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Response to Igo

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In a sardonic poem of 1940, composed just after his migration to the United
States from Great Britain, W.  H. Auden memorialized an “Unknown Cit-
izen.” Written in the form of an epitaph for an “unknown” and yet all- too-
knowable citizen, the poem offers a capsule biography of an unnamed indi-
vidual from the point of view of the social agencies charged with tracking
and ordering his affairs. The citizen it commemorates is identified by a string
of code similar to a U.S. Social Security number— “JS / 07 / M / 378”— and his
life amounts to a compendium of details gathered by employers, hospitals,
schools, psychologists, market researchers, insurers, journalists, and state bu-
reaus. The poem’s final lines point si mul ta neously to the hubris and the limits
of society’s knowledge of this man. “Was he free? Was he happy? The ques-
tion is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”1

If seldom as eloquently as Auden, con temporary Americans raised sim-
ilar questions about those who sought to know them, whether for the
purpose of governance or profit, security or con ve nience, or social welfare
or scholarly research. Indeed, the proper threshold for “knowing” a citizen
in a demo cratic, cap i tal ist nation would become in the twentieth century one
of Americans’ most enduring debates. How much should a society be able to
glean about the lives of its own members, and how much of oneself should
one willingly reveal? What aspects of a person were worth knowing— and to
whom— and which parts were truly one’s own? Where and when could an
individual’s privacy be guaranteed? As the century advanced, the questions
became more insistent. Were private spaces and thoughts, undiscovered by
others, even pos si ble under the conditions of modern life? What would

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an ever more knowing society mean for the people caught in its net— and
for the individual liberties that Americans supposedly prized? To wit:
Could known citizens be happy? Were they, in fact, free?

This book borrows the poet’s questions to pry open the contentious
career of privacy in the modern United States. Individual privacy first sur-
faced as a sustained po liti cal issue only in the late nineteenth century, but
it would swiftly become a fixture— even fixation—of U.S. public culture.
As corporate industry, social institutions, and the federal government
swelled, so too did disputes over what sort of prying and how much probing
into citizens’ lives were acceptable. These debates emerged alongside an
increasingly impersonal, urban society: its techniques for maintaining so-
cial order but also its mass media, its scientific technologies as well as
its styles of selling. Privacy talk waxed and waned, following no predict-
able path. But it closely tracked public attention to the perils—and the
promise—of being a known citizen.

Modern privacy sensibilities were honed at the crux of a contradiction.
Even as Americans grasped at wider freedoms in the twentieth century,
they, like Auden’s protagonist, were becoming ever more intelligible to an
expanding array of parties: state bureaucracies and law enforcement; the
popu lar press and marketers; financial institutions and private corpora-
tions; scientific researchers and psychological experts; and, eventually,
data aggregators and proprietary algorithms. A knowing society impinged
on individual liberties in unsettling ways. Being known could bring pun-
ishment from the state or destroy a reputation crafted for peers; it could
raise one’s insurance rates or cost someone a job. It could even compro-
mise one’s free will and sense of au then tic personhood. Because they pos-
sessed this capacity to know, modern social institutions raised Auden’s
questions quite directly. Emerging technologies and media, novel modes
of expert and corporate surveillance, and new practices of official docu-
mentation all propelled the prob lem of individual privacy to the foreground
of U.S. public culture. There it would remain, becoming more and more
central to citizens’ assessments of their state and social order.

Americans turned to privacy talk because it helped them navigate the
pull and push of a knowing society, one that sought to apprehend, govern,
and minister to its members by capturing them in fuller and finer detail.
Such a society carried rewards as well as risks. The proliferation of tech-
niques for rendering citizens knowable, from credit reports and CCTV

