A Meditation on the Question of Privacy Today
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who does not understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
A former teacher of mine recently asked me to consider privacy. As in: Why do we need it? What are we giving up in our push towards hyper exposure, connectivity, and convenience?
Below is my response. A quick caveat: The irony of answering this in the public arena of a blog is not lost on me. But this irony itself is part of the answer. Privacy, as is exposure -- as are many of the more complicated and theoretical social questions we face today -- does not exist in the simplified realms of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, the danger lies in the sheep mentality of an unexplored reasons; it is a matter of building the world on an unexamined foundation.
The image that most immediately sprung to mind was that of a seed buried away in order to find its ultimate expression. The seed enters privacy. Individuals, as well as ideas and movements they express, similarly need such seclusion in order to undertake the chaos of their manifestation process. Last year I had to do exactly this. I completely left the eyes of society for a month. Did not tell anyone where I was and basically unplugged. It was one of the most rewarding personal and creative experiences I have ever had. I cannot entirely explain why I need such extreme privacy for the needed transformation without going into loose pseudo psychology or quantum theories of how one must, at random intervals, remove oneself from the general observer effect of others and even society at large (and when we talk about society at large we no longer just talk about social interaction. We now include Facebook, Tweeter, and all the social media prosthetics of the social body). Granted, I am an extreme case. I enjoy taking the seldom sojourn into seclusion. I am an itinerate either by nature or heavy nurture. Nevertheless, I am an outlier which points to an innate (however unexpressed desire) within all of us. This is what outliers do, as sort of a potential indicator species.
This outlier is a key subject within the conversation in defense of privacy. As we surrender our privacy the whole of society begins to approach a general norm — our desires, passions, daily actions and personal routines, driven by the mimetic operetta — all of our qualities normalize. Variation slows. Everything out of the radius of acceptable becomes outcast. Becomes a possible enemy or scapegoat (in the Rene Girard sense of the word from Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). Society becomes more predictable. Revolution, or true transformation, be it social or personal, becomes less likely to occur. Under the eyes of the ‘collective eye,’ however fictional the idea may be (and though it may be fictional this does not make it less actively functional in our psychology as we all gravitate closer to the norm and acceptable) we become even greater consumers of desires suggested upon us by larger institutions — political, commercial, etc. The execution of society becomes a matter of social science and statistics — engineered. A process which discounts outliers. We need outliers for genuine, unforeseen transformation — be it in art, society, politics, values, or economy. On a not entirely related note but somewhat related note, both the surveillance institutions (CIA and NSA) and net institutions (Facebook/ Google/ Microsoft) as well as Amazon, have invested heavily into funding social science research in the last year. More and more, PhD candidates in psychology and sociology are being offered the funding they need with the caveat that their findings must first be vetted through their financial backers. This is not a route outside of academia. This is within academia. Loosely related link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jun/12/pentagon-mass-civil-breakdown
In this conversation I keep coming back to an essay by Pierre Claestres from Archeology or Violence. Claestres discusses ‘the incident at the beginning of time.’ When at some point before history we as individuals surrendered some of our individuality to join the safety of the collective. This step is discussed as one from which there is simply no retreat. My sense is that we are now facing another such step. We think we are climbing up but we are slow to consider that there is no turning back from it, too caught up in the promises of progress to entertain all the conditions and implications of taking this step. It is bigger than industrialization, which changed the way we work and commune in cities. Bigger than television, which changed the way we administer our own agency and identify our desires and values. This new step is a further leap into the collective and a further divorce from the personal. A step towards where value is identified by the collective of “likes,” towards where every one of our quires (now known as “googling it”) is calibrated in response and suggestion by a mechanism which calculates faster than we do. We are told what we want, what is good and bad, right and wrong, before we have the chance to make the choice, before we have the wherewithal to weigh the values and implications of the choice, before we even understand the scale. We do this because we are conditioned to think that we must move fast to 'keep up' with the 'mass.' And we move with the belief that it is what “we” want — that this is how “we” think. We are not making machines which are more like humans. We are making humans which are more like machines. If and when Artificial Intelligence is discovered it will not be like us (as in what we used to be, and what our individual nature is — what we still are, just even in some small, desperately human ways, still are now), instead it will be us meeting it in the middle. We will be made more like the idea of A.I, and A.I will not be an individual server, it will be the mass of the net. No wonder Google and Microsoft are the largest private investors into the Brain Activity Map project. We are the individually firing (querying, purchasing…) neurons. The net is the brain.
