That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for myself over the last few months. One would think that without the UK’s Guardian newspaper slowly publishing new information on a weekly basis that we’d have already forgotten about the domestic spying, encryption disabling, etc from the NSA and GCHQ. It would have been news for a week and then turned over in a new cycle with more important headlines such as Mylie Cyrus and such.
For sure, the revelations from Snowden have caused more debate and action in the U.S. congress (both House and Senate) than Manning’s ever has (and in the UK’s parliament). And that’s something. But the amount of apathy from the general public is baffling. People are outraged, I know, but at the same time, we don’t seem to be doing much about it either - hence apathy. A lot of shouting, but little action. It’s really odd. Why aren’t we doing more? That’s the question I’ve been struggling to understand.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in relation to this question (diagram above). There are a few caveats with the Maslow hierarchy (usually represented as a pyramid). The main caveat is that the needs can be fluid, i.e. some at the top may be at the bottom and vice versa depending on the location, culture, time, age, etc of the person. And to make this easier, I am categorizing all of the revelations that have come out from Snowden as privacy.
As best as I can tell, Maslow would have placed privacy into the highest need or “self-actualization.” The highest need, shown at the top of the pyramid in blue, represents only 2% of the general population according to Maslow (remember too the caveats above). Interestingly, Maslow also considered “self-actualization” to be the future of humanity, i.e. the best that we could become. Those at the top have a need for privacy, not because you’re hiding any thing in particular, but because you value it as an equal attribute to your creativity, your pursuit of intellect, and personal morality. In the strictest interpretation, those who don’t believe in privacy don’t believe in creativity, intellect, morality, ethics, etc either.
It’s a curious thing when someone says “innocent people don’t need to hide anything.” Or similarly, “the innocent have nothing to fear [about the privacy invasions].” Such statements come from people who actually haven’t achieved self-actualization for themselves yet. They’re further down the hierarchy is one interpretation. Another interpretation is that they believe all people should be held to a lower level of that pyramid; i.e. you should only be as high as the weakest link. What’s curious is that this is nothing new. We’ve been subjected to this for thousands of years from leadership in republics, monarchies, totalitarian regimes, all of them. No large populous government has truly sought to bring about the highest level of that pyramid.
If we were to measure government in terms of Maslow’s needs, it would fall into the second to lowest category of “safety.” In thousands of years of human civilization we haven’t really moved beyond that, which is another huge array of “whys” waiting to be answered. I think we see a glimpse of progression in the 4th amendment to the US Constitution (emphasis mine).
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
For many people, metadata, phone calls, Skype chats, email, Facebook messages, etc are an extension of their persons. If you are not free to do these things securely then you are unable to attain “self-actualization.” You are being deprived of achieving more. But still, why are we, as a populace, not more angry? Why are we not doing more to ensure this security of our persons? I think an answer, and there probably isn’t just one answer, is extremely complex.
In part, we can go back to Maslow’s assertion that only 2% of the population have reached self-actualization. If this is true, then only 2% of the population is concerned about privacy. Put another way, that means privacy is not the primary concern of the population. Remember again the caveats from above, that the needs are fluid and not binary. Everyone, to some degree, is probably concerned about privacy, but it’s not the primary need that they have. Looking at the list of needs in the pyramid above, things like food, shelter, jobs, love, friendship and others all come before privacy, intellectual pursuits, lack of prejudice, and creativity. And in fact, if you’re in power and want to change the debate, the easiest thing to do is to tell people (and remind them) that they need to go to war (Syria), that the economy still needs recovery, that marriage straight or gay (love in the hierarchy) is a more important debate than privacy. It keeps privacy out of the debate, and with limited privacy you have more power.
In effect, if 98% of the population doesn’t consider privacy amongst their primary needs then action will be limited. I actually think more than 2% of us are in the “self-actualization” part of the hierarchy. However, I think we’ve been deceiving ourselves about how filled those needs actually are. Once you fill the first two levels, it becomes more difficult to discern what the important things are (and again to each person there is fluidity in the needs). We are probably deceiving ourselves that access to Facebook, Google, television, etc are filling our needs higher up the hierarchy And if we’re deceived into thinking we’re filled, then a small thing like the removal of privacy becomes less of a concern. Or focusing the debate on any thing but a “self-actualization” need will mitigate that concern.
Imagine the reverse, where all you had were the first two levels filled, and only one thing at the top (the next three levels). How would you then feel if that one thing, for example privacy, were stripped away? You’d certainly notice it more than if you had basically every other need filled. Perhaps this is why people from countries that are worse off than the US/UK/Canada/Australia/etc, seem to take more action in the news. They’re barely at the second level of needs, sometimes at just the first level, and then they have things like democracy, freedom of expression, privacy (Zimbabwe, Syria, East Germany pre-1989, Somalia, etc) taken away. You had one thing available to you that represented the highest that humanity could achieve and it is taken away from you.
Right now we are being deprived of the highest that humanity has to offer. We should not be merely satisfied that in the West we’ve achieved the first two levels (and yes individuals in the West are suffering on levels 1-2 still). We shouldn’t be satisfied that this is the best our governments have to offer. We shouldn’t believe that we’re still needing to go to war after 10,000 years of civilization (a level-2 need). We shouldn’t be confusing comforts such as prime-time television and iPhones with our higher needs. I believe we can expect more and offer more to ourselves.