Why we need private spaces in a digital world

Essay • 3 min read

Private spaces afford us the time and space to stop performing. Places where we can learn and grow. In an always on digital world no one has a digital home.

Why we need private spaces in a digital world

Private spaces. We all need them. A place where we can step outside the variety of roles we adopt within our personal and professional social circles. In my case; a husband, a father, a brother, a friend, a work colleague, etc.

Like in many cases, Gil Scott Heron says it best:

“You need to have a place to go where you can lock out your job. You know, if I want to work, there’s a piano, a word-processor and all that, but that’s not mandatory. You need to have a place you can go, to think about tomorrow and leave all that other shit outside. All those things that are bothering you, all those people that are getting on your nerves. Come on in and do something else. Play cards or backgammon or what the fuck ever. You know, I don’t want to hear it and you don’t want to talk about it. No, not really, so let’s not do that.”

Private spaces are important for our mental health and our personal development. In real life, our home is a sacred space. No one has the right to intrude unless they are invited. We have control over this space and other people and organisations respect that. Even outside the home, we find public spaces to disconnect from everyday life, like; coffee shops, libraries, art galleries, parks and gyms.

However, we don’t just exist in the physical world, we live a large proportion of our lives in the digital world. The problem is there are no private spaces for us to disconnect to in the digital world. We are always on, always connected and always being monitored (whether we’re aware of it or not). We don’t have a digital home where we can “leave all that other shit outside”. In large part, this is because we do not exist in the digital world. We only exist when Amazon, Google or any other digital organisation’s system validate our login credentials. This is troubling because there are fragments of our digital selves all over the internet. We need to exist independently of these digital systems to exert control over our digital identity and access to our information. As it currently stands our digital public spaces are big revenue-generating businesses and heavily monitored by corporations and/or governments.

In this surveillance society (whether it is benevolent or not), our behaviours in the digital world dramatically affect our future. There is no room for error. If you’re constantly being watched there is no space to try new things and fail. As more of our lives are digital we need to be able to shut out the digital world and create safe private spaces. This will give us the space to fail fast and get creative. How children learn are a great example of this. When they get to an age where they are conscious of the pressures of being graded, the presence of adults can suppress their creativity. I inadvertently learnt this while observing a child doing his homework. He thought he was alone and was passionate and creative about the thing he was working on, it was amazing to watch. As soon as I said “hello”, he reverted to the performance of a “good student” and continued “safe work”. I felt awful for interrupting his flow and ultimately the private space he was using to explore, learn and grow.

Central to the solution is solving the digital identity problem and ensuring everyone has the right to exist independently of any other digital entity. We also need digital social spaces that aren’t designed to refine an algorithm that constantly serves us adverts and pollutes our attention. And we need digital private spaces, a disconnected and decentralised place for our digital artefacts that we control. Where we have the right to opt-out of our data being used for developing AI. Intelligence that will be designed to predict our future behaviours… and dare I say it, our thoughts.

There are huge moral and ethical questions involved in this too, which is linked to digital wellness. What does digital wellness look like in the digital era? …and, no, it’s not just downloading the latest meditation app. Digital wellness will increasingly become an important topic especially as we’re entering a post-digital era, where the boundaries between physical and digital are invisible. Where digital technology is embedded in our surroundings and is listening to us even in our physical private spaces. If we don’t tackle this then our private spaces (digital and physical) will end up becoming a new luxury for the privileged and powerful.

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