Because Elle hasn’t posted anything.
Massive power imbalance.
Because Elle hasn’t posted anything.
Massive power imbalance.
We cannot deny what Leon Trotsky calls “the psychological unity of the social man, who creates and who consumes what has been created.” [i]Those voyeurs, those data-stealers, those Dumpster-divers of the 21st century (you can’t even see the feet sticking out, complains Gordon) are part of the same system as both my template couples. Speech acts – and text messages, medical records, credit card statements, and the rest, are all speech acts – exist as part of a discourse that connects all the interlocutors and eavesdroppers into one system. This is true even when, or perhaps especially when, they are trapped in a struggle with each other. The IT security manager is given life by the invisible Dumpster divers, who are in turn tempted into being by the multiplicity of modes of transmission and near-infinity of available data. The exhibitionist couple and the anxious couple are responding to the same summons.
When so much data is available so quickly, on so many kinds of media, in so many formats, what becomes of our concepts of anonymity, of private and public space, of identity? I believe that ideology follows technology and that as our technology changes our relations to the world around us, our sense of ourselves as subjects will also change. In fact, public/private negotiation via our communications technology is becoming more and more necessary. Performance of at least some portion of our lives for the consumption of strangers has become obligatory.[ii]
Eventually, maybe – this is pure fantasy, “playing out the problem as solution” – the density of the available data will render it so realistically unmanageable, so much like the real world, that communications technologies will no longer pose any particular threat.
Meanwhile, half performers and half hermits, we struggle for a middle ground. Identity: the hand I hold out to the next soldier on the rope. What I say when I pray to the gods. What it feels like to kiss the man I love. Data: height, weight, bank account number, per-volume percentage of sales I make on the phone at work. Any of these could change without changing me, though of course I could be wretchedly inconvenienced if someone pilfered my stellar sales digits.
And sure, I could write up that kiss and email it to my friends, or Twitter it, or spam it out to the world at large, but it would change in the telling. Everyone would yawn. Or say, “Eww.” Or my guy’s girlfriend might read my narrative, ride up to my job in her Chevy S-10, make a scene, bust my nose, get me fired. Or, most likely, everyone would exercise the proper response to in-box impedimenta, and hit delete. None of these responses would change the numinous reality behind the writing. And if I wrote it up right, the words wouldn’t sum up the kiss anyhow, but perform an exegesis of it, showing all the things one kiss might mean, and at the same time the inability of frail words to describe it at all.
Socrates, remember, was alarmed by technologies like writing that made possible the uncontrolled distribution and interpretation of texts. Maybe, like the orphan speeches of the Phaedrus, any speech-act that travels around without an exegete to hold its hand and speak for it becomes “nothing but data.” That, at least, is nothing new.
[i] Trotsky, L. (1923). The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism. Literature and Revolution. Trans. Strumsky, R. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
[ii] Kearns, D. (2011, July 8). Aristotle on Anonymity. Network World. Accessed August 11, 2011, at http://www.networkworld.com/newsletters/dir/2011/071111id1.html
On the other hand, a counter-movement, a dialectical response, is possible. Information technology creates or reproduces data faster and with more redundancy than it protects it. In this sense, rather than limiting or protecting or rationalizing the world, information technology serves to “re-enchant” the world. And this re-enchantment takes the form of the ominous, exhausting, and yet intoxicating sense of being always on stage.
If the young couple with the images on their cell phones (and, we’ll imagine, their birth dates and lists of friends and “favorite” commercial sites and most likely social security numbers readily available online) still cares about the concept of privacy at all, it must mean something radically different than it does to the “anxious” couple.
For example, they fight. The young husband hollers, dashes outside, slams the door. Inside, the wife thinks to herself: What does it mean? What do I feel about him? The wife creates a picture, scans it, posts it online. It’s a collage – ink wash over a photo of herself, taken with a digital camera. Her face is turned away. Her back curves away, too, white and lyrical as a Man Ray nude. The viewer can see her behind, the dirty soles of her feet, a smudge of pubic hair. She’s kneeling, bending away from the camera, trying to show grief.
