Privacy and autonomy

Betty and Don Draper sitting in a car
Before I delve into my post, I need to share the series of events that lead me to my thinking about privacy and its relationship to autonomy. Bear with me; it is a badly-paved and less travelled road*.

Watch that pothole….

A couple weeks ago, I read an article that appeared in the New York Times that said “privacy and autonomy… are central to male gender identity.” Later that evening as I was watching an episode of Mad Men (Season two, episode three, The Benefactor,) with the article still bouncing around inside my head, I saw this one itty-bitty little look in Don Draper’s face that I had missed the first time around. This one little scene gave me all the clarity I needed about the real issue of privacy. (You’ll have to watch episodes much later for the plot line. The look was also foreshadow.)

Betty and Don had just finished dinner with Bobby and Jimmy Barrett where Jimmy had to apologize to the Schillings for some bad behavior earlier. During the ride home, Betty gets all teary-eyed at the thought of her and Don “working” together as part of a team.

In the Betty and Don Draper relationship, this is when things started falling apart. When Betty decided that she was part of his team, she threatened his autonomy. She threatened a carefully-crafted and guarded identity that he alone owned and controlled. Don lived by the Hobo Code. The first rule of the code is to “decide your own life…” Betty being a part of the “Ad-Man Don Draper” meant he could no longer manage that life — that identity — with autonomy.

I’m a big fan of Mad Men, not so much the story but the cultural layers the series examines, uncovers and winks back at the viewer with that “I know you saw that, but it never happened” look. Privacy is a huge theme woven throughout the story.

When we talk abut privacy, I think we are really talking about autonomy. Ultimately it does not matter a whole lot what others know about us but it would be naïve to believe that what others know about us would not be used against us. We see this popping up with abandon all over in socially acceptable behavior.

It’s now ok to take embarrassing photos of your friends sleeping in an airport and share with everyone on Facebook.

It’s now ok to blab to the media about intimate details of a celebrity relationship gone bad.

It’s now ok for a publisher to offer a talented writer less than her work is worth because she writes on her blog about being impoverished.

It’s now ok to rescind a job offer because a candidate’s online friends are not conformists.

Privacy is not the thing we should be guarding; autonomy is. Privacy is the hard shell that guards the real plumb center of autonomy. Marketers and those who seek power at all levels know it. To get people to willingly share the details of their lives and how these details interconnect with those around them was pure genius. Evil, but still genius.

A loss of privacy ultimately leads to a loss of autonomy. The consequences of the loss of autonomy is what the Mark Zuckerbergs and his generation do not understand. While our leaders wring their hands over issues of privacy, marketers and power-seekers are already deftly filleting our autonomy.

Privacy is dead. It was necessary to kill it off so we could get at your autonomy.

How will you guard your autonomy now that the Sentry Privacy has been knocked off his post?

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

— Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

*I wonder if my blog would qualify for a road and bridge repair grant from the US Government under the Jobs Act. Hmmmmm…

This blog post is part of a blog-off series with a group of bloggers from different professions and world views, each exploring a theme from his/her world view. This was about exploring the theme, Privacy To explore how others handled the theme, check them out below. I will add links as they publish.

7 Replies to “Privacy and autonomy”

  1. First thing Rufus- you’re very intuitive for a dog!
    Second- Mad Men is a truly great show on many levels if you care to look past the pure acting!
    Three- I believe you are right on about privacy and autonomy but what have we really gained? Sometimes I wonder!

  2. I love the Mad Men reference. Keeping in that vein, I think what Don was most threatened by was losing his identity. Only it’s not his identity. It’s one he stole (or for these purposes, created.)

    It’s fine to want to keep your real identity private when writing, blogging or just dicking around online. Where I take issue is when people create identities online. Manufactured personas. Not to be confused with an alias. If privacy is key because one hopes to prevent people from knowing too much about them, then I’d think what needs to happen is that that person maintain their anonymity consistently, not arbitrarily.

    When someone is inconsistent with their privacy, like reveals their online identity to people they date or people they meet offline, then I question their alleged commitment to said privacy. Is it really about not wanting to be “outed” so to speak? Or is it that they want the flexibility to behave badly or in a way that is disingenuous and not be called out for it? I understand why people would worry that something they say online might have negative affects on their offline life. But maybe that’s a sign that you shouldn’t be saying what you’re saying in the first place. Or that they don’t actually mean or believe what they say, but say it to get attention or to justify their lives.

  3. Thank you, but my chief advisor on social issues is a cat. We’re equal opportunity around here! Mad Men is subtext tucked inside subtext. I’m not really sure we have gained a lot as a culture, but I am damned sure those who can leverage the lack of privacy will be (or are now) unleashing a torrent of crap on those they can for disparate gain.

  4. What Don is most threatened by depends on the particular theme the show is working through. With ever rebuff, he gets more brazen and comfortable in his Draper skin. We’ll see how all this pans out. I would imagine it would be difficult to pull a “Don Draper” in today’s environment, but it would be a really cool project to see if you could become someone else…

    The most consistent thing about ME is I am inconsistent 🙂 Seriously, though, I think that perhaps keeping your anonymity by picking and choosing who you want to reveal your online identity to and who you don’t is an exercise in autonomy. I think we all crave a bit of a Secret Sharer (Joseph Conrad) someone to whom we can reveal our true selves with impunity and know that our trust in that other person will never be betrayed.. whether that is as simple as knowing the identity of our online persona to sharing our deepest secrets. It’s a rare gem these days, one that few can hold without cashing in, sadly.

    Example: I think in the final analysis, when you strip away all the sensationalism of the Anthony Weiner hoopla, you’ll probably find that simple soul looking for a Secret Sharer.. and finding only a bit of betrayal. I’m just guessing.

    The most human thing about our humanity is our inconsistency. What we say and what we really want are almost always at odds with each other. I think that’s ok, even though it is frustrating to those around us at times.

  5. I was an ad man for 15 years… but I have never seen the show. I’m too immersed in “reality” tv having just finished the 13th season of Big Brother. Now THAT show delves into real human issues of privacy, deceit and self-centeredness. So much for autonomy… Thanks for the post dwb, and for the invite to participate. Who knew your pic of the thumbtack church would get a guy like ME to begin writing again? Thanks!

  6. Big Brother is OBVIOUS and brazen. Mad Men makes you work for it. Like the layers of advertising.. good advertising doesn’t let you see it coming. It’s just all of a sudden there, bending your impulses to make you want something you didn’t know you needed and now can’t live without. Not unlike the #letsblogoff every other Tuesday *hint* *hint*

    Even us godless heathens who poke fun at churches in public are useful from time to time 🙂 Glad to have you aboard and I hope your writing flourishes wherever you take it.

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