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Happy Days or Happy Daze? (A permission slip to not care about privacy)

When a scandal goes on too long, particularly one that touches many areas of our lives, we can quickly become inured to it. And as more NSA misdeeds came to light the facts were steadily met with shrugs instead of shouts. A sense of “the NSA is doing bad stuff, we get it” pervaded, and led to the stories being evaded by many people. We knew our privacy was being violated through our shiny tech devices, but we were busy with other stuff: the game was on, we had to wash our hair, we wanted to see that new movie, and so forth.

Naturally this sentiment was bolstered by a news media that (with a few exceptions) performed its power affirming function perfectly; while it was no surprise that many outlets brayed for the whistle blower’s head (and the jailing of other journalists), the more important undercutting was done by “the serious voices” (instead of the shouting ones) like the neo-liberal “it’s bad, but you know what’s worse: terrorism” of Thomas Friedman at the New York Times (echoed and amplified by Bill Keller). If most media grudgingly acknowledged that it was a story that needed to be reported on, it was others within the media who were tasked with soothing panic and telling people that they needn’t pay attention. It was safer to report on the international components, or on the ongoing tale of Snowden’s troubles, than to focus the stories on the way that the NSA was spying on “ordinary” Americans.

Despite what might have been expected as right-wing eagerness to hitch this scandal solely to President Obama, there has been an impressive level of bipartisan support for the NSA and bipartisan fuming at Edward Snowden (Congress can agree on something!). While it has been interesting, if unsurprising, to watch the fuming “off with his head” rhetoric of many in the media, what has been more interesting, and perhaps more troubling is to watch the reactions of Obama supporters; particularly those of a more robust progressive pedigree who do not want to really support the NSA’s actions, but who feel some responsibility to cast this as not really a big deal. And perhaps the most worrisome tactic deployed here is not one that emphasizes that this isn’t technically illegal, it’s to slyly change the topic and claim: “this privacy stuff…who are we kidding!?”

Perhaps the best example of this sentiment is Frank Rich’s recent New York Magazine article for which the title and sub-title alone should serve as a dire warning of what is to come: “When Privacy Jumped the Shark: note to Edward Snowden and his worrywarts in the press: Spying is only spying when the subject doesn’t want to be watched.” While it is fair to note that writers frequently do not title their own articles, this title is a neat fit for the contents that follow: casting genuine concern as the work of “worrywarts”, wrapping it all in a “we’re all exhibitionists and voyeurs” attitude, and then trailing off with a smug shrug, as if being witty (and Rich is) actually provides some measure of protection. Rich’s argument is on clearest display in a lengthy paragraph (quoted in full) in which he writes:

“The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country—always present and now arguably larger than ever—that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like the government, period—but most us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.”

To fully appreciate this it is necessary to put it up against the lines that Rich writes near the conclusion of his piece, where he notes that the solutions to preserve privacy would involve political action or avoiding social networks (both of which he finds unlikely as solutions) and thus he concludes:

“What the future is most likely to bring instead is more of the same: an ever-larger embrace of ever-more-brilliant toys and services that invite more prying from strangers, corporations, and government…Civil libertarians can protest about how the government will track us on these devices, too, but as long as the public and the political Establishment of both parties remain indifferent, the prospect of substantial change is nil.”

While the above quoted paragraphs (the first of the two in particular) is filled with enough instances of “begging the question” (in the logical sense of the term, not in its common usage) to make it almost farcical, there is little to actually be gained by dissecting Rich’s piece line by line to expose that it contains enough red herrings for Rich to open a side business as a fish merchant. Indeed, what makes Rich’s article interesting is less the argument he advances than the fact that it is coming from him and it is appearing in New York Magazine.

Despite how it may appear Rich’s isn’t actually an article about privacy it is a permission slip for slightly unsettled Obama supporters to go back to not caring about the NSA scandal. When a neo-liberal apologist like Thomas Friedman writes in response to the NSA scandal it is an insufficient pass for many; however when it is Frank Rich saying “it’s fine, this is all the fault of reality-television and social networks, there’s nothing you can do anyways, so you might as well enjoy your smart phone,” a much wider exhale is allowed. Thus Rich’s urbane fans are authorized to continue behaving with impunity and without thinking, because “privacy jumped the shark” and clearly the fault for all of this rests with people’s exhibitionist tendencies not – of course – the companies that profit from and encourage such behavior.

At the most basic level of analysis it is important to render problematic the way in which Rich uses “privacy” and the way in which he fails to differentiate the varying spheres of people’s public and private lives. Though Rich may make it seem like everybody is lining up to appear on reality-television, this is really only hyperbole (and irresponsible hyperbole at that). What Rich fails to recognize (or credit) is that most people are generally selective in which aspects of their privacy they expose and which they do not; while people may still expose a great deal on Facebook this is not a full revelation of all of a person’s details but the sharing of certain information in certain contexts. A person may have a robust amount of seemingly personal information viewable on Facebook, they may be a Twitter prolix, they may have multiple Tumblr accounts, and yet this not synonymous with a person publishing all of their e-mails and text messages to a publicly readable forum.