This is how I feel when we fight, runs the caption.
Her friends – some of whom she’s never met – post: That’s really beautiful. I think you feel like you’re turning invisible. Don’t let your boss see that – LOL!
She reads their responses. You feel like you’re turning invisible.
She texts her husband. I feel like I’m turning invisible.
He’s been sitting in his truck outside the bar for the last hour, reading texts from his friends. You should see that pic your wife posted. Nice ass.
Meanwhile, since the young wife saved her work on the flash drive she takes to her office, the original digital photo, minus the ink wash of the second version, has been downloaded inadvertently by her onto the company machine and backed up by a third-party data storage vendor . . . What becomes of these young people, of their identity? Does the public gaze create, reveal, or obscure the young woman? And the young man, when his gaze becomes incorporated into the larger public eye that’s turned on the young woman – does he become the public, or does he have his own take? For sure, his response will be governed by the responses of everyone else who’s looking at that image, posting their posts, texting him.
Where, then, is that young man’s privacy? That young woman’s privacy? Certainly not in their images or data. We could see them, in counter-example to the anxious and threatened couple, as a template “contemporary” couple, for whom so-called “personal” data is always/already public. They exist in exactly the same relationship to anonymity and the public gaze as do my colleague’s “anxious” couple, but, for them, the rupture with anonymity is not experienced as threat, but as desire.
But our younger couple feels anxiety, too. While to the privacy-driven IT security professional and his wife (she would, appropriately, be a lawyer or perhaps a Human Resources worker, or just maybe, a traditional and adamant “homemaker”) may regard them as a specimen of mad and self-destructive exhibitionism, the young couple, too, is responding to a perceived threat in their world. The impulse towards performance, towards the total exteriorization of social and work and erotic life, I believe, grows from the same outward displacement of identity that gives rise to the security community’s concern. Data in the kind of aggregate that starts to approach the density of real life (not really, of course, but insofar as it can be dealt with, researched, experienced) is no more or less meaningful than the source reality, except that it lacks the bite of primary experience. The only perfect map of a country is the country itself, and such a map would be useless . . . In the torrent of data, they fear not exposure but misunderstanding, misreading, or, at worst, anonymity. For them, privacy means, at best, that everyone else is controlling their image. At worst, it means they disappear. So, they perform.
If You Can See Me, Then You’re Prob’ly a Little Too Close[i]
In an unpublished paper from the spring of 2011, my IT security colleague described a dialectical process by which the human subject becomes aware of himself as an externalized “identity”:
“Anonymity is the quality of being anonymous which is defined as not named or identified, ie: they wish to remain anonymous.
“Privacy is defined as freedom from unauthorized intrusion. The Right of privacy is defined as the right of a person to be free from intrusion into or publicity concerning matters of a personal nature, or a legal right to be left alone and live free from unwanted publicity.
“Like I said earlier today I think the Anonymity is the first stage, where you hope no one knows who you are or cares. If no one knows you then you are not concerned with what they know and what they spread about you.
“Privacy comes into play when your anonymity is lost, you have been identified therefore you can be named. From then on you are making every effort to be left alone and live free from unwanted publicity. I think the big key, especially in this modern time is the definition that says you now try to live free from intrusion concerning matters of a personal nature.”
I picture him writing, anyone with similar background and temperament writing, looking up dictionary definitions online, pasting and moving paragraphs around. Then, surprisingly, he produces not a simple series of oppositions, but a dialectic.
Anonymity is the starting ground. The individual, not yet a subject of this brave new world, drifts along unaware of himself until he finds himself subject to the gaze of others. “You have been identified therefore you can be named.” The public around him is perceived as always/already hostile: “unwanted publicity” (repeated twice in four short paragraphs), “intrusion,” “what they spread about you.” Privacy takes on a numinous desirability.
