8.22: Privacy and Autonomy

Most discussion of the psychological effect of personal databanks has focused so far on the issue of privacy. The Information Privacy Research Centre at Purdue University had a bibliography of 7,500 items in early 1979 and the flood of empirical studies, theoretical discussions, Commission reports, and popular books has continued to flow since then.3 It is an important issue. Here, however, I would like to go beyond it to what I consider a deeper issue. My argument is that the major threat of personal databanks is not invasion of privacy but erosion of autonomy.

First, a few words in support of the shift from the issue of privacy to that of autonomy. Privacy is a relative term. It varies from individual to individual. We vary in the amount of privacy we want. Some of us have unlisted phone numbers and some of us carry a pager. We vary in our definition of privacy. Some of us define it as not being seen, some as not being heard, and some as not being known. Some of us define it the other way round - not having to see (a flasher, for instance), not having to hear (a neighbor's Rolling Stone record at 3 a.m.), not having to know (a stranger's problems during a trans-Atlantic flight). It varies from culture to culture. In many developing countries, the ground-floor street-side apartments are most expensive, since members of that culture value conviviality over privacy.4

Autonomy, on the other hand, is a universal phenomenon. Every person in every culture has some capacity for independent action. What the person chooses to do and what constraints the culture places on what the person does varies, of course, from person to person and from society to society. However, autonomy is a distinguishing feature of our species.

A brief trip up the phylogenetic scale will make this clear. The lowly amoeba consists of only one cell. If you are only one cell, you can't do much with your life. However, being a living system, you are irritable - that is, you can respond to stimuli. The magnitude and direction of the response is totally determined by the stimulus. You are wholly at the mercy of your environment. As we make huge leaps up the phylogenetic scale to the worm (which can link responses to stimuli - that is, learn) to the octopus (which can choose not to respond - that is, to say 'no ' to the environment) to homo sapiens (who can act independently of the environment), we see that the development from animal to human is a process of progressive emancipation from the tyranny of the environment, or, alternatively, the acquisition of autonomy.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny somewhat. Half a century of brilliant research on child development by Jean Piaget has demonstrated that development from child to adult, like development from animal to human, can be characterized as the acquisition of autonomy.5 Children develop from a sensorimotor stage, in which they merely respond to the environment, through a concrete operations stage, in which they deal with propositions about the environment, to a formal operations stage, in which they deal with propositions about propositions. They free themselves from the tyranny of the environment by acting upon it and thereby building up an internal representation of it, such that subsequent behaviour is determined not only by their immediate environment but also by their map of it. The realization of human potential can therefore be well described as the acquisition of autonomy.

3   Rule, J., D. McAdam, L. Stearns, and D. Uglow. The Politics of Privacy. New York: New American Library, 1980.

4   The difficulty in translating the word "privacy", even within what linguists derisively called Standard Average European, suggests that it may just be an Anglo-Saxon aberration. Anyway, in those enlightened times, who can even talk of "private parts" without smiling?

5   Piaget, J. Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child. New York: Grossman, 1970.