Be Private and Perish
In examining Canada’s place in the new global realities opening up around us, I like to think about the key message of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”: “Perhaps the crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change (p. 433).”
What are the values Canadians hold that are dragging us down an unsustainable path? There are many candidates that come to mind, each with its own sense of invincibility. Consumerism? Property rights? Sovereignty itself? But one value that is showing signs of weakness, and may just have to go for the greater good, is our sense of entitlement to privacy.
Along with cheap water and global hockey dominance, privacy is a luxury that we Canadians have learned to take for granted. We have backyards to enjoy in relative solitude. We cocoon ourselves in cars or retreat into our headphone universes as we journey from place to place. And our familiarity with local gossip rarely exceeds one or two houses distant from our own.
Although comfortable, privacy has its costs. Urban sprawl, consumerism, class segregation, voter apathy, and general loneliness can all be blamed at least in part on the thirst for greater privacy. Countering these social afflictions will require that Canadians step away from the private and into the realm of the communal. Living in compact cities with lower environmental footprints and higher chances of bumping into people. Taking public transit to reduce our fossil fuel addiction. Listening to opinions counter to our own in an attempt to address complex societal problems collaboratively.
Ironically, it may be the invention of the virtual world that will help create closer real-world communities. Communications technologies provide the means to break down the barriers of private information and personal space, so that we can open up without feeling vulnerable. Today’s youth growing up in the age of MySpace and cellphones are much less reticent to share personal information with the world. This virtual openness may very well translate into a new Canadian reality that is comfortable sharing public infrastructure, engaging with neighbours, and generally feeling part of collective society rather than reigning over private domains. This may not be enough to save modernity from itself, but it is a necessary first step to realizing that we can’t hide from the changing world around us.