Private Lives and the Digital Panopticon

panopticon pointsdactu-dot-orgIn a recent essay on Britain’s “Snooper’s Charter” and the state’s right to intrude in the name of keeping us safe, Simon Jenkins wrote this: “Confidentiality in human relations is integral to personal freedom.”

It’s just sitting there, at the end of a paragraph, like a throwaway sentence, but there’s nothing throwaway about it. It’s one of those adamantine truths that deserve deep and considered contemplation. I considered where I should post this essay because – at least superficially – the question of privacy is a political one. It doesn’t seem to intersect with eroticism. This is a good opportunity to clarify what I mean when I use the term and underscore how, in its philosophical sense, privacy is what defines the boundary between the individual and society, between the self and the state.

The Digital Dimension

One of the problems with our public discussion of how we are surveilled by the state in the name of national security is a smearing of the boundaries between public and private. For the most part, the UK’s citizens do not find the many thousands of public CCTV cameras problematic because the overlook public areas. The internet is a more difficult terrain to understand. Most Social media is most definitely public, and yet there are parts of it – direct messages on Twitter and private messaging on Facebook – in which the user assumes their communication is private. Similarly, the online signing of a petition might be a public digital act, but a donation to a political organization or a cause might be assumed, if one checks the ‘anonymous donor’ box, to be private. When I read an article on the Guardian website, I am making the assumption that it is not a public act, but when I comment, it is. The UK government proposes (and has already done so, apparently, for years) to force servers to store and, if required, divulge a record of a user’s browsing history. While this may have always been information that someone had, somewhere, for some period of time, it is not an unreasonable assumption on the part of internet users that their movements around the net were basically private. Private in the sense that where they went and what they browsed was not the state’s business.

Privacy on the internet has always been a mental construct rather than a physical fact. But that doesn’t invalidate it. The information might be retrieved, but the state should have to show compelling reasons – proof of criminality or criminal intent – in order to do so. In reality, there is no way to absolutely insure digital privacy; there is every reason, however, to require the state to show irrefutable just cause before it deconstructs the fantasy of that individual’s privacy.

Let me use a physical metaphor. Say I have a private diary I have left out on my desk, and I step out of the room for a few moments. You do not have an ethical right to look in it. It doesn’t matter that it is accessible to you, there on the table for you to open and read. It says ‘diary’ on the cover, and our culture has determined that diaries are private until they are published. Your potential access to it does not give you the right to open it and read it while I’m out of the room. If you do, you have fundamentally betrayed my trust. If you suspect me of being a serial killer – if there is ancillary evidence that what is in that diary might be an admission of my criminality – then you have a compelling reason to betray that trust. But you do not have the right to go around opening everyone’s diary just in case a very small number of diarists are serial killers.

What the governments of the US and the UK and many other countries have shown  – over and over – is that they do not feel bound by the culturally normative limitations that individual citizens maintain. They have opened your diary and read the contents without any compelling reason to do so. When caught red-handed betraying that implicit trust, they inevitably use the excuse of ‘national security’ or ‘protecting kids from pedophiles’; those are the two most oft-used defenses for their betrayal of our trust.

The boundary between the private and the public is a fundamental element in how we, as social creatures, navigate our inner and outer world. Certain parts of our online behaviour is obviously public, certain parts are obviously private. Let us not be disingenuous or allow the state to be so: we know very well what is not the state’s business and so does the state. Nothing less than an existential threat to our society, our nation, our social order, should be able to excuse the breaching of those boundaries. Neither terrorists nor a clutch of pedophiles represent anything approximating the existential threat that should be required to force us to consider redefining those boundaries.

The Private Self and the Public Persona

There are many theories about the self – what it is, how it comes to be, what constitutes it. Some even refute that there is such a thing. However, I want to approach this pragmatically. The vast majority of us have a conception of a self on a continuum. We see ourselves as having a completely private side (what we think, know, feel but don’t communicate to anyone), what we think and feel and communicate to a very few people we think of as intimates or record somewhere in privately stored archives (i.e. papers in your possession, a file on our computer, an audio or videotape if you’re oldskool), and the public self we present to the world.

