Would Warren and Brandeis be Luddites?

Last week I taught “The Right to Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis. Their article was published in 1890 but is filled with sentiments and quotes that could be addressing technology today. The language is a bit aged but the ideas are still clear.

This could be about social media…

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

And their fear of technology

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ” what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

There is lots more. Their work reflects ideas found in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or any of the later books by Sherry Turkle. People who we generally see, to a varying degree, as anti-technology. Usually when people go against the current technology we throw about the pejorative term Luddite!

And Warren & Brandeis may have faced similar criticism in their time. The article was well received. For example an article in the 1891 Atlantic Monthly wrote (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979):

…a learned and interesting article in a recent number of the Harvard Law Review, entitled The Right to Privacy. It seems that the great doctrine of Development rules not only in biology and theology, but in the law as well; so that whenever, in the long process of civilization, man generates a capacity for being made miserable by his fellows in some new way, the law, after a decent interval, steps in to protect him.

But an interesting social critique comes from Godkin writing about the Right to Privacy article in The Nation in 1890

The second reason is, that there would be no effective public support or countenance for such proceedings. There is nothing democratic societies dislike so much to-day as anything which looks like what is called “exclusiveness,” and all regard for or precautions about privacy are apt to be considered signs of exclusiveness. A man going into court, therefore, in defence of his privacy, would very rarely be an object of sympathy on the part either of a jury or the public.

He also wrote about how their ideas were interesting but maybe belonged to a certain class of individual… (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979)

” ‘privacy’ has a different meaning to different classes or categories of persons, it is, for instance, one thing to a man who has always lived in his own house, and another to a man who has always lived in a boardinghouse.”


Its much too easy to look at the past and judge it from the perspective of the present. But I wonder if I called Warren & Brandeis luddites if I had been around at the time?

Grumpy old men

TechnoLlama has written an excellent rant against Helprin’s Digital Barbarians here is a short excerpt:

Several things bother me about what I have read about Digital Barbarianism. Obviously, the title is a non-too-subtle slight against digital culture, those of us engaged in online environments are the barbarians at the gates, and real creators and civilised people who must stand up against the onslaught of the unwashed masses, upstarts, amateurs and misguided young kids. I have read several excerpts, and Helprin comes across as a grumpy old man who is not actually defending copyright, but attacking youth.

It’s well written and argumented so read it!

Technology too far

Technology is fun and often frustrating but for me the most frustrating element of technology are touch screens and automatic sensors. The reason for this is that they never seem to work properly when I am around. As a result I stand in public restrooms pointlessly waiving my hands under the tap and hoping for water. Or standing in line at for train tickets only to attempt to attempt to input my wishes on a touch screen that adamantly insists that I am not here.

Its not like I have not tried different strategies to attempt to fool the technology in question. My cooker at home is based on touch screen technology so I know what I am talking about. But the cooker at home is not as embarrassing as all the public technology and in particular not being able to work the technology available in the men’s room.  The last area is also more than mildly disturbing from a hygienic point of view when I think about others who cannot wash their hands.

I want a return to knobs and switches, taps and real buttons so I will not look like such a fool in public. So! From a hygiene point of view I demand a return to the more primitive technology! Call me a luddite if you want, but all I want to do is to be able to wash my hands in the bathroom…

Facebook and Suicide

A British psychiatrist addressing the Royal College of Psychiatrists states that Facebook can increase the likelihood that teenagers will kill themselves

It may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide.

A paranoid, luddite psychiatrist – who would have guessed?

(via Infocult)