Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
One way to know with relative certainty that contemporary society is taking a problem seriously is when a market solution, a personal consumptive choice, appears to assuage the mounting concerns. The allure of such moves stems from the way that they seem to flawlessly function across several levels: firstly, they genuinely (and even meaningfully) seek to address real issues and concerns; secondly, by subsuming the solution to the overall logic of the market, and personal consumption, it devises a way for people to act out that has localized and manageable consequences. It turns a demand upon the social system for change into a demand on the market for things to buy. An easy example of this is the organic apple which sits in a grocery store mere feet away from the not-organic apple – the presence of the former offers consumers an option, but it is an option that coexists within a dominant system not one that demands a fundamental change.
From the choice between organic and regular apple (as in fruit) to the Apple product (as in technology) there is an obvious shift, after all, one would not want to bite into an Apple product (it would be terrible for your teeth). Yet if the choice between varieties of apples gives consumers options to take ethical actions through shopping, the case of Apple offers something of a different question. Certainly, one can choose an Apple product over one made by any host of other competitors but such choices between various technological products generally have relatively little leeway from ethical positions. While some “carriers” (service providers) may appear to offer morally informed alternatives (Credo Mobile for example) these providers still carry the same devices as their competitors.
Amidst the avalanche of new devices being unveiled every month a new space is appearing in which items appear that function less in the competition of “bigger screens, faster connections” and instead aim to engage with would-be buyers on a more ethically concerned plane. The Fairphone was one such example – a smartphone aiming explicitly to be more ecologically and socially aware (it’s the technological equivalent of “certified fair trade”). And now the Blackphone joins the array of options, though the appeal made by the Blackphone is less to an overall ethical framework than to the desire for a particular value which has been eroded rather publicly of late: privacy.
As befits a device focused on privacy there are many details about the Blackphone that are shrouded in a bit of mystery; however, the device’s intent is clear: a smartphone that from the outset prioritizes user privacy. The Blackphone’s encryption/privacy genealogy is quite impressive as it is an undertaking by Silent Circle and Geeksphone, involves some important names in the encryption field, and provides an open source build that is meant to be all about – you guessed it – privacy. When the Blackphone was initially announced some commentators were so bold as to dub it “NSA proof” – and while it remains too early to know for certain if this is genuinely the case, it certainly demonstrates one of the phone’s goals, and the hopes some are projecting onto the phone. Though it is quite likely that the Blackphone will ultimately have to contend with the type of prying demands that eventually caused Lavabit to close down rather than comply.
As was stated earlier there are many things about the Blackphone that remain unknown, but one thing that is almost certain is that it will be a “higher end” smartphone, which is another way of saying that it will not be cheap. Thus, the Blackphone – as with many of the other market responses to concerns about privacy – puts a price tag on something for which the value had never been monetary. The result is that privacy winds up being pulled away from simply (well, complexly being) a societal and ethical good and becomes another option one selects when shopping.
This is not to denigrate the value of privacy focused technologies; however, it is important to recognize that such localized solutions to societal problems risk insulating small sets of individuals who can pay for such devices whilst the issues that chose them to select those devices remain unchanged. If a person is highly serious about valuing their privacy and they have the funds to purchase a Blackphone (and keep it stowed in an Off-Pocket, perhaps) they may be motivated by a recognition of the value of privacy, yet at every turn their privacy will still be compromised as they interact with people whose phones do not share the Blackphone’s commitment to privacy. To genuinely take the issue of privacy seriously requires solutions that can work across society, not just for those who can afford (or have the technical skills) for the newest devices. In discussing the need for the introspective space of privacy Herbert Marcuse, in One-Dimensional Man, noted the degree to which it has been eroded and turned into a commodity such that:
“this sort of privacy—the sole condition that, on the basis of satisfied vital needs, can give meaning to freedom and independence of thought—has long since become the most expensive commodity, available only to the very rich,” (Marcuse, 249)
Marcuse goes on to note that
“to the denial of freedom, even of the possibility of freedom, corresponds the granting of liberties where they strengthen the repression.” (Marcuse, 249)
What the above quotations set-up is the tensions of the world in which devices like the Blackphone appear (and which, incidentally, we live). It is a world in which expensive devices guaranteeing privacy make privacy into an “expensive commodity” available only to those who can afford such devices. Meanwhile the more insidious risk is that the availability of such “private” options gives a pass to a technological status quo in which privacy is not the rigorous and overwhelming default but simply an attribute of certain products. By making privacy have to compete as a market value it is thereby transmuted into a market value – the “granting of liberties” in the form of another consumer choice can easily “strengthen the repression” if it channels agitation and public demands for change into moments of consumption.
Want a phone with a bigger screen? Get phone A. Want a phone produced more ethically? Get the Fairphone. Want a phone with a better camera? Get phone B. Want a phone that values privacy? Get the Blackphone. But none of these choices challenges the underlying ethical failings of the other devices, it just makes it so that those who care can select accordingly.
Privacy is a complex value, and it is one that has been given quite a shake-up as a result of the speed of technological advancement and the revelations that these technological advances have ushered in all manners of surveillance. While there are no lack of groups, apps, and devices aiming to fight for privacy the challenge remains as privacy is a value that seems undermined at every turn. Whether this is through the privacy trade-off inherent in “free” services, to the much more obviously invasive matter of smartphones being – more or less – high tech tracking devices. In the book Privacy in Context, Helen Nissenbaum (who has written extensively about privacy) captures this dilemma perfectly:
“In almost all situation in which people must choose between privacy and just about any other good, they choose the other good.” (Nissenbaum, 105)
It may well be that the Blackphone is an attempt to allow people to select the “other good” while still choosing privacy. Yet the true value of the Blackphone may be less in the phone itself than in what its existence demonstrates. After all, if the Blackphone provides an example of how a smartphone can be designed and executed in such a way that protects user privacy than it raises the question: why is not every phone designed along similar lines? Why isn’t privacy and complete control of information the default? The Blackphone may act as a powerful counter to critics who see devices like smartphones as inherently unstable, from a privacy perspective, but for this argument to take root it will have to prove to be scalable in a societal stance. The ethical demand, in other words, has to go beyond the individualized demand for an option to a broader demand that recognizes that if a person thinks privacy is important for them they must also conclude that it is important for everybody else.
Whether it be the Fairphone or the Blackphone it is encouraging to see technologies more directly attempting to engage with users’ ethical concerns. But it is important to remember that the “good” in this context is the ethical value, not the “goods” that are available for purchase.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge Classics, 2002.
Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context: Technology, Privacy and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford Law Books, 2010.