The convergence of technology and the marketization of the individual has changed our understanding of the self. Where once the experience of reading a book in a chair might be considered a private experience, this is no longer necessarily the case. If you read online or on a wifi enabled table reader, what you are reading, what page you’re on, how long it takes you to read it, etc. is information all converted into data that is, theoretically, accessible to others as evidenced by a server that logs your browsing data, SEO information or Amazon’s ‘pay-per-page’ model. Admittedly, no one can hack into how you feel about what you’ve read, but its getting mighty close. A lot of software currently deployed to anticipate customer desires and target the marketing you see online is, in effect, guessing at how you feel. Technologically, we are at the mercy of algorithms that try to read our minds.

To pretend that this doesn’t have an effect on us, or change the way we conceive of ourselves or present ourselves to others is to deny a fact. We are constantly encouraged to review the products we buy online, give our opinions of the books we’ve read or the movies we’ve watched, rate the photographs we see, comment on each other’s social media contributions. We are flattered by a system that not only solicits, but seems desperate to hear our opinions, impressions, judgements, our thoughts. When online, we are pressured to expose our inner thoughts in order to establish our worth as digital personas. And the more unfiltered and intimate the thoughts we expose, the more approval we receive for it.

Fill out your profile, rate this book, review this product, respond to this blogpost in the comments area. The pressure is constant to leave our traces all over the internet in order to be seen to be being by others. The fact that all this data is solicited in order to turn it into a mechanism for marketing or for gathering together large volumes of free content that can be packaged and exploited hardly ever occurs to us.

In the meantime, our economy is constantly demanding we productivize ourselves. Our CVs, Facebook, LinkedIn pages, the posts we make on twitter, all serve as a way to present ourselves to employers, our peers, government entities, etc. for their approval or disapproval. So, we’re not just being pressured to judge. We are also being pressured to present ourselves for the judgement of others. Of course, throughout history, in the analogue world, this was always  – to some extent – the case. But that interaction, in digital form, makes the self we present, the data we divulge, much easier to analyse, form narratives about, and draw conclusions from.

10 days of my browsing history will tell you more about me than I would be willing, if confronted, to divulge to anyone. It would not take much of a psychologist to figure out what my sexual orientation is, my political leanings, my aspirations, my weaknesses. And not much of a manipulator to figure out where to put pressure on me to act in a certain way. It is a very small step from knowing who someone is, to figuring out what makes them tick and, finally, exerting subtle but very real control over them.

We often conceive of our digital life as being a passive, one-way thing. But it’s not. The subtle pressure of tags and classifications slowly but surely nudges the individual to conform and fit in more completely with the tag or classification allocated to them. I’ve noticed it on Fetlife. If you classify yourself as ‘submissive’ because that is, primarily, how you conceive of yourself, it is not difficult to get caught up in the discourse that surrounds that community of submissives, and where the portrait of a ‘real submissive’ is presented as a model against which you measure yourself. And whether that means you are under pressure to conform to something closer to the model or to reject it deviate from it, it is pressure nonetheless, and it does affect you.

When we create an ‘online persona’ – even a public one, it is questionable as to how much of that persona is of our making, and how much is a product of having to choose from the ‘labels’ offered to us and the prevailing digital models to which we are algorithmically compared? If we fool ourselves that we are the ultimate authors of the public entity we present online, we are indulging in a narcissistic fantasy while being manipulated into a box.

If You Don’t Have Anything to Hide, You Don’t Have Anything to Worry About

Edward Snowden said: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” But it’s actually worse than that. What is true for Schrodinger’s Cat is also true for us; the knowledge that we are being unceasingly observed changes what we do, what we say and, eventually, who we are are a fundamental level. If it were not true, belief in a judgmental and omniscient god would have no impact on believers. If it were not true, Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon would hold no water. If it were not true, most of the ways in which we induct children into the social order simply wouldn’t work. The fact that Big Brother may be watching doesn’t just stop us from behaving in the ways Big Brother wants us to behave. Subconsciously, it situates us as performers, constantly ‘performing’ ourselves for Big Brother.

