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“Cover Your Tracks!” – A Critique of the Privacy Project from The New York Times

Whatever you say, don’t say it twice.
If you find your idea with somebody else: deny it.
He who didn’t sign anything, who didn’t leave an image
Who wasn’t there, who didn’t say a word
How could he be caught!
Cover your tracks!

-Brecht

 

No one can accuse Jerry Mander of hiding the thesis of his 1978 book. After all, the title of it was Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Many things can be said about that book, but not that its particularly subtle.

In the book, Mander shrugged off the supposed benefits of the technology to argue that the negatives outweighed the positives, he moved away from blaming the content to arguing that the problem was inherent in the technology itself, and he advanced the clear (if confrontational) case that the technology could not be reformed or redeemed and therefore (as the title so plainly captured) it needed to be eliminated. Nevertheless, the book is permeated by a certain recognition that it is highly unlikely that television will actually be eliminated. And yet part of what makes the book such a noteworthy piece of criticism is that Mander does not bother to waste time with defensive statements like: “personally, I love television” or “I’m not anti-technology.” Rather, Mander looked at television, looked at what it was doing to the world, and looked at the chorus of complaints directed at television, and came to the simple conclusion that the world would be better off without it. You can disagree with Mander all you like, but it’s hard not to give him at least some credit for the boldness of his argument.

Granted, more than forty years after the publication of Mander’s jeremiad, television is not the concern it once was – even as it remains quite obvious that television has not been eliminated. Rather, the technological anxiety du jour focuses on the variety of machines, gadgets, and devices that are connected to the Internet. And as the New York Times “Privacy Project” attests, one of the many vectors of this anxiety is in concerns around privacy. The Privacy Project is many things, but it is hardly an argument for the elimination of any of the technologies (broadly defined to include devices and platforms) that are laying siege to privacy. It is not Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Internet, nor is it even Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Smart TV.

The Privacy Project is, according to the editorial page editor James Bennet, an attempt to foreground a discussion of privacy and technology in the opinion pages of the newspaper of record. The goal being to think clearly about the current situation, attempt to forecast how things will develop in the coming years, and think through what these changes will mean. The pieces that have been published so far include an assessment of how AI might be used by the insurance industry, a consideration of religion and privacy, a photo essay of New Yorkers staring at their screens, a look at the interplay between capitalism and privacy, a Gattaca-esque visit to a future pregnancy clinic, a useful glossary of terms, an important piece on the gendered dynamics of privacy, an admission on the part of The New York Times itself on the way it surveils visitors to its site, a look at privacy amidst the deployment of a massive surveillance apparatus in China, and much else. As we are still at the start of this monthslong initiative it is impossible to provide a full assessment of the Privacy Project (it isn’t over yet); however, the first round of published pieces serve to set the tone for the project. And thus, even from the relative outset it is possible to develop a sense of this project.

Though the most attention getting headline may belong to opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo’s piece “It’s time to panic about privacy,” that piece is more of an outlier than anything else. Rather, the dominant sentiment that plays throughout the pieces is an odd mixture of political confidence and technological defeatism garnished with a sprig of good old fashioned high-tech optimism. Or, to put it more clearly, the general tone of the pieces is one in which privacy is dead (having been eaten by the technology giants), but in which the hopes for reclaiming some measure of privacy are couched in the belief that laws and regulations will be put in place. And humming below the surface is the sentiment that if we can just “get this right” that we’ll all be the beneficiaries of the high-tech utopia that we so desperately want to believe is around the corner. This mixture of sentiments comes across most clearly in Kara Swisher’s piece wherein she clearly states “I love technology” while declaring that something must be done to get the tech giants under control – so long as these regulations aren’t so severe as to hinder innovation. While many a fist is shaken in the general direction of Google, Amazon, and Facebook the looming threat in many of these pieces is not the American tech giants but examples drawn from how surveillance technologies are currently being deployed in China. Indeed, several of the pieces in the Privacy Project seem as though they could be summarized as “we need to do something so we don’t wind up a surveillance state like China.” And around the edges of those pieces are some that reflect on matters of privacy from a more personal perspective with some arguing that people should share less online in order to reclaim the joy of sharing that information personally, even as others more openly profess their adoration for their gadgets.