Sharing a lot, is not equivalent to sharing everything. It may be a subtle distinction, but it’s important.

What is also key to recognize in such instances is choice and trust. We may choose to treat Facebook or Google’s “privacy” settings as laughable (they are), but the fact remains that these services do encourage users to think that they can entrust their information to these sites. Even if many do not make adequate usage of their privacy settings (which may be the result of ever changing privacy policies that users can’t keep up with) these privacy settings exist precisely so that people can exercise control over how what they are sharing is shared.

Choice and opting out are important from a privacy standpoint, particularly because people have no choice, no “opt out,” no “privacy settings” with which to toggle when it comes to the NSA (or increasingly with big data). Furthermore a person may be careful in what they share on various sites, but it is in the harvesting of massive amounts of metadata (big data!) that the NSA may be able to construct a detailed image that few individuals would be able to assemble for a person. It would have been a stronger argument to suggest that we should abandon any expectation of privacy merely by going on the Internet (though there are some resources to help with that) but such is not Rich’s argument. Here Rich’s invocation of participating “with open eyes” cracks and crumbles. It’s hard to participate “with open eyes” when your eyelids have been taped shut.

People may be predisposed (or conditioned) of late to share a lot of information, but to say that this represents “begging for…privacy to be invaded” is ridiculous, it would be much more accurate to say that people are, albeit foolishly, “begging for their privacy to be respected.”

The other aspect that remains woefully maltreated in Rich’s article is in its reading of the way that technology and culture function in society. Though Rich may invoke digital technologies in the same essay as reality television he is eager to lay a lopsided amount of blame on a mythical all encompassing desire to appear on television which he than sees as reflected in Facebook accounts without investigating or commenting upon the ways in which technological society and the culture industry demand such conformity. What is also ignored is the degree to which participating in certain aspects of technological culture is almost a necessity for “participating in society” (try to apply for a job without an e-mail account). This technological trap in which we find ourselves and our privacy entangled was described by Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization thusly:

“We have multiplied the mechanical demands without multiplying in any degree our human capacities for registering and reacting intelligently to them.” (Mumford, 273)

Rich’s article seems to see a link between shiny digital toys and a loss of privacy (which is fair) but it lays the blame solely on the device user instead of seeing what has taken place as a panoptic con in which the user is tricked into sacrificing privacy out of a misguided belief that they can “trust” telecoms and device makers with their private information; or, in a similar way, the idea that these shiny technical devices are not the ends in and of themselves but the means to an end, where the end is the harvesting of private information and the means (the digital device) acts as a sort of bribe. This “mega-techinc bribe” is described by Lewis Mumford (in The Myth of the Machine vol. II – The Pentagon of Power) as a situation that arises wherein:

“For the sake of material and symbolic abundance through automated superfluity, these machine-addicts are ready to give up their prerogatives as living beings…if people are willing to surrender their life completely at source, this authoritarian system promises generously to give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, scientifically sorted, technically conditioned, manipulated, directed, and socially distributed under supervision of a centralized bureaucracy.” (Mumford, 332)

It is not that “privacy has jumped the shark” but that technological society creates an imaginary realm in which we are led to believe that we are swimming amongst the dolphins while swarms of tiny crabs slowly devour us. While there are likely a few people who genuinely do thrill at the idea of their privacy being wholly violated it is fatally flawed to cast this category over everybody with a Facebook account. Personal responsibility must be taken into account, but people living in a mass society are frequently not given the information they truly need to make responsible and informed decisions.

But, to play off of the above Mumford quotation, services such as Facebook and iPhones are technical fantasies in which we are invited to participate as long as we are willing to pay with our privacy. One does not need to be a fan of Facebook to recognize that people don’t generally upload vacation snapshots because they want to share this information with the NSA (or with advertisers) but because Facebook provides them with an easy way to share this information with friends and family. The bribe is the “easy way” in which to do this, the hidden cost is that this information is harnessed by others, but to treat unawareness as not caring does a disservice to all (and to the idea of privacy).

The new strained relationship with privacy that develops is as much a result of people being thoroughly misled about privacy as it is any actual attempt to come to terms with how privacy is changing. In one of the side boxes to Rich’s article was a brief chart chronicling the changes over time in Facebook’s privacy policy, and do not such constant changes demonstrate the degree to which privacy (and control over it) is something that has increasingly been taken away from people? It is not excusable for people to be unaware of the way the services they use define “privacy” but having a Facebook account when Facebook suddenly changes its privacy policy does not make users guilty for this new definition of privacy. It goes back to the earlier Mumford quote, technology is changing our definitions faster than we can adjust.

