Primitive Facebook

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 “disappeared” or were forgotten is absurd. They simply resided in different storage mediums.

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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4 thoughts on “Primitive Facebook

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Yesterday, on a father-son weekend, my 13 yo son and I went to an Indian restaurant. My son said, I love the gestures and mannerisms of Indians (we also have very close Indian friends). Anyway, I told him I did too. But I told him that Indians tend to have a much higher tolerance for closer physical spacing than Americans. Japanese even want more distance. We discussed how hard it is to escape your upbringing.

    So, are some cultures more public than others? I think so. But I couldn’t say which. Some cultures sleep all together in the same room – some separate. Any tendencies among the HGs?

  2. Cris Post author

    There is always a great deal of cultural variability on these issues among different societies, and hunter-gatherers are no exception. Given that hunter-gatherers lived in so many different places, times, and environments, I don’t think we should expect there to be any essential HG view on this. Of course there is some inherent lack of privacy when HGs are gathered together in camps, but they were often not gathered in camps. So there were times of intense intimacy interspersed with isolation.

  3. Cris Post author

    As is true of any categorical or typological generalization about groups of people, yes.

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