“I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than have to continuously share details of my life,” Scarlett Johansson said in 2011. At that point in time, Instagram was barely a year old and the tidal wave of internet oversharing had yet to crest. This was long before we realized that there was an audience for pictures of our avocado toast. Now, almost a decade later, the actor’s comments seem eerily prophetic. She was calling it: In a world of personal-information overload and fetishistic oversharing, the classiest thing you can do is keep your life under lock and key.
Think about how much information we now regularly give away about ourselves. Once upon a time, our colleagues’ lives outside work were largely mysterious; certainly, those of our CEOs and leaders remained shrouded in secrecy. Celebrities, too, were unreachable, unknowable beings onto whom we projected our idealized versions of who they may be. Now? You can watch your boss TikTok their way through Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and see inside your favourite celebrity’s house.
But as the world gives away its most private thoughts and moments with abandon, a new stealth luxury is emerging—one that few can lay real claim to: privacy. As Phoebe Philo told a journalist in 2013: “The chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!”
For early adopters like Philo and Johansson, maintaining privacy was about creating boundaries that allowed one to live one’s life away from the public gaze. As the decade wears on and the tentacles of the digital world wind their way into more parts of our lives than ever before, privacy has become something more all-encompassing. In 2020, privacy means having the freedom to turn away from online connectivity. To be truly “private” today is to have a level of control over one’s online presence that very few of us have the power to exert—and, as with the status symbols of old, it is that scarcity that adds value.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when privacy became a luxury. The beginnings of the internet as we know it were seeded in 1995. Mark Zuckerberg took his first tentative steps toward creating Facebook in 2003. The same year, Paris Hilton—widely regarded as the original influencer—broke out in The Simple Life. Fitbit launched its first wearable tracker at the end of that decade. A couple of years later, the penny started to drop. Writing in The Atlantic in 2012, journalist Alexis Madrigal noted that “every move you make on the internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your internet journey goes unmonetized.” In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal laid bare the extent to which our freely given online data was being harnessed to dictate real-world events.
Out of this melting pot of flash fame, big data, free-market capitalism, casual brutality and international espionage, privacy has emerged as one of the last true luxuries. Or perhaps it is the only true luxury of this digital age. As Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at The Future Laboratory, explains: “While material goods were once considered the ultimate status symbols, today we see something more abstract taking their place.” Experts once predicted a digital divide between those who could afford to access the internet and those who could not. “However, the opposite is increasingly true,” says Buchanan. “Status is now found in the power to slow down and decelerate, and the wealthy are investing in privacy and the ability to disconnect from a constantly tethered lifestyle.”
Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a burgeoning global economy centred on “digital detoxes.” For example, Live More Offline offers a six-day retreat in Spain that includes guided meditations and silent walks as well as detox coaching to “empower” attendees to better manage their relationship with technology. Buchanan points out that Steve Jobs famously said that he didn’t let his children use iPads. “Now, affluent families in Silicon Valley inspired by this sentiment are enrolling their children at low-tech institutions such as Brightworks in San Francisco and Waldorf schools across the United States,” she says. “Some families even hire screen coaches to help them raise phone-free children.”
As well as services, the desirability of privacy is also being crystallized into new products. Kaiwei Tang is the co-founder and CEO of Light, a company that makes what Forbes has called the “be-here-now” phone. Now in its second iteration, the Light Phone is a credit card-size device with a Kindle-style black-and-white interface and is designed to be the Swiss Army knife of digital-detox tech. “You can make and receive calls, send messages, check maps and order an Uber, but there are no apps to lure you into an endless scroll,” says Tang. The promotional video offers a snapshot of what a truly “untethered” life looks like. “How will you choose to spend your life today?” the voice-over asks, as good-looking thirtysomethings cavort through sun-dappled afternoons while listening to records (vinyl, natch) and roller skating. “Does being so connected actually make us any happier?” the ad goes on to ask. The answer appears to be no.
The phone has been a huge hit. The implication is clear: People like you—that is, good-looking, creative types—have better things to do than be stuck in an infinite Instagram scroll. At US$350, the Light Phone wasn’t intended to be a dumbed-down burner phone. “It’s meant to feel like a luxury item,” says Tang. “You might spend $1,000 on a digital-detox weekend for someone to take your phone. Get a Light Phone and you can do that every weekend.”