Though the present political moment makes it hard to imagine Democrats and Republicans coming together to work on much of anything, it may well be that this is an issue where there would be some bipartisan buy-in. Thus, it may not be the strangest pipe dream to imagine regulations on the tech industry being advanced – even as it remains rather unclear exactly what such regulation would look like. And, of course, whenever those regulations do appear you can expect that the tech companies will launch an onslaught to keep those laws from getting passed or at least to water them down. This is certainly not to argue against regulating the tech giants, but it seems easier to imagine your insurance provider insisting that you have to wear an activity tracker than Congress breaking up Facebook. After all, our cultural imagination is filled with high-tech dystopias, not tales of functioning democracies. And, perhaps, this is why China looms so large as a threat throughout many of these pieces, it is meant as a warning of what can happen when there isn’t some form of democratic control over surveillance technologies. Granted, the treatment of China in many of these pieces is highly problematic, and at points literally sets up the opposition as being one between “the West” and China. Indeed, there is an unhealthy amount of what Edward Said termed “Orientalism” to be found in the way the Privacy Project treats China. For it is not simply that China is presented as “another” way in which these technologies can be deployed, rather China is, itself, treated as perilously “other.”

That The New York Times, a serious cultural arbiter for signifying matters of importance, is devoting so much attention to this subject is likely more significant than of the pieces that have actually been published as part of it. For just by the act of launching the Privacy Project, the Times is signifying that this is now a matter that merits widespread concern. Though in keeping with the general slant of the paper the perspective delivered remains a solidly centrist one (the solution is better regulation), a clearly pro-business one (regulate, but not at the expense of innovation, also “I love technology”), and one couched in the geopolitical interests of the United States (fearmongering about China). And that combination of factors is largely what constrains the Privacy Project and makes the entire endeavor unsatisfactory.

Or, to put it another way, the Privacy Project would have been great fifteen years ago. But today it reads like a calm discussion about the merits of different brands of fire extinguishers while one is trapped inside a blazing inferno.

Permeating the Privacy Project is a certain flabbergasted attitude, expressing shock that things could have become so bad. Who could have predicted this would happen? Frankly, many people. The problem is just that those who pointed those risks out in the past were generally mocked as technophobes, derided as Luddites, or blasted for wanting everyone to live in caves. But the idea that nobody saw this situation coming is ludicrous. Scholars and social critics were warning about the privacy risks and potential perils of the widespread deployment of computers long before smartphones and social media. And as the tech giants began to emerge there were also critical voices warning of where these giants would lead us, but you probably didn’t encounter many of those critiques in the pages of The New York Times. Or, if you did, they were probably framed as kooky visions to be disregarded.

Indeed, one of the things that the Privacy Project points to is a story of journalistic failure. Too much of the technology press (which is often indistinguishable from the business press), for too long, has existed in an odd space that is mostly a mixture of product reviewing and technological enthusiasm. The case of Theranos is an excellent example of this; true, journalists eventually exposed the company as fraudulent, but only after the tech and business press had uncritically sung the companies praises for years. Thus, even if Facebook and Google scandals now fill the news, it does not obviate the fact that many of these same publications acted as boosters for those companies for years. It may well be that this is just in keeping with the general technological enthusiasm that has, as many historians have argued, long been a feature of American culture. For many people technological progress is synonymous with social progress and this is a theme that is reified regularly by tech writers. And, without naming names, it should be noted that many of the tech writers currently rebranding themselves as critical voices spent years as enthusiastic celebrants of the tech companies. This is not to say that there is no quality tech reporting; however, it is to say that publications like the Times needs to reckon with the ways in which the present situation has been produced, in part, by the way that tech gets covered in the US. Yes, there may be a flood of stories right now about the risks of Smart Speakers – but how many of those same papers reported glowingly from the events where those products were launched?