This is of course the very pattern that Louis Althusser sets out when he writes, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects”[iii] and uses as examples a policeman calling out, “Hey you!” or a preacher hollering from the pulpit (to switch to Tennessee idiom), “Have you been saved?” The individual recognizes himself as the person hailed by the cop, or the person in peril of damnation, and forms his idea of himself, and thinks, and acts, accordingly. He doesn’t have time to do otherwise, he’s being hailed, in some sense, from before the time of his birth.
In this particular formulation, it is technology, acting as ideology, that hails the individual, not through words, but through perception of the instant wide-spread recognition the technology makes possible: he is seen; he is known, not just by his intimates, but by potentially everyone. He doesn’t have to be addressed by any human voice. The “parts you wish to shield from view” become “nothing but data.”
“Privacy is not opposed to public it is designed to segment what parts of your being are readily open to the rest of the world and what parts you wish shield from view, retain only for you and your spouse, keep free from intrusion and be left alone.”
Being is dependent upon the gaze. So, in our model, the subject of our digital world becomes self-aware at the same moment he perceives himself as seen; his existence is defined as, and springs from, a public gaze that he recognizes as threat. And this self-awareness incorporates and interprets all his previous existence. Now that he has been seen (“you have been identified therefore you can be named”), he desires privacy, which is not opposed to public existence but a segmentation of it, a necessary response to the threat which follows upon the rupture from anonymity.
And, while being is dependent on the gaze of others, the naked body – or the person seen in his erotic aspect – is the logical model for human vulnerability. The model is as old as genesis; when the primordial couple becomes self-aware in the presence of their god, they cover themselves. Despite other, far greater threats to humans, we focus on adult and childish indiscretions involving erotic images and behavior. While analogies can be made to other data-related crimes (hacking to wiretapping or breaking and entering, bank data theft to physical theft, etc.) the image of the naked body is the analogy we use for other kinds of exposure, and represents the potential for a more profound loss, for which we have no good analogy.
[i]Khan, S. et al. (2011). Let Go. Recorded by Tinie Tempah. On Disc-overy. London: Capitol Records/Disturbing London Records. For the phenomenon of the universalization of the experience of fame among teenagers, see Hawgood, A. (2011, July 15). No Stardom Until After Homework. The New York Times. Accessed 11 August, 2011, from www.nytimes.com. Also see Uhls, Y. and Greenfield, P. The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis. Cyberpsychology 5. Accessed August 11, 2011, from www.cyberpsychology.eu.
[ii] The unpublished paper mentioned in the text. For a different formulation of the privacy/anonymity pairing, one that makes privacy the primary category with anonymity as an (often deceptive) imitation thereof, see Less Anonymity/More Privacy (2007, November 6). PC Magazine 26.21, 63.
[iii]Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays. Trans. Brewster, B. Monthly Review Press. My colleague would object to my reading as misguided or deliberately perverse, but these “Rights of privacy,” as performed by concerned individuals, or, better yet, security professionals, look a lot like Althusser’s “rituals in which these practices [the actions a human subject takes to perform his ideas in the material world] are inscribed, within the material existence of an ideological apparatus, be it only a small part of that apparatus.”
Much later, this happened:
In April, Elle and I attend the same professional conference. I slide in soon before the first speaker starts. Elle’s sitting halfway up the room, munching the complimentary sandwiches. She’s wearing a badly-fitting man’s sport jacket. She finishes her packet of Fritos and tips the crumbs from the plastic bag into her mouth. She looks like any of the other types here, stuffy and geeky, computer techs and small bureaucrats, mostly men, mostly in sport jackets, all but one white, listening to a lecture on the security failings of wireless devices.