This is nothing new. We have always at least partially ‘performed’ ourselves to a public world. But when the boundaries between private and public erode, the implications of how this affects what we think of as our private, authentic self becomes frightening. Because there are parts of our private selves that are not amenable to absolute conscious control. We don’t author our own psyches. Let me offer a rather dramatic example: no one makes a conscious decision to be aroused by pedophilic thoughts. We can and should be held to account for our acts, but how do we hold someone to account for their thoughts? Similarly, a person who becomes enraged by racist injustice cannot be held to account for their rage – their emotional response to a situation is not a choice. They may, however, be held to account for what they have allowed that rage to inspire them to do, if it is criminal. I realize I may be stating the obvious, but I feel it is important to underscore the fundamental difference between private and public, between thought and act. Because as technology becomes more sophisticated, more convenient, more accessible and immediate, we seem to find it hard not to blur that difference. It has now become very murky as to whether it is illegal to simply visit a site containing ISIS propaganda.

Now admittedly, clicking on a link is an act. But what happens when we develop technology that effects a link to information based on an eye movement? Where does a thought end and an act begin?

National Security and For the Sake of the Children

Hopefully, I have made a convincing argument for how the erosion private boundaries is taking a toll  on how we understand boundaries themselves, the private vs the public sphere, the ethics of trust, our concept of self and other, the gap between thought and action. These are truly dramatic changes that will impact the fabric of our society in ways we can’t even conceive of yet. Governments are demanding the right to breach our privacy, to effect omniscient surveillance, in order to protect us.

I want you to consider whether all the terrorist attacks in the US and the UK, taken in their totality, or all the victims of child abuse, could justify the kind of fundamental changes that will result from their incursion into our private online lives. I don’t want to see any more victims of terror or see any more children’s lives ruined by predators, but I simply do not accept that the price we should pay to be safe is the demolishing of the authentic private self or individual liberty. In fact, I’d argue that to do this is to do the terrorists jobs for them.

What I suspect is that our governments will take whatever control and power we can be persuaded to afford them. Power, by its nature, requires more power, and it will use any strategy at hand to get it.

  10 comments for “Private Lives and the Digital Panopticon

  1. November 5, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    You’ve summed up what many of us must surely have been thinking for some time RG, regarding how far our perception of ‘privacy’ is changing, and the wider implications this brings.

    Yes, my online life is a maze through which my path is largely pre-guided: in which there are never truly any ‘dead ends’, each room leading onwards, and quickly adapting, the ‘algorithms’ tailoring pages to my interests.

    Here is the addiction: entering a space where millions of doors (and eyes) are potentially open. It’s hard to resist, even when we know how far we are being manipulated. Heaven for voyeurs and exhibitionists alike.

  2. November 6, 2015 at 12:24 am

    I hear you, RG. I can’t stand the idea of thought policing. It gives me chills, but I don’t know that it is avoidable. I support technological advancement. Communication has never been this powerful. We’ve never been this connected—oceans don’t separate us anymore, our world is getting smaller. It is a liberating experience that can quickly turn and overwhelm me too. I can see what is happening, right now, and though I believe that most people are good, there are some evil fucks in this world, and I am glad that they are getting caught. Cameras, cellphones, drones—the internet is practically everywhere. There is no privacy anymore, well, it’s hanging on by a thread anyway. If the great-and-powerful government/Borg wants in, they/it will get in and I don’t like that, because their/it’s slogan, ‘It is for the greater good’ does not comfort me. My defense mechanism kicks in, self-preservation isn’t something I made up. I need to protect my genes, yo!

    Assimilation is frightening and violating. I like being myself, but I like being part of a family too. The only privacy I have is my mind, sort of. Informed decision-making…my online experience is definitely being filtered. But it was also being altered when I was a kid watching commercials/propaganda. I am fascinated by new technology, especially when it comes to the medical field (hacking the human body) and space. From Prosthetic’s to life saving cockroaches to space travel to cures for disease…death…

    Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” comes to mind. We are becoming less individual. We are connecting at an “exponential” rate, and it is incredible and scary and exciting.