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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cameras to psychological testing, promised opportunity and security, even
self- understanding. But being known too well— through the monitoring of
one’s sexual or consumption habits, for instance— could threaten personal
autonomy, undermining the notion of a free- standing individual so foun-
dational to U.S. politics and culture. In like fashion, to remain unrecog-
nizable was in certain contexts a sign of privilege, but in others a form of
disempowerment. Being traceable in a national criminal or DNA database
was a dif fer ent matter than being identifiable to a benefits- granting pro-
gram like Social Security. It was pos si ble, that is, to suffer not only from too
little but also from too much privacy. Invisibility to ser vice providers or
census takers could sharply limit one’s social opportunities and legal rights.2
Whereas one’s individual dignity might require being shielded from public
view in some contexts, in others it could demand just the opposite: the vali-
dation of being named and seen. A longing for public recognition could
oscillate with a desire for obscurity, even within the same person. And so,
whether one could be known accurately and authentically— and on one’s
own terms, rather than the larger society’s— was yet another question ani-
mating privacy’s presence in American public life.

Arguments about privacy were really arguments over what it meant to
be a modern citizen. To invoke its shelter was to make a claim about the
latitude for action and anonymity a decent, demo cratic society ought to
afford its members. Responses to that claim exposed the fault lines of civic
membership. Which citizens, after all, could be entrusted with privacy,
and therefore be liberated from official scrutiny? Because privacy could
both foster intimacy and nurture vice, it came packed with assumptions
about the kind of person entitled to it. And so, although privacy was obvi-
ously not the only way to talk about citizenship in the twentieth century,
any conversation about privacy was already entangled with ideas about
one’s status in the broader society. How much privacy, for example, ought
to be allotted to prisoners, soldiers, patients, or teen agers? When could
dif fer ent sorts of sexual subjects— male, female, straight, gay, married,
unmarried— claim its mantle? Under what social and economic conditions
could a person be said genuinely to have privacy, and how on a daily basis
did one’s class and race shape access to it? More generally, who had the
ability to keep parts of their lives secret? Conversely, who could be recog-
nized and appraised for who they truly were? The degree and nature of
privacy that individual Americans enjoyed— including who could demand

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it and under what circumstances— were ways of defining, and divvying up,
civic membership. No won der, then, that privacy would become a dominant
theme of twentieth- century politics.

To conceive of privacy as a social benefit and a mark of belonging
enlarges the standard meaning of citizenship as a status conferred and regu-
lated by the state.3 Auden’s anonymous subject, after all, was defined not
simply by his nationality but also by his many other quasi- civic roles: em-
ployee, union member, father, neighbor, and consumer. “The Unknown
Citizen” points us to the ways that full inclusion in an industrial democracy
was a matter of one’s capacity to move relatively freely through a force field
of social institutions, private as well as public. For citizens themselves, it
is clear, “citizenship” was never merely a juridical status, but instead a
looser, more expansive marker, gesturing to one’s ability to exercise choice
and autonomy in the many realms of social life.4 Like them, this book em-
ploys the term “citizen” in its most capacious sense. Privacy, understood as
freedom from intrusion or scrutiny, could by these lights sometimes act as a
substitute for explic itly enunciated rights. Its absence— via formal law or in-
formal circumstance— could work to deny even full citizens equal social
standing. Asserting how one could be known in the workplace or the
marketplace, on a city street or in a suburban bedroom, was a claim to
self- determination as well as social power. Americans in the twentieth
century thus made of privacy much more than a legal right. They made
it foundational to their sense of personhood and national identity.

Privacy has played a vital po liti cal and cultural role in the modern
United States. But it has largely eluded scholars. This book pursues its his-
tory from a new vantage point: the question of how Americans would, and
should, be known by their own society. Across the last century and a half,
tabloid journalism and new technologies, welfare bureaucracies and po-
lice tactics, market research and personality testing, scientific inquiry
and computer data banks, tell- all memoirs and social media all posed this
question. In response, jurists and phi los o phers but also ordinary citizens
weighed the advantages and hazards of being known. They would, in the
pro cess, remake conventions about access and intimacy, redrawing the bor-
ders separating the private from the public self. Trained on how citizens
approached unfamiliar practices of identification and intrusion, rec ord
keeping and revelation, this book illuminates the deeply personal— but also
profoundly social and political— meanings they attached to private matters.
Spanning the long twentieth century, from the era of “instantaneous photo-

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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graphy” to our own age of big data, it offers a wide- angle view of privacy as
Americans have argued and imagined it.

