Sunday 16 March 2008

Clive James on Privacy

Clive James expounded a great defence of privacy on Radio 4's A Point of View today.

He says: "Most of us are capable of grasping that if everyone could suddenly read everyone else's thoughts then very few people would survive the subsequent massacre…

To live in society at all, we have to keep a reservoir of private thoughts, which, whether wisely or unwisely, we share only with intimates. This sharing of private thoughts is called private life… 

You can still keep your thoughts to yourself - nobody has yet invented a machine that can get into your head and broadcast what it finds - but if you try to communicate those private thoughts to anyone else you run an increasing risk that they will be communicated to everyone."

Now, he wasn't explicit about this, but we use our private thoughts and private conversations to explore ideas. It's most important when we have important or difficult decisions to make. And, people in all walks of life need to be held accountable for the decisions and actions that they take, not for the options that they consider.

Our surveillance society makes it harder and harder to trust people, not because our confidants are more likely to reveal our private indiscretions, but because fewer and fewer of our actions really are private.

There was an example in the news yesterday: 'Cat confession' man not guilty. Now, you'd think that you'd be able to share a confidence with your cats, but this guy was being bugged by the police, when he told his cats "I miss my Joyce". Unfortunately the recording wasn't clear - maybe he mumbled, but he was just talking to his cats - and the police heard "I hit my Joyce", and this appears to have been a pivotal piece of evidence. Fortunately, the jury had a different opinion. So, this leads us to another objection to surveillance - it's inaccurate because it's piecemeal, and it's necessarily lacking in context and clarification.

You can read Clive James' full script, or listen again.

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