  3. Liras
    January 12, 2016 at 2:17 am

    RG, everything you wrote is so true.

    Some of those reasons are why I decided not to write a book and why I do not blog more often. What little scraps of solitude I have, I treasure. The All-Seeing Super Eye tends to glaze past me, as I have not turned on my spotlight.

  4. Jane Anne
    February 8, 2016 at 1:04 am

    The scope of your publishing decision is challenging. Where to publish an insightful, philosophical, and personal set of perspectives? A Jungian dilemma in this new world of intersecting cookies. In so doing, You have opened a window for me on reroute to the history of the vehicle, the Net. All said and done, it is very young. I remember meeting Norbert Weiner when he decided to halt work with the military establishment. And it has led me to rethinking reactions and writing. The 2016 publication of Splinternet puts a big frame on the backstory to making sifficult decisions as the reins of nationhood intervention and others increase and fragment action.

  5. February 28, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    RG, I felt a need to revisit this piece after a recent viewing of an odd patchwork psychological bio-video made as a psychological inventory by and with Marlon Brando as a discussion with his psychiatrist. It was in many ways a heartbreaker, but I could not help but think of his life in terms of celebrity and interventions. Videos, sci-fi films made from edgy novels…..somehow your take on that single sentence made it all coalesce in a special way. I remember enrobing Norbert Weiner, the MIT guru who offered up “The Human Use of Human Beings” early in the 1950s. He was to give a speech but his eyes were in some far distant land. Right where we are. RG you have an ear, an eye, a voice for the moment. How much more intrusive will we find life to be? A Mad Hatter and Red Queen moment.

  6. Becky
    April 13, 2016 at 4:47 am

    It amazes me how many intelligent citizens in the UK believe that the introduction of the Investigatory Powers bill automatically equals mass surveillance and erosion of privacy. Do a bit of digging on the resources allocated to national security and you will very quickly realise that there aren’t the resources to monitor all individuals involved in terrorism or paedophilia let alone anyone else. Seriously callung the link the “snoopers charter”? Disappointing. The above clearly shows you have not read the full material surrounding this issue.

    • Lee
      May 22, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      When peoples ISP’s are legally compelled to record all websearch, email and internet transmissions, and their phone companies to mass-record all voice and text messages, there is NO NEED for a vast government mass surveillance network.

      The ISP/telco has been *legally obliged to become the surveillance network*, Becky.

      To record all data permanently and surrender all data on government whim.

      Further, every ISP has been obliged to put a mechanism in place that can be utilised to censor web content. What it’s original purpose was, is now, and how it could be used in future are not guaranteed.

      This means, I think, that you’ve missed the point: It’s 1984.

      • May 24, 2016 at 3:13 pm

        I must agree with this. But even more, we take up the task of surveillance on ourselves, don’t we?

        • Lee
          May 25, 2016 at 4:32 pm

          This, I am not so sure of at all. The one place we can shut them out of is our minds.

          They can’t censor your thoughts, unless you submit.

          There, at least, we are at liberty to chase shadows thru the humid streets of Saigon; offer our skin and our selves to a cruel mistress who loves quicksilver triangular teeth of gleaming metal; fuck our best friends in a rutting frenzy in the heated summer silence of abandoned mansions; frolic like neon dolphins in a glowing sea of data; transform our pathetic bodies into an ustoppable tide of demonic ultrafeminine winged strangeness; accept gifts so corrupting that we might loose ourselves in the process, without ever so much as misplacing an iota of the truth, and thus be unscathed and closer to our true selves.

          Our minds are the place they are not permitted to reach; both wondrous and strange.

          I think that’s a fight they can’t win without killing us.

  7. Jane Anne
    June 12, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Privacy and self exposure are at odds from the get go. The politics of surveillance has a plus side….it is equidistant to politicians as well as to us as ordinary individuals. Inescapable it seems. But you nailed it….we give up the rights to a private world. It is not wrested from us. There are travelers and tourists in the exploration of eroticism. You are surely a traveler, and in writing? A companion of depth and range. A gift to the mind and spirit.

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