Modesty and Friendship: Lost in the Data?

A few years ago, as my family strolled in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, a charming Disney employee approached my daughter and asked how she was enjoying the park  A conversation ensued in which the employee asked, and repeated aloud, her name, age, and hometown.

I interrupted when I noticed that the employee was speaking into a discreet microphone connected to a wireless device, the kind security personnel use. As the employee voiced each of my daughter’s answers, a colleague could record them and associate them with the credit card information I’d just used to pay for lunch, to build a more complete profile of our family.

Now, for the benefit of Disney’s lawyers who seem exuberantly protective of their corporation’s brand, let me specify that I do not know what Disney did with my daughter’s answers. But I take this to be one of my first uncomfortable encounters with what we now know as “big data.”

Today, we are accustomed to data gathering by private firms, government, political parties, and other organizations. We know that such information is collected, used, sold or shared, and stolen or leaked for various unknown purposes.

Few people are comfortable about the intrusion into our lives of contemporary data gathering. What have we gained, and what have we lost?

In the case of the recent revelations of massive data collection on the part of American intelligence agencies, we are told we have gained a measure of safety from terrorist attacks. The National Security Agency director assures us that “dozens” of terror plots – however elastic “dozens” is as a quantity – have been foiled. Islamist hatred of the West is real enough and the preparations for terrorist attacks can be readily concealed, so the value of the surveillance is plausible.

More dubiously, corporate data gathering supposedly gives us easier access to what we want, based on analysis of our shopping preferences. Political parties can understand our public policy preferences and adjust their own platforms or encourage those who agree with them to vote. Charities can target us based on donation patterns to afford us more opportunities to help.

What all of these “goods” have in common is that, because they are data-based, they are quantifiable and easily viewed in a spreadsheet or other material terms. We can easily grasp some notion of what we think we have gained, and some of the gains – lives saved – matter greatly.

What we have lost, the trade-off that makes us uncomfortable, is harder to discern.

Leaving aside the possible abuse of government data for despotic purposes – a very real possibility no matter how many lawyers and legal assurances are wrapped around the data – and leaving aside outright criminal use of data that escape “the cloud” into the wrong hands, the potential loss from having so much public and private surveillance is grave.

       Mickey Mouse data gathering

The loss goes beyond some vague political “right to privacy,” which may or may not be in the Constitution and which can be stretched to protect everything from telephone records to abortion and euthanasia. 

The losses include possibilities of modesty and friendship. The Catholic Catechism defines modesty more broadly than wearing decent clothes to Mass: 

Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. . . . It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. 
Most importantly, “There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. . . . Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”

The purity that is served by modesty is central both to our relationship with God and to our relationships with others, to our friendships. When our innermost thoughts are involuntarily taken from us – even if strictly in accord with the “privacy policies” we see so often and read so rarely – we feel violated, quite as if our clothes had been stripped from our bodies.

With modesty, we retain the freedom as persons to share our intimacy with those whom we choose: the freedom to form friendships, one of the highest purposes of a good life.

When all about us is known to everyone, whether we fully choose that or not, modesty is gone, and the possibilities of friendship disappear. We become instead concerned about whether our intimate thoughts conform to the prevailing ideology of those who might be reading our mail, following our web browsing, or otherwise gathering data about us.

When asked about this loss of privacy and modesty, the technocratic “thought leaders” of the digital world happily tell us that privacy is a thing of the past, a small price to pay for the delights of abundant information and constant connectivity. The breakdown of antiquated modesty, we’re told, is progress towards the greater collective unity of mankind.

Yet companies and governments make constant efforts to assure us that our privacy really is protected. They know we fear losing modesty, and not just to obvious criminals.

The real dangers are not in data but in how technology is used for, or against, the person. The danger now is that we go along with whatever goods technology seems to bring, without thinking very hard about what that same technology risks taking away.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.