A man standing by the side of the room asks a question. She turns her head to listen, and I see her in profile, and it’s a profile one of the Pre-Raphaelites might have painted, not Rossetti, I can’t think which painter she brings to mind, but it’s a beautiful and to my mind distinctively woman’s profile, profoundly feminine, a little austere.
For a moment my heart stops, like yours would if you were sitting in a professional conference and a man walked in naked; I think, “There’s a woman in drag in here!” No one else seems to notice.
I start looking around at the other types in their rumpled shirts and conservative sport jackets; are they men? Are they women? How can anyone tell?
Outside I wait for her, or she waits for me; at any rate I stand beside the long gallery of windows overlooking the central courtyard and someone’s standing beside me and there she is.
We turn to each other and you might have thought she had stripped off her clothes then and there, she’s looking at me with such naked adoration.
I say something, teasing, and she turns and walks past me, grinding her shoulder a little into mine, a gesture both submissive and possessive, like a cat winding strongly around its mistress’s ankles.
I adore this Elle – I adore her – I adore her.
I walk back to my office, alone, and later I drive home, alone.
She goes where she goes, back to work or to the suburbs, and I haven’t seen her since.
There’s a dance show at B. The show’s a tribute to John Cage, with a pattern of chance and circumstance matching dancers and composers.
I had invited Elle, and I sit in the lowest of the three rows of narrow seats wishing for her, and looking for her, and thinking how no one would look twice at her here, as Elle or as Roger either. Of course she doesn’t show up.
An old man wheels an old woman into place a seat down from me, and he sits beside me. I guess them each to be between eighty and ninety. The woman is a large heavyset person. Her hair’s set and blued. Her hands are clasped with arthritis and the knuckles bulge, hard and stern-looking like rocks. She has a Roman profile and she’s wearing big soft red Mary Janes, shaped a lot like Raggedy Ann’s sandals.
The man is equally old, shorter and once probably of a trim and powerful build. Now skin hangs loosely against the chiseled muscles of his legs and arms. He’s wearing plaid shorts belted up high.
He looks for a program, and I bring them one each.
The second number’s a modern dance piece performed by a single dancer. She works alongside, almost against, a recorded accompaniment of spoken word and percussion – rain-stick and drums.
The spoken word piece is called Run for Shelter. Two voices, both rural and southern, tell a story of hiding in a wayside gas station from a tornado. The main speaker’s a powerful, plaintive tenor, like a bluegrass singer. The other’s a regular Davy Crockett voice, a Tennessee baritone. The piece is lonesome and funny. The storm passes by, only to destroy some houses a county over. Nothing much happens, but your heart seems to swell. Meanwhile, the dancer, angular and athletic, with a fierce ‘fro, tumbles through big high arabesques and jack-knife shapes, hands straight as sawblades. She’s never heard her music til this night; it’s part of the experiment, but somehow it works, the chance connection makes me think she’s the storm. Funny thing is, her movement’s all purpose; the spoken-word piece suggests indeterminacy, “rambling,” two old geezers on a front porch, maybe.
At the end of the performance the show’s organizer steps up. “We have one of our artists here tonight, MP, who performed spoken word and drums.” She gestures towards the old woman in the wheelchair, who nods slightly and majestically.
I’d taken the tenor voice to be that of a man of forty.
Earlier, before the show’s start, the woman I did not yet know was MJ dropped her hand beside and behind her. She ran her knuckles up the old man’s inner thigh, from his knee to the hem of his shorts, in a gesture so openly erotic I thought for a minute I’d hallucinated it. The deep-lined tranquility of her face never altered. Until that moment I’d thought she was senile.
My heart’s still in my throat.