Privacy, it scarcely needs saying, looms large today. If the drumbeat of
headlines and bestsellers is to be believed, Americans are in the midst of
an unpre ce dented privacy crisis— under “relentless surveillance,” on the
road to a fully transparent society, and with “no place to hide.”5 The
ingredients of this crisis are well known to us. Data mining and NSA
spying, recommendation algorithms and electronic footprints, bio-
metric identification and extensive information sharing on social media
platforms have raised fears about government and corporate surveillance
to a high pitch. That a certain standard of protection from the gaze of
others is routinely violated, and perhaps unrecoverable, is widely decried.

In this climate of worry about any number of parties and techniques
that expose us against our wishes, privacy seems self- evidently a po liti cal
matter. Despite privacy’s starring role in con temporary diagnoses of U.S.
culture, however, we have a surprisingly poor grasp of how it arrived there.
Certainly, privacy has figured for centuries as an essential ingredient in
theorists’ formulations of liberal selfhood. Almost endlessly elastic, the
term has, since its first appearance in En glish in 1534, accrued religious,
philosophical, social, po liti cal, legal, and psychological dimensions.

Yet privacy was not always a matter of public import for Americans. As a
topic for widespread popu lar debate or as a common public language, it is
a creature almost entirely of the late nineteenth century. Born of disquiet
about the status of the private person in the post– Civil War United States
and an age when the contents of citizenship were under reconstruction,
modern privacy arrived on the scene si mul ta neously prized and endan-
gered. A new form of privacy talk took hold in this era, with mounting num-
bers of citizens both claiming a right to privacy and believing their privacy
to be under siege. Only in the twentieth century did privacy emerge as a
central concern of American life, with some commentators going further,
tagging it an obsession or a “cult.” 6 And only then was it vigorously pursued
as a public, and sometimes collective, claim. “Privacy” gained an unusual
capacity to frame Americans’ discussions about the state, their social institu-
tions, and even themselves. This is a story that is still unfolding, of course.

Privacy may have made a late entrance into U.S. politics and public life,
but its staying power has been impressive. Nearly every major development
in the United States since the Civil War— public health campaigns, media

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and communications technologies, military mobilization, social welfare
legislation, workplace innovations, therapeutic methods, urban planning
and suburbanization, social movements, criminal and terrorist threats— has
been assessed in terms of its implications for citizens’ privacy. Privacy talk
has coursed through realms as dif fer ent as bioethics and celebrity, national
security and architecture, social etiquette and professional codes. At least
since the turn of the twentieth century, it has also been demo cratic: just
about anyone can demand privacy, if not achieve it. Immigrants, laborers,
schoolchildren, and prisoners have all laid claim to the concept. It has
featured as regularly in science fiction as in scholarship, in poetry as in
po liti cal commentary. Invoked as an essential freedom and even a human
right, yet worried over as a fragile and perhaps dying value, privacy became
in the twentieth century a dominant concern of modern publics around
the globe.7 In the post– World War II United States, concerns over its status
gathered enough momentum to launch a new constitutional right. Since
then, it is safe to say, privacy’s role in the American public sphere has only
intensified.

Privacy in the modern United States thus has not been “private” at all.
Rather, it has functioned as a crucial category of public life and a durable
feature of partisan politics, even as its availability—or absence— has shaped
countless personal choices and relationships. Highly vis i ble contretemps
over what should be kept out of the public eye across the last century fun-
damentally shaped U.S. po liti cal culture. The same is true today, even as
a large body of writing declares that privacy is dead and gone.8 In fact, pri-
vacy has never been more pres ent in American life. It informs pundits’
and citizens’ discussions of topics ranging from the social be hav ior of youth
to airport screening procedures, and from online search tracking to state
intelligence operations. It regularly punctuates public life as a policy con-
cern, a legal claim, and an individual hope.