The technologies developed and advanced in contemporary society are embedded with the biases of the society that pushes these technics to the front, and a society where private information is the new gold will see technologies that mine for this like a mad prospector. Amidst this, technology and technologically enabled services (like Facebook and Google) shift increasingly into the orbit of culture and mass society, the new smart phone is as much a pop culture event as the newest release by a pop star.  Here it is useful to turn towards a greater insight into the mutilations of mass society as described with withering clarity by Theodor Adorno in “The Schema of Mass Culture” (re-published in the collection The Culture Industry), where Adorno writes:

“Mass culture is a kind of training for life when things have gone wrong. The schema of mass culture now prevails as a canon of synthetically produced modes of behaviour The following which mass culture can still count on even there where tedium and deception seem almost calculated to provoke the consumers is held together by the hope that the voice of the monopoly will tell them as they wait in line precisely what is expected of them if they want to be clothed and fed…Anyone who fails openly to parade their freedom, their courtesy, their sense of security, who fails to observe and propagate the established guidelines, is forced to remain outside the pale.” (Adorno, 91)

Despite what many would believe, the world is not populated by the masses eager to sacrifice their privacy of Rich’s essay but instead a population who has been systematically and purposefully manipulated and tricked into sacrificing their privacy. This has occurred, not because people don’t care about their privacy but because they have been promised that they can trust governmental and corporate entities to safely watch over their privacy. It is not that people have been fickle with privacy, it is that people have been too eager to trust. Indeed, what emerges most damningly is not Frank Rich’s attack upon citizens but the way in which his article fits perfectly into the “schema of mass culture” described by Adorno. What is Rich’s piece (and those like it) except a description of the way that his readers should behave? It is the “voice of the monopoly” telling them “what is expected of them” which in this case is to take the blame themselves, shrug at it, and then continue using the new technical toys without any other thought, lest they be “forced to remain outside the pale.”

Privacy is a complicated concept, something that has been revealed to be glaringly obvious of late, yet the reactions towards privacy have too often been to simply ignore them completely (by focusing on Snowden) or to follow Rich’s route and muddle the topic of privacy in a mix of victim blaming and system protecting. There is always a tradeoff implied in using technology, but this trade has been hidden by mountains of user agreements and more dirt is shoveled on top by articles such as Rich’s that obfuscate the way in which blame needs to be shared. We deserve some blame for using Facebook, certainly, but we aren’t the ones who get to decide what Facebook’s privacy policy is. Writing of this tradeoff Mumford (from The Pentagon of Power again) noted that what is required is:

“a formal recognition of the fact that mechanical gains have often been achieved at great social losses, and that before one accepts unconditionally the gifts that megatechnics offers one must examine the accompanying deficits and decide whether the benefits justify them.” (Mumford, 334)

Privacy is primary at current amongst these “social losses” (as is trust in the government), but focusing solely upon this social loss without analyzing the “mechanical gains” that we are promised in exchange for it, and without investigating the way that we were pulled into accepting these gains is to construct not an argument that questions the “accompanying deficits” but one that throws up its hands, calls resistance futile, and then goes back to tapping away on a smartphone.

Here the irony of Rich’s article really emerges in full relief, as “jumping the shark” is a reference to no less a piece of cultural myth making than the television program Happy Days. This thereby vests Rich’s article with a nostalgic pop cultural tinge of another time, before all of these smart phones and social networks, back when the secret police had to literally bug a phone, back when people weren’t lining up to reveal their deepest secrets for reality television. A mythical world which aired from the mid 70s to the mid 80s but which was set in the 1950s to 1960s, which incidentally is the time period (50s/60s) in which writers like Mumford and Adorno were writing some of the above quoted passages pointing towards the dangers of mass culture and blindly accepting technology. In other words, a populace confused by popular culture and bought off with shiny technology is nothing new; but the bribe has become integrated into mass culture and the sacrifice is larger.

In reclaiming privacy it is essential that personal responsibility play an important role; however, in doing so we must be able to recognize the ways in which modern technology and associated services have displaced our ability to be truly responsible. After the revelations of Edward Snowden, people have far less leeway to plead ignorance about the way that their privacy is systematically violated, but ignorance is not the same as blithely throwing privacy away. Indeed, ignorance may be much more dangerous, as to totally ignore one’s privacy requires one must, at least, acknowledge control over it. The danger in the aftermath of the recent revelations is that people who were stirred up and ready for action will be coaxed back into an oblivious trusting stupor, and for that purpose article’s like Rich’s are the lullaby.

People may have stopped watching for more stories about the NSA, but rest assured the NSA hasn’t stopped watching you.

More on this topic:

Living within justice is not living with injustice

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Paranoia is not a Tactic

The Panoptic Con

The Triumph of Technique

Works Cited:

Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers (1970)

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

4 comments on “Happy Days or Happy Daze? (A permission slip to not care about privacy)

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  3. Pingback: In 2014…they’re resolved to keep watching… | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2013 by in Activism, Civil Liberties, Culture, Ethics, Legal, Philosophy, Privacy, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet, US Politics and tagged .

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