Debate Magazine

Primitive Facebook

By Cris

In this Aeon article on the supposed mismatch between the ancestral past and modern life, we are told that we share too much online because our “privacy instincts” are under-developed. Aside from the dubious proposition that culturally plastic humans have an evolved instinct for privacy, let’s ask why this should be so. According to the author and his academic informants, it’s because our “pre-modern” ancestors supposedly forget everything that was said or done shortly after it was said or done:

And it’s certainly true that for most of human existence, most people have got by with very little private space. There are many anthropological reports of pre-modern [i.e., hunter-gatherer] societies whose members happily coexisted while carrying out almost all of their lives in public view.

Over time, we will probably get smarter about online sharing. But right now, we’re pretty stupid about it. Perhaps this is because, at some primal level, we don’t really believe in the internet. Humans evolved their instinct for privacy in a world where words and acts disappeared the moment they were spoken or made.

This is patently and ethnographically false. Hunter-gatherers are not, of course, “pre-moderns.” They are, however, different.

In oral cultures (i.e., hunter-gatherer societies), words and acts do not and did not disappear. Quite the opposite. They were carefully noted and remembered for entire lifetimes. Most such societies used teasing, gossip, shame, avoidance, and ostracism to enforce cultural norms. All these stratagems depend on words and acts that are remembered and discussed. Indeed, remembered words and acts constituted the large part of a person’s social identity and treatment within society. To say words and acts were simply or immediately forgotten is absurd.

We have here yet another example of essentializing hunter-gatherers and using them as “primitive” contrasts to “modern” culture. It’s largely a fantasy.


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