The modern concept of privacy, as even this brief sketch makes clear, is
sprawling. It has for good reason prompted voluminous scholarship in law,
philosophy, lit er a ture, communications, design, technology, and the newer
field of surveillance studies. Yet inquiries into its past have been curiously
confined. As I worked on this book I kept arriving at a paradox: privacy is
everywhere in modern Amer i ca and yet hardly anywhere in modern Amer-
ican history. Arguably one of the most charismatic words in the national
lexicon, privacy is missing from the indexes and headings by which we or-
ga nize our understanding of the past. Key episodes in the legal history of

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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privacy are well charted, as are specific controversies. But the scholarship
remains heavi ly state- and rights- centered, neglecting privacy’s significance
as a cultural sensibility and public value. Historical works that examine the
idea of privacy in all of its unruliness, or even some of it, are scarce, espe-
cially for the twentieth century— the period in which it entered national
life with force.9

Existing histories of privacy are typically narrower affairs: explanations
of the emergence of privacy rights, trained on doctrine, pre ce dent, and
policy. Legal scholars have devoted much attention to the first widely rec-
ognized demand for a “right to privacy” in 1890, the codification of state
privacy laws over the ensuing de cades, and the enunciation of privacy as a
constitutional right in 1965.10 These works treat the evolution of jurispru-
dence as a proxy for less neatly contained shifts in Americans’ thinking
about intimacy and intrusion. But such studies do not dwell on changes in
citizens’ sensibilities or on the reasons behind them. Scholarship on pri-
vacy’s technical, juridical career has thus made little impact on our under-
standing of the politics and culture of modern Amer i ca. Privacy as such
makes only a brief—if dramatic— appearance in standard textbook surveys,
usually beginning in 1965 with Griswold v. Connecticut and cresting in
1973 with Roe v. Wade. It bursts on the scene as a po liti cal prob lem, is
transformed into a constitutional if controversial right, and, thus dealt with,
promptly vanishes again.

There are excellent accounts that take up aspects of the history of pri-
vacy, especially concerning sexual regulation, the popular press, and state
spying.11 Each of these is a massive and complex topic in its own right. But
fixing on a single strain of privacy’s history can be misleading. For example,
the two leading narratives about privacy in the United States— its eradica-
tion through state, workplace, and electronic surveillance, on the one
hand, and its gradual, if tenuous, triumph through hard- won criminal or
reproductive rights, on the other— point toward radically opposed conclu-
sions.12 Impor tant as such scholarship is, it cannot do justice to privacy’s
wide- ranging, generative role in U.S. public culture. It cannot explain why
Americans have so regularly turned to privacy to talk about such unlike
things: their intimate relationships, their living spaces, their personal data,
their po liti cal rights, and even their psyches. And it cannot account for why
citizens’ understandings of and feelings about privacy have evolved over
time. Yet precisely what we require is a history of privacy’s per sis tent, pli-
able appeal. Only by attending to its arrival in disparate spheres— law and

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technology, medicine and media, lit er a ture and architecture— will we be
able to fathom how privacy came to sit at the very core of American
politics and social life.

My panoramic approach attempts to overcome what is thus far a patch-
work history. This book deliberately peers into other wise unrelated do-
mains in U.S. society in order to piece together a new picture of how and
why privacy came to matter so much to modern Americans. Rather than
lament privacy’s disappearance, as do so many recent commentators, I
track privacy’s appearances in the U.S. public sphere, asking: When and
why did privacy make its claims on citizens’ attention? In what terms, and
with what consequences? How, in the pro cess, were Americans’ expecta-
tions of privacy not simply diminished but transformed?

What, indeed, made privacy such a compelling idiom, brought to bear on
topics as varied as intelligence gathering and confessional memoirs? Pri-
vacy talk, I argue, has been a response to, and sometimes a resolution of,
an inescapable impasse of modern life: the fact that, even as U.S. public
culture purported to honor the will and choices of individual citizens, its
agencies pressed in new and forceful ways on the private person. “Privacy”
rarely referenced a thing with definite contents; rather it served as an
index to changing ideas about society itself.13 Legal scholar Lawrence
Tribe captures this sense of privacy when he describes it as “nothing less
than society’s limiting princi ple.”14 And indeed, citizens enlisted it, time
and time again, to fix the line between the modern person and the col-
lectivities to which she or he belonged.