Granted, the great irony of the privacy project comes across most clearly in the piece that openly discusses the ways that the Times tracks visitors to its website. After all, if it really wanted to make a strong case for caring about privacy, and if it really wanted to push the conversation in an interesting direction – the Times is almost uniquely situated to do so in a rather fascinating way. Simply put, the Times could encourage users to go back to subscribing to the paper edition of the newspaper instead of reading it online. It would have been a somewhat comical and provocative move, certainly, but if The New York Times really wants to make a strong statement about privacy it should be encouraging people to ditch their online subscriptions in favor of subscribing to the physical paper. Heck, in honor of the Privacy Project the paper could even offer a limited time discount on such subscriptions. When you read the Times online the articles you read are tracked, more data is gathered should you share those links on social media, and information is generated and compiled as you move from one page to the next. But if you have a physical newspaper nobody, but you, knows which articles you read and which you didn’t (unless you directly told someone else). This is not to romanticize the printed page, but it is worth noting that when it comes to matters of privacy there really is a difference between the printed page and the digital page.

It would be too simplistic to say that these privacy matters boil down to questions about the place of computers in society. It is foolhardy to make a technologically deterministic argument that technology is driving history. And yet one can still recognize that there are certain technological systems that are developed (by people) to drive society in a certain direction, and that direction may be one that makes more of society legible and controllable by technology. Much of the privacy debacle emerges from clashing perspectives as computers steadily remake society in their own image – for those whose power rests on turning every human being into a predictable package of data points, this is a good thing; but still others chafe at having their every action reduced into some data to be churned over in a database. Here the challenge that emerges is one of what to do with this discomforting chafing? Does one take the serious step of getting rid of the problem, or does one merely take some steps to dull the pain? The response seems to generally be one of simply dulling the sensation without removing the problem, which is why it inevitably seems to start chafing again.

Which brings us back to Mander. At this point it is fairly noncontroversial to argue that the tech giants should be regulated. Similarly, many people would likely acknowledge that they exercise some personal discretion before sharing something on social media. And using various privacy protecting plugins or services that offer better privacy is no longer something only done by privacy advocates. However, it would still be controversial to say that Facebook simply needs to be eliminated, that work in facial recognition needs to be eliminated, that AI use needs to be eliminated, or even that computers need to be eliminated. Obviously, such arguments would swiftly encourage retorts regarding the many benefits of these things – and there is no doubt that there are benefits associated with these things. And such arguments would have such little public purchase as to be absurd. The closest any of the contributors get to this is Ross Douthat, who goes the farthest in stating the that less Internet is the solution, though he quickly pivots to emphasizing that he’s not arguing for any kind of Luddism. And though moralistic claims to a restrained asceticism may appeal to some, they are hardly sufficient solutions to large socio-political problems. But to expect regulation to keep Facebook from doing creepy things is to have learned nothing about Facebook, and to expect slowing our steady slide into a high-tech surveillance state to keep us from actually reaching that dreary destination is to overlook the point that slowing our speed is not the same as changing course. But the Privacy Project isn’t about changing course, it’s the type of thinking that has gotten us locked into our present course.