I know, this is starting to read a bit like sci-fi, conspiracy theory stuff. But so did The Brave New World, so did 1984, so did The Matrix. At its best what sci-fi does is plant seeds for later consideration on problems that have yet to mature into clear states questions. Edward Snowden revealed something similar, exposing unspoken and even taboo concerns into the realm of public consciousness and discourse. Isn’t it funny though, with everything that has been revealed about the covert actions of our government and the super corporations of the world, we still believe that everything is fine. We share our practiced outrage in the designated arenas — classroom or coffee shops — sanctioned spaces, comfortable and pacified. Then we return to our ‘regular’ lives, the normalized thought patterns, convinced everything is fine and it was good of us to express our witty and succinct opposition but now back to what we believe to be our normal, safe, unaffected lives. I write this because I know it is true for me and my friends, and I am trying to understand how to break through it.
Another key consideration in this conversation is: Why is everyone so eager to give their privacy away? Convenience is seen as the holy grail in a hyper-moving and ever speeding up, or 'progressive,' society. Bank accounts, amazon, GPS, toll cards, Facebook, linkedin, Google search, credit scores, etc, are all being bundled up as we eagerly click “accept the terms and conditions,” to lift the functionality of our lives up to the pace our progressive, and progressing, society demands. We do this because we still believe that this is all just clothing. Just garments of society, and progress. That we can shed this in a passionate frenzy, if ever needed. But what if the fibers of our social garments have begun to integrate with our skin, or deeper? What if our passions have become confused with what we are told rather than feel? What if the fibers are reaching deeper into us, beyond even what we can see or have confirmed to exist within?
Personal privacy is a construct alive not just in functionality and activity but in our personal agency over the development of our individual psychology and character. Part of being human is the mystery of what germinates in the shadow, and what we choose as individuals to do with the unique growth of that seed. We need for the unseen to happen within us in oder to create something truly new. But without privacy the unseen may no longer be the product of our own individual constitution, and instead may the outpouring of a collective norm sold to us as though our own product.
Final note: In 1940, Arthur Koestler published Darkness at Noon, a skinny novel examining the missteps of communism and its psychology. This book is rarely read today, but is considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century. The main character is Nicholas Salmanovich Rubashov, a former bolshevik who has been arrested without clear cause. He sits in a secluded cell, systematically examining his life to understand his crime, consequently an effort to account for the logic in the movement he helped engineer. He sits ultimately as the judge of the matter, and in his seclusion he finds the silent partner of the human condition, which he, and his counterparts, in their rush towards progress had failed to account for. The passage below identifies this silent partner. Blindly surrendering our privacy, I feel like we face the prospect of almost entirely loosing the channels necessary for this type of personal dialogue.
“Rubashov had always believed that he knew himself rather well. Being without moral prejudices, he had no illusions about the phenomena called the “first person singular,” and had taken for granted, without particular emotion, that this phenomenon was endowed with certain impulses which people are generally reluctant to admit. Now, when he stood with his forehead against the window or suddenly stopped on the third black tile, he made unexpected discoveries. He found out that those processes wrongly known as “monologues,” are really dialogues of a special kind; dialogues in which one partner remains silent while the other against all grammatical rules, addresses him as “I” instead of “you”, in order to creep into his confidence and to fathom his intentions; but the silent partner just remains silent, shuns observation and even refuses to be localized in time and space.” (87-88 Darkness at Noon)