Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 20 June 2015 carried an article titled ‘Transparent citizens’. It was one in a series of articles that attempted to address significant current political problems. In this case, it was the question, ‘who can still keep a secret?’ This is a question that is extremely relevant in today’s digital society. How can a secret be kept in a world where everything and everyone is connected by technology designed to map and to link together people, objects, movements, relationships, tastes and preferences? It is also an interesting issue given the social character of secrets. One cannot keep a secret by one’s self. More than that, at the individual level, the difference between public and private is effectively meaningless. Strangely, secrets are social phenomena. Robinson Crusoe, when he thought he was alone on his island, had no need for secrets or privacy.Footnote 1 To keep a secret from yourself is—if possible at all—more a subject for psychology than sociology.
The social aspects of secrets are a well-established theme in sociology that in a theoretical sense is mainly linked to the work of the German sociologist Georg Simmel. A great name in classical sociology, who in most assessments stands amongst the greatest along with Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Simmel wrote at the start of the twentieth century of a ‘sociology of secrets’, looking at the function, the workings and the value of secrets for social life. The most important sociological meaning of secrecy was, according to him, external, since it creates a relation between the secret’s owner and the other who does not know it.Footnote 2 Children create a social relationship when they say ‘I know something you don’t know’. If it were really supposed to remain secret, they would do better not to speak about it. A secret, then, has a value that is sometimes intrinsic, but may also often be external and social. Or as Simmel—a sociologist after all—would say, keeping a secret is a form of stratification. A secret is a possession that will also be coveted by others—he called the secret a jewel or an adornment—and, therefore, a symbol of the owner’s importance.Footnote 3 I know something you don’t know.
Simmel did not hide his appreciation for secrets when he called it ‘one of man’s greatest achievements’.Footnote 4 That appreciation has, I think, two facets. First, he believes that secrets make social life possible. Secrets are of fundamental importance for maintaining relationships. Or, as Craig puts it in his reading of Simmel, ‘If I divulged every passing thought, I doubt I would keep my friends for very long: by keeping parts of myself secret, I maintain relationships.’Footnote 5 Anyone who tells nothing but the truth will soon find themselves very lonely. Above all, the fact that people have secrets, or better put, the fact that people are not fully knowable, is fundamental to the common trust that makes possible everyday interaction between people who do not know each other. For Simmel, that is a crucial element of modernity and urbanisation. In city life, people are simultaneously more individualistic and more dependent upon others whom they do not know.
Another element of modernity has to do with the changing arrangement between the state and its citizens, and with the role and legitimacy of secrets in that relationship. At the start of the twentieth century, Simmel saw a great shift with regard to secrecy on the meta-level of ‘the state’ and ‘the individual’—both in quotation marks. In the nineteenth century, so much light was cast on matters of state that traditional secrecy—until then the norm for many state activities—was crumbling. At the same time, modern urban life gave the individual more opportunity than before to become hidden amongst the masses and to disappear. Simmel describes this dual development as follows:
Politics, administration and jurisdiction thus have lost their secrecy and inaccessibility in the same measure in which the individual has gained the possibility of ever more complete withdrawal, and in the same measure in which modern life has developed, in the midst of metropolitan crowdedness, a technique for making and keeping private matters secret, such as earlier could be attained only by means of spatial isolation.Footnote 6
In other words, the individual becomes free as she joins the masses. Through specialisation and division of labour in modern life, many relationships become more businesslike and impersonal. One can keep more private than before. ‘Stadtluft macht frei’ (the city air makes one free), one might say, although this mediaeval expression has a very specific historical and legal context.Footnote 7 Secrets are foundational to the bourgeois society, where the individual can shield himself and create a private domain that is no longer burdened with too much knowledge of the other. This allows for a private domain screened from the public gaze.Footnote 8 In this formulation by Simmel, the state has become more transparent. The Enlightenment brought the state’s secrets into the light of day. At the same time, Simmel saw that the state was growing and diversifying and becoming less easily made accountable on an organisational level, which created more opportunities for secrecy.
Today’s information society is an interesting case in terms of secrecy on the meta-level, both of the individual and the state. In 2015 it is harder for individuals to keep secrets and the government seems to have recovered its appetite for secrecy. Despite all the reports and well-meaning research on ‘open government’ and ‘open data’ the number of files, physical or virtual, marked ‘secret’ or ‘classified’ grows every day.Footnote 9 And it is at least a little worrying that government seems to permit the individual citizen ever-fewer secrets. With regard to citizens, the mantra of government is ‘more information’ rather than less. Information, even personal information, does not always equal a secret for everyone and at any time. Only when social tensions arise about information, it becomes about secrecy: I want to keep something secret that someone else wants to know. In the information society, secrets (in a sociological sense) are sometimes only revealed as such when information is made public. The social dynamic of revealing information means that some information is only retroactively realised to have been considered a secret. The ability to hide information—and the secrets therein comprised—is a form of freedom that requires others to keep a suitable distance, not in the least the government. In the information society, my thesis holds, the individual’s ability to keep secrets diminishes and the volume of state secrets rises, but those state secrets also become more vulnerable. Both developments are related to new technologies that themselves, in their turn, create a new layer of secrecy. Individual secrets, state secrets and the secrets of technology itself are central to this paper.