“The progressive ‘rationalization’ of society is linked to the institutionalization of scientific and technical development . . . The secularization and ‘disenchantment’ of action-orienting worldviews, of cultural tradition as a whole, is the obverse of the growing ‘rationality’ of social action.”[i]
Jurgen Habermas wrote this over forty years ago. Into these two sentences he packs two movements. First, the more we experience our material conditions through and with and as technology, as human creation, the less hold traditions such as myth and religion have over us. The second movement stems from the first. The more we think about the dilemmas that confront us in technological and/or institutional terms, the more likely we are to “rationalize” them. We look to data, and the interpretation of data and implementation of results, rather than, for instance, to ethics or morals, to choose our actions. We ask, “How can we do it?” We take the question of “What should we do?” as answered already; it’s as if our relationship to our technology and institutions obviates the need for questions of values to be asked at all.
Nowhere has Habermas’ prediction been so well realized as the realm of information technology, specifically communications technology, where speech-acts themselves become “rationalized” as mere data. For instance, the members of Identity Finder[ii] use a train-track analogy to describe the relationship between policy, the actions of individual humans, [iii] and technology. The track? Technology, which defines where either market or policy can take us. Technology, in their analogy, is the given, the ground and delimiter of human action. Even though the Identity Finder authors finally reject the idea of technology as an active participant in the creation of value, they write, “the engines of Market and Policy are bound to the paths technology chooses to take it”.[iv] Technology mediates between the human person and the material conditions of his existence in the same way an ideology does.[v]
To make things more interesting, I took the analogy above from a white paper on the NSTIC Identity Ecosystem, in which Titus et al warn of the dangers of the “ecosystem of information” as proposed by NIST and the Department of Commerce. The analogy here is almost too fertile; information about the world acts like the world; it has its own ecology; it escapes us and becomes fruitful and multiplies.
I begin counting word clusters. In the trade publications, “identity” appears together with “privacy” and “anonymity,” of course, but also, over and over again, with “information” and “data,” and again, at the ethical level, with “freedom” and “control.” A perfect chiasmus, from Identity Finder again: “the ability to prevent identity theft and data leakage by searching and securing sensitive data that could be used to commit identity fraud.”[vi] Here, the structure of the sentence supports the conflation of “identity” and “data.”
Better yet, from their self-description:
“Identity Finder supports NSTIC to the extent that it can decrease the trade of personally identifiable information, help individuals secure private data, and regain control over their identities.”[vii] In the first two clauses, “identifiable information” and “individuals . . . data” separate the individual from his data; it’s a prized possession, a treasure, but it’s something the individual possesses; it’s not the person himself. But the third phrase follows the pairing to its poetic conclusion; when individuality is so closely aligned with data, it becomes data, it is data; what was lost is data, but what must be regained is “control over their identities.”
What does this mean for us humans immersed in our technologies?
An identity composed solely of data would be
Entirely knowable (by self, by others)
I amuse myself by crafting a syllogism:
Minor proposition: speech-acts (any acts of communication between any people, whatever the medium, credit-card transaction or love-letter, x-rated or vanilla) will be treated as “mere” data.
Major proposition: we tend to see our speech-acts as expressing ourselves. When people attack us online, it hurts. Our language expresses us; very nearly, it is us.
(Is this true? A sermon I heard preached at Duke University Chapel many years ago proposed an exegesis on Genesis 32:26, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, as an allegory for reading scripture. You don’t let go of the angel until he blesses you. You keep struggling with the difficult text until it yields up its treasure. [viii] In our imagination, texts act very much like people.)
Conclusion: identity itself becomes rationalized as mere data.
And if you don’t like the sensation, you live in a state of constant threat.
Losing control of personally identifying data like social security numbers is committing “identity suicide.” This is the phrase in the data security essay that troubled me; it was a needle of poetry in a haystack of policy; it is the phrase that came nearest establishing a statement of value. Data is identity. Loss of data is loss of being.
And this phrase, in the final edit, gets cut. The value judgment has to be a foregone conclusion; you give away too much if you defend it; even expressing the value openly leaves it open to attack. Best assume, without saying it, that identity equals data; arouse anxiety without isolating its source. Stick to the realms of policy and technology. Rationalize our dilemmas. Yet the phrase remains in the (electronic) early drafts; it is the eerie palimpsest that empowers the argument. If your identity is your data, you are always in danger of loss.