To call something private, an option more and more Americans exer-
cised in the twentieth century, was almost never to make recourse to an
agreed-on definition. It was to make an argument about the proper rela-
tionship among citizen, state, and society. Sociologist Christena Nippert-
Eng puts it this way: “privacy is about nothing less than trying to live both
as a member of a variety of social units—as part of a number of larger
wholes— and as an individual— a unique, individuated self.”15 The topic of
privacy invited, even incited, grassroots social theorizing about power and
intimacy, surveillance and subjectivity. It was the public vocabulary citi-
zens reached for to debate the scope of the state, the conduct of social re-
lations, and the very borders of the self.

More specifically, privacy was the language of choice for addressing
the ways that U.S. citizens were— progressively and, some would say,

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relentlessly— rendered knowable by virtue of living in a modern industrial
society. Given the number and range of parties that aspired to know them,
Americans rightfully wondered what aspects of one’s body, personality,
identity, biography, and data an individual had ultimate claim to. In dif-
fer ent ways, a candid photo graph, a financial rec ord, and a psychiatric di-
agnosis each raised this question: How distinct from the mesh of institu-
tions, practices, and norms that constituted social existence could a person
actually be? Privacy talk attempted to bridge the tension between ex-
panding claims to personal inviolability and more sophisticated methods
of infringing on it. It mediated, too, between the desire to be “let alone”
and the urge to be known. These tensions created special prob lems in a
national culture staked on personal autonomy. Invoking privacy was one of
the chief ways that Americans of all stripes weighed in on an enduring po-
liti cal and philosophical quandary as to what separated self from society.16

And yet, as we would expect, privacy was not a shared or unitary con-
cern, but was experienced and summoned in markedly uneven ways in
the American twentieth century. Citizens viewed and wielded privacy dif-
ferently depending on their status and circumstances, and some could
barely access it at all. As a general rule, those excluded from full po liti cal
citizenship because of their class, race, gender, age, nationality, able-
bodiedness, or sexuality—or combinations thereof— also suffered most from
a lack of privacy.17 Prisoners and other institutionalized populations, but also
the young, the poor, and the infirm, had few defenses against the intrusive
monitoring of their lives. Racial minorities, immigrants, and noncitizens
were subject to far higher rates of police and bureaucratic surveillance
than were white native- born Americans; intensely scrutinized, they were
perhaps always less deeply known by agents of the dominant society.18
Women and sexual minorities were presumed to have a lesser claim on
privacy than heterosexual men, and as a result they came first to the rec-
ognition that altering privacy’s terms through disclosure and confession
might be the path to a more inclusive public sphere.

In contrast, owning a home, making a comfortable living, and con-
forming to dominant norms of respectability all decidedly increased one’s
chances of evading society’s gaze. And yet it was often white middle- class
citizens who denounced privacy invasions most vociferously. This has led
some to consider privacy talk a bourgeois pastime, the preoccupation of a
select part of the population.19 Elite Americans have sometimes embraced
that characterization; privacy, noted the prominent nineteenth- century

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editor E. L. Godkin, was “one thing to a man who has always lived in his
own house, and another to a man who has always lived in a boarding-
house.”20 It is undoubtedly the case that privacy debates in the United
States came with a class profile. As privileged citizens felt the press of social
institutions on their own lives and liberties, their par tic u lar worries be-
came the fodder for media coverage, congressional hearings, and public
policy. But it is also evident that privacy’s promise beckoned, if in a variety
of registers, to a wider swath of Americans, including juveniles, patients,
soldiers, union members, research subjects, and welfare recipients. As
W. H. Auden—an immigrant to the United States and a gay man— well
understood, the extent to which an individual could be rendered know-
able was full of consequence in a modern nation.21 The efflorescence and
democ ratization of privacy talk over the course of the twentieth century
were testament to that fact.

