Once, there was no privacy. Large families lived in small dwellings; those in large houses were surrounded by large households. Where the individual could break away from the group, there were the exhortations of the church to consider: an omniscient God was watching you. (As a reminder of this medieval world, I’m told there’s still no word to describe privacy in Italian.)
Now, as Naomi Klein has argued in No Logo, the public realm is being privatised: invaded by sponsorship and advertising clutter. Our default assumption is private, not public. (Commuters on public transport are individual iPod bubbles or are blithely conducting private conversations in public.)
Others argue that in our ‘surveillance society’ there’s an unacceptable invasion of privacy, but I interpret this debate differently. We are so agitated about this issue because it runs counter to our assumption that privacy and individualism will triumph.
This issue matters to students and job seekers when they find that what they assumed to be private (for example, their Facebook conversations, interests and photos) are considered in the public domain by university authorities or employers. It might matter to anyone taking photographs in public spaces; depending on how the photo is used, whose privacy is being invaded? Were any children in the frame?
If we are privatising the public realm and witnessing the deconstruction of the mass media into masses of media, then what is left for public relations to do? I’ll leave this for the scholars to debate, but I suspect that the phrase public relations will decline in usage through this century. Nor will it be replaced by private relations: that phrase will surely still mean something else.