[i] Habermas, J. (1968). Technology and Science as Ideology. Towards a Rational Society. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 81.
[iii] Titus, A., Feinman, T., and Goldman, D. (2011, April 15). NSTIC’s Effect on Privacy. Accessed July 15, 2011, from www.identityfinder.com. p. 20+. “The Market”, for these writers, includes “all social, economic, behavioral, and other forces which drive the actions of individuals and organizations.”
[v] For the fight against this development, argued in both philosophical and technical terms, see Brandt, D. and Rose, C. (2004). Global networking and universal ethics. Artificial Intelligence and Society 18, 334-343.
[viii]I do not know the title or preacher of the Duke University sermon; it was about 1987-88; I believe the preacher, a very young woman, was a divinity student.
All stories are true. — Neil Gaiman
My colleague Grover tells me this story: “One of my students came to show me pictures of his new baby son.
“He was scrolling through his Android, right past naked pictures of his wife. He didn’t hurry past them, or pause at them, either. The student wasn’t ‘showing off’ his wife, any more than he was trying to conceal her image. They were just pictures, like any pictures. Just data.
“I felt dated,” Grover says. “I think of myself as hard to surprise, but this…this surprised me.”
Our other colleague, Roger, comes in on the heels of Grover’s narrative. “They’ll learn better,” he says over his shoulder, “when they try to get a job.”
Later that day, it’s my turn to be surprised. Roger hands me a manuscript he’s preparing for an online security column. A line catches my attention. “Would we even consider having phone numbers with our social security number embedded in them? Of course not, that would be identity suicide; so why are we still considering IP addresses with our MAC addresses in them?”
I ignore the IP addressing conundrum when I challenge him. All right, you could say I deliberately misunderstand him. “Identity is data? Data is identity?”
I don’t know why, and if course I’m taking it all wrong, but for some reason I’m panicking. It started out as a joke, but I can’t get past his words.
“Scripture, poetry, philosophy, love notes, all data? Naked pictures of a grubby twenty-year old? Baby photos? All data?”
“Nothing but data,” he says.
When I pressure him, he answers, finally, that there are some aspects of human life that should be irreducible, certainly; but those aspects have to be protected. There’s always a danger of slippage; physical facts may be observed, measured, counted, compiled, bought, sold; identity becomes data; storage and transmission systems fail; data is dispersed at large; identity is dispersed, violated, lost.
“You would not think of a couple making love in the front yard naked. They take it inside and behind closed doors in an effort to ‘shield part of their life from view’ of the public who is anxious to observe and report and publicize. It is that effort to take back control. It is their effort to retain some part of their life and being that is solely theirs and not for everyone to share.”
I’m struck by the way my two colleagues come back to the same motif, though from two different angles, one with admonition and anxiety, one with the more open curiosity of the trained scientist. Identity, represented in both cases by nakedness, becomes image; image is no more than data; data can be reproduced and made public; and, in the process, the meaning of identity itself undergoes a change.
(“But I’m not like that at all,” my colleagues might object, reading my narrative…friends I had worked with, at the time, for more than a year. And if my gaze is distorting, how much more so must be the scrutiny of strangers!)
Specifically, as our technology, including our ways of collecting, storing, and reproducing data, rules out the possibility of anonymity, our understanding of ourselves as beings with boundaries at which the public gaze stops will also falter or be transformed. We may respond with protectiveness, as Roger’s “anxious” couple does. Or, like the student and his wife, we may respond by shifting the ways we understand “private” and “public.” Or, finally, our response may be a complex negotiation between the two approaches.
I don’t know why this matters. I don’t know why I’m puzzling it out now, a year later, or making up stories about a conversation grounded, I suppose, as far as these things go, in fact.
What do you think?