Precisely because privacy in the United States has been billed as a per-
sonal possession, outside the realm of the state or politics, its history opens
an illuminating win dow onto the social strains of modern citizenship.
Across the last century privacy was increasingly linked to that most public
of identities, the rights- bearing citizen. Privacy talk thus became a potent
avenue for claiming and circumscribing the social benefits of a modern in-
dustrial democracy. At the same time, insisting on recognition—as a citizen,
a holder of a specific identity, a person out of the shadows— was basic to
enacting one’s membership in society. How well known a citizen would be
was a sensitive marker of status and power, a fissure like any other cutting
across professions of equality and opportunity in American life.

Charting the travels of something as abstract, but also as intimate, as “pri-
vacy” has its challenges. To begin with, the question of what privacy is has
long bedev iled legal and philosophical discussions. In the course of re-
searching this book it was amusing, if also sobering, to come across other
observers’ frustrations with how ungovernable a subject it is. “Few values
so fundamental to society as privacy have been left so undefined in social
theory or have been the subject of such vague and confused writing by
social scientists,” charged legal scholar Alan Westin in 1967.22 Forty years
later, Daniel Solove, a leading theorist of privacy, branded it “a concept in
disarray.”23 Like the weather, concluded a sociologist in 2016, privacy is
“much discussed, little understood, and not easy to control.”24 A large body
of work nevertheless offers ever- finer taxonomies of privacy’s “spatial,” “deci-

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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sional,” “aesthetic,” “proprietary,” and “informational” dimensions.25 But
these efforts have considerable limitations for the historian. If we want to
understand how Americans in varied contexts and times understood pri-
vacy, we need to abandon the notion of it having a stable definition. We
cannot treat the bundle of ideas that inform modern privacy as transhistor-
ical or ahistorical, a timeless princi ple waiting to be discovered, as in the
abstract “right” to privacy— itself a puzzle since no such right was enunci-
ated in formal legal terms in the United States until 1890.

The history offered here undercuts assumptions that there is something
essential, even constitutional, about the concept. I argue that “privacy” has
served in the United States as a catch- all for concerns about modern life
and social organ ization, from new forms of media and technology to new
state proj ects, new kinds of expert intervention, and even new living
arrangements. As Americans reckoned with these developments, and par-
ticularly what they entailed for personal bound aries and individual rights,
privacy itself—as an idea and a practice— evolved. In entertaining novel
understandings of what could be asked and what could be said, what could
be exposed and what should be disclosed, citizens shifted the very contents
of “public” and “private,” even as they regularly treated those categories as a
fixed feature of social life.

In contrast to virtually every recent book on the subject, then, mine is
not an account of what happened to the privacy Americans once, and
seemingly straightforwardly, enjoyed. Instead it recounts what has hap-
pened to citizens’ thinking about privacy— and, just as significant, what
privacy has allowed them to think about. Threats to Americans’ solitude
and security changed dramatically over the last century. Their expecta-
tions about privacy shape- shifted in response. In certain eras, privacy de-
bates focused most intently on incursions into personal space; in other
periods, on violations of individual bodies, psyches, data, or peace of mind.
Although citizens at times seemed to crave privacy, at others they were
insensible to its importance or deliberately repudiated it. In the name of
personal dignity—or autonomy or liberation— some wrapped a cloak of
privacy around themselves, whereas some tore it off or tried to strip it
from others. Americans never all conceived of privacy in the same way, of
course. Nor did they all attend to, or participate equally in, such debates.
What remained remarkably consistent, however, was their recourse to
privacy as a way of arguing about their society and its pressures on the
person.

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T h e K n o w n C i t i z e n

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Here, the same imprecision that vexes theorists proved to be privacy’s
true po liti cal value. Privacy, it turns out, has been a highly

Response To Igo

Sarah Igo considers the history of privacy in modern America, examining the complex rights and experiences associated with being “known.”  According to Igo, what do debates about privacy tell us about what it means to be a “modern citizen”? 

In chapter 8, Igo explores the history of what she calls “confession culture.” How does this history inform currents debates about privacy and why is it important see today’s privacy debates through a lens of changing cultural attitudes and expectations?