Granted, part of the reason we seem so firmly stuck on this path, is that too many people are quite content with it. The stark black and white images in the photo essay may be meant to telegraph alienation and ennui, but if you could speak to the pictured individuals many of them would probably express contentment with life in technological society. Relatedly, in Jianan Qian’s piece on surveillance and privacy in China, there are several voices that present approval of the sense of security that comes from rampant surveillance. And yet nowhere is this clearer than in Samantha Irby’s provocatively titled “I don’t care. I love my phone.” – a piece which acts like something of a sledgehammer to all of the well-meaning concern in other Privacy Project entries. For Irby gets to the heart of matters with disarming bluntness and in the process makes the Privacy Project something of a sham. To Swisher’s “we won’t take it any more” Irby provides the jarring answer “of course we will.” People love their phones, and social media accounts, and smart speakers, and fitness trackers, and they love imagining what fantastical new doodad Apple is about to unveil. And though people may not be thrilled about the creepy way that these devices periodically make them feel, they are not going to give them up. Sure, they might support some regulation of Facebook – but for every one person who is genuinely concerned about facial recognition, there are probably a hundred who love the idea of being able to unlock their phone just by looking at it. This is what the historian and social critic Lewis Mumford once referred to as “the bribe” – the way by which the technological power structure offers people little gains and benefits in order to secure their compliance. One can certainly want to argue with Irby’s piece, but it ultimately comes across as much more honest than most of the other contributions to the Privacy Project. For Irby puts it clearly: yes, we know the risks, but we just love our phones more. That this is a damning indictment of our priorities, doesn’t make it any less true.

Ultimately, despite its issues and shortcomings, The New York Times Privacy Project is useful insofar as it opens a cultural space for discussions around privacy and surveillance. But the question that must be worked through is not simply what kind of regulation stands the best chance of being signed into law – but why it is that people love their phones despite the risks. Both of these are ultimately questions about not just the type of society we want to live in, but the types of people we want to be. And unless we can properly confront the second question, it doesn’t really matter how well we answer the first.

 

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The Nerd and the Inured

From Megatechnic Bribe to Megatechnic Blackmail

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About Z.M.L

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

3 comments on ““Cover Your Tracks!” – A Critique of the Privacy Project from The New York Times

  1. David Westling
    April 15, 2019

    LuddLibrarian, the problem is that technology is a religion and as such it is not susceptible to rational argument. “I love my technology!!” “The bible said it–I believe it–that settles it.” I do wonder why you think that technology does not drive history though. Perhaps we could discuss this point sometime. By the way, I read the Mander book back in the seventies and I thought it spot on then and still do.

    David Westling
    dwestling@sbcglobal.net
    davidwestling.com “In the Balance”

    • TheLuddbrarian
      April 18, 2019

      I’d certainly agree that, for many people, technology has become something of a new religion. And this relationship certainly shapes the way that many people think about technology in their own lives and in the wider world.

      The matter of technology driving history is a complicated one, and it is a topic that has been debated a great deal by historians and other figures who study technology. By saying that technology does not drive history the intent is not to suggest that it doesn’t have an influence (it certainly does), but the problem with saying “technology drives history” is that it depicts technology as an autonomous force. While technology certainly has an impact, there is also a great deal of contingency at work, and moreover there are humans involved in the process. Too often the idea “technology drives history” winds up obscuring the roles and choices made by people, and presents certain technological developments as inevitable. Granted, there are certain technological systems that seem to “drive history” once they have gathered significant societal power, and there are certainly technologies that are designed to behave in deterministic ways – but pushing back on the idea that “technology drives history” opens up the space to more fully investigate how technological change occurs.

      Many people have written extensively about this, but an excellent collection on the topic (with a variety of perspectives) is the book Does Technology Drive History: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism edited by Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx.

  2. David Westling
    April 19, 2019

    My view is that as long as the controlling idea of efficiency is not interfered with, technology takes on an autonomous dynamic. Yes, one could interfere with this efficiency, but maximum efficiency is built into the mechanism, and as personal autonomy evaporates, the autonomy of technology increases to the point of its absolute dominance, which we still have not come to, but how long can that be said? This is a project that will have an initial phase of perhaps a hundred years, beginining at around 1995, as the internet gained its initial foothold. Religion comes into the picture once again as efficiency becomes the inviolate standard by which all is measured. I will take a look at the book you cite. I do think however that Ellul, Marcuse and Winner do have very compelling perspectives on the matter. We have the power to alter this. But we do not.

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