ve met a number of young people who care very much about their privacy. But I think it’s part of the narrative and I’m not sure whether it’s sound social analysis or just very sly marketing that says if you’re of a certain generation, you don’t care about privacy, that’s who you are, that’s what identifies you, and that’s what’s cool.
Ryssdal: Garret Keizer, his most recent book is called — appropriately enough — “Privacy.” Mr. Keizer, thank a lot for your time, sir.
Keizer: Thank you so much.
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