The rise of social media and the recent revelations of government surveillance have created a bit of an odd time in American society, where the only thing more valued than privacy is publicity, historian Jill Lepore told an audience of up to 300 Tuesday night at the Kansas Union's Woodruff Auditorium.
Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University and author of several books, mapped out the history of privacy to explain how society arrived at such a paradoxical point. Her lecture came as part of the Hall Center for the Humanities' 2013-14 Humanities Lecture Series.
With a presentation that included excerpts from centuries-old writing and clips from a cellphone commercial and movies, Lepore traced society's transition between three fixations: mystery, secrecy and privacy. At the crux of her narrative is that the "forces that have continued to drive this transition have to do with the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and the mechanization, secularization and democratization of publication."
She detailed how, centuries ago, religious institutions and governments ruled with an air of mystery. People did not know enough to explain natural phenomena, and they couldn't explain why "kings were crowned by a mysterious hand of God." That began to change with the emergence of published written materials, which helped demystify the powers that be.
That gave birth to secrecy, Lepore said. Literacy rates increased dramatically in the 19th century, giving more people the ability to investigate and reveal secrets. It led to thinkers like Jeremy Bentham to advocate for transparent governments and an increase in publicity to keep citizens informed.
But the rise of the public eye threatened to expose peoples' privacy, Lepore said. Efforts to fight this trend began as long ago as the 19th century, when the United States began holding elections where a voter's decision was private, in order to protect them from intimidation.
This fight continues today, Lepore said, where the presence of smart phones and other mobile devices continue to threaten privacy.
"We have invaded our own privacy by becoming our own publicists," she said.