At no point in history have we been more vulnerable to surveillance, whether by government, companies or curious individuals— driven by the fear of terrorism, the profit motive and simply the fun and convenience of being online. The eroding opacity of our privacy, becoming more translucent with time, is something many continue to struggle with. Whether for utility or security, privacy has become a trade-off— sometimes conscious, sometimes not (OTM, 2013). It appears to only retain its importance until we are forced to forfeit our privacy for other, more important freedoms.
We confront a basic paradox whenever we discuss personal freedom in literate and oral cultures. Literate society separated the individual from the group in space; engendering privacy, point of view in work and specialization – forging the values associated with individualism, privacy and a public role of absolute conformity. Yet, we already exist in a global theatre where the entire world is happening. Our whole cultural habitat has been, and is being, transformed by media and satellites into a living organism contained within a macrocosm – a simultaneous “all at once” world in which everything resonates with everything else. The transformations are taking place everywhere around us (McLuhan, 1994, 15-16, 18).
One of the most illuminating issues is privacy under the suspicion of terrorism – particularly with a rise in authoritative powers diminishing individual freedoms post-9/11. