Recent research suggests a new trend among paranoid schizophrenics: they believe they are secretly being taped by hidden cameras for purposes of a reality show. I don't know quite what to make of this "fascinating cultural illness," to use Carla Casilli's eloquent label. This population is presumably going to pick some premise for their delusion; what does it matter whether their imagined antagonist is a demon or a director?
One theory says that we might look to our mentally ill to diagnose ascendant privacy problems. Thus, if the American paranoid reports being followed by the CIA, as he disproportionately does, then perhaps we should be reexamining our surveillance practices. Or if our mentally ill begin to experience themselves as unwilling stars in a reality show, we should take the opportunity to think through emerging cultural norms around living in public.
This theory is consistent, at least, with the observations of Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization, where he explores the former (possibly apocryphal) practice of sending the mentally ill to sea. For Foucault, this practice was not just about ridding the town of people who were hard to care for. "Madness" was associated with an ability to experience the liminal, and hence to explore the unknown. The mad were thought to bring back mysterious and useful insights wherever they made port. The image Foucault invoked was that of a Ship of Fools with the Tree of Knowledge as its mast.
In my essay The Boundaries of Privacy Harm, I acknowledge that even a delusional belief in observation can harm one's privacy. "Paranoia, hallucination, guilt associated with the belief that God is watching," I note, "all of these harm the values that privacy protects." I generally consider this facet of my theory to be a drawback. It seems odd to suggest that the mentally ill experience privacy harm by virtue of their hallucinations, and hence the theory fits less well with contemporary intuitions. It did not occur to me, however, that perhaps the type of delusion or guilt members of a society experience points to a source of privacy harm that operates at the broader level of culture.
I'm not at all sure that is true, but it has been interesting to think about for a moment so I thought I'd share. Your thoughts welcome.