To own a Light Phone is to signal that you don’t need to expose yourself to unnecessary attention. Kristen Ghodsee, an academic and the author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, says, “The implication is that you have already ‘made it’—that you already have status.” For many, if not most, of us, social media— or some level of digital exposure—has become a necessity. “Our jobs dictate that we need to be engaged in this ecosystem,” says Ghodsee. “We trade our time and attention because in exchange we get information from Twitter or recognition on Instagram. If we can opt out, it means that we’ve already reached a certain level of wealth and prominence so we don’t need to make that trade-off.”
Ghodsee only ever kept a bare-bones social-media presence. Then, three years ago, after finding unwanted fame when a New York Times op-ed went viral, she went “as dark on the internet as [she] could possibly go.” But, she says, “by then I’d already reached a level in my career where I didn’t need these platforms.” In that respect, she adds, those who are able to renounce exposure in favour of privacy are, in effect, performing their own status. It’s a way of saying “I no longer need to shout to be heard.”
Amanda Eilian’s philosophy aligns with Ghodsee’s. As a co-founder of the New York-based investment fund Able Partners, Eilian assesses how ideas might translate into good business ventures. (Specializing in the wellness space, she’s an investor in both Goop and The Wing.) Sensing Instagram’s promise, she tried it when it launched. “I posted a picture my mother sent me [while] on a trip to the Amazon,” she says via Skype from her home in New York. “I posted a picture of my husband and me on our anniversary, a picture of a business event—those kinds of things. I shared them thinking, ‘This is for my friends and family; it’s a private account.’ Then people started to request to follow me.” Working with high-profile companies, she inadvertently found herself an object of fascination. “I was getting hundreds of requests from people I didn’t know,” she says. Far from flattered, she found herself uncomfortable with the attention. “It drove home the fact that I don’t need to be a part of this.”
Eilian recalls a time earlier in her career, when she was an investment bank analyst. “I had less status—I was certainly at the mercy of my bosses—and it meant that I had no choice but to be contactable at any hour,” she says. “But I’m not in that position anymore. I don’t need to engage if I don’t want to—that’s a privilege.” She also points out: “There’s a camp of people who strategically need social media as part of their business. When one has to have a presence, the aim—certainly for my peers—is to control one’s own narrative. Without transparency around how our data is being used, it’s easy to lose that control.” Social-media feeds are the best example of how we lose control when we hand over our data, she says. “An algorithm we have no hope of understanding curates what we see, based on what we unconsciously click on.”
Last February, Harvard Business Review ran an article ushering in the “Era of Antisocial Media,” arguing that many of us now huddle around “digital campfires.” Sara Wilson, the article’s writer, explained: “If social media can feel like a crowded airport terminal where everyone is allowed but no one feels particularly excited to be there, digital campfires offer a more intimate oasis where smaller groups of people are excited to gather around shared interests.” “Campfires” include private messaging and micro-communities like the ones we might find via Slack channels. Could this be another signal that we’re cooling on the overexposure we’ve come to expect of the internet age?
“For a long time, only a tiny minority could have ‘fame,’” says Ghodsee. “Over the past decade, though, we’ve seen the rapid proliferation of fame and of data companies that are eager to exploit our narcissism. This has created an artificial scarcity of privacy, so suddenly privacy has become a growth market.”
Tang agrees: “What’s interesting is that at some point in the near future, I think we will be able to sell our own data. Right now, we’re giving it up for free, but it’s a valuable asset.” In that respect, those who have protected their privacy will stand to gain more than those who have spent years oversharing online. But—as Emily Gould explored in “Replaying My Shame,” a piece she wrote for The Cut in which she tells about her time as a blogger for the early internet sensation Gawker—even those who will have nothing to sell have now lived long enough in the age of the internet to realize, and be wary of, the fact that everything posted online will probably exact a real-world price.
Of course, what this all means for those of us who are still tied into careers that require us to have a digital presence remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, private accounts with no posts will come to seem ever more chic. Where once it was difficult to garner followers and likes, now it’s more difficult to opt out of the online economy while still remaining relevant. But true privacy will continue to be a genuine luxury because it will only be available for a select group who, like Philo, remain influential no matter how “dark” they go online.
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