Modern design and a lack of privacy

You can also read this blog entry on Huffington Post

The self-proclamation of freedom is a cherished right we have in a modern democratic country where we are able to express religious values, disenfranchisement with the Monarchy, criticism of the government and an expression of individual identity without persecution. As cherished as these values are, they are not universal, with many countries taking values associated within the spectrum of freedom and limiting it to the private sphere. This creates a distinction between the public and private sphere; for as long as the individual is conducting their affairs in private, it is deemed acceptable until it’s made public. But what would happen when the boundaries between public and private become intertwined with each other? Especially in the modern era, where speech and expressions are not just verbal, but replicated through our digitised identities which are easily traceable. So has modern design created such a transparency to our lives that the distinction between what is public and what is private no longer exist?

The political philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote extensively concerning the private and public sphere, proclaiming simply that actions conducted in public is subject to censure and actions conducted in private are at the individuals own responsibility. The portion of a person’s conduct creates a spectrum whilst creating the distinction of liberty. Where conduct affects the individual’s life choices, provided the individual is free to do so would create the pinnacle of human liberty. Creating an autonomous spiral of free thought and consciousness to partake in choices according to our own definition of the good – whether viably practical to another or not. But in modern society where technology has advanced to such an extent that the lines between digital and reality are blurred, how does one distinguish what is private or public? Take for example, the recent controversy of the Facebook group ‘Women Who Eat on Tubes'; it was brandished as a safe haven for misogyny, a neo-form of ‘stranger-bullying‘, and a UN rapporteur using the group to emphasise her criticism of UK’s ‘sexist culture‘.

I digress from the debate surrounding this controversy, however, the model of the group works due to the rapid encouragement of citizen journalism and it has become controversial because the true contention lends itself to having a lack of privacy in the public space. We are increasingly being encouraged to be more autonomous by being responsible for our actions, being brave enough to report more crimes – coaxed with the blanket of anonymity; it makes public cynicism a natural by-product of citizen journalism. If by expressing personal criticism concerning a debate or article on media platforms, shows a proliferation that we as autonomous individuals perpetrate the very notation being criticised; creative expression. Discourses, criticisms, articulation and analysis’ are a plethora of art forms, where different perspectives and preferences are expressed in different segments of discourse, much to the advancement of knowledge and debate.

Being private in public: an oxymoron

Design and architecture have increasingly become more common to initiate a form of transparency between two worlds. As a child, I remember enthusiastically playing video games on my computer, a shield of glass separating me from the virtual reality posed before me. Through design and architecture, transparency has been replicated in our physical world; office buildings, often shielded by glass initiate a separatist world of us and them. In technology, WhatsApp, iMessage and Facebook chat have become increasingly transparent in ‘message attendance’, either by informing us the message has been read or a simple ellipsis appearing, indicating a response from the recipient. Whether our actions are personal, professional or financial – they are increasingly being implicated online, archived and easily replicated. Personal activities in the physical world are digitised by the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, data collection by retailers or through social media by friends tagging photos of other friends. Further, on our smartphones in order to utilise an app to its full advantage, we knowingly share our location, becoming an unfortunate price we pay for greater comfort and utilisation; making our movements inescapable.

When challenging the lack of privacy we individuals have in the public sphere, we are taunted with the remark that we should not have anything to fear if we are doing nothing wrong. But the wrong lies not in our actions, but in the breach of our trust for agencies monopolising upon our freedoms. Discussions of privacy are often centred on the containment and control of it and how companies seek to use our data and images. But in a modern society where there is a collaboration of both our physical and digital entities, the balance of morality and social freedom are often neglected and quite often, disregarded by those victimised by its effects.

Design is a reflection upon a society’s perception of private and public life. A public culture of parks, bazars and malls, are enticing to build a cinematic life for citizens and economically beneficial for the state. However, design is also an agent of change, making the fine line between private and public more visible and highlighting the significance of what information people share. Most importantly, in an era where technology is collapsing the boundaries that maintained our digital and physical privacy, we must understand how design can promote tolerance to support people, not be of detriment to them. As the physical and digital world becomes more public, it is only with heightened knowledge and respect for individual autonomy that we can maintain the freedom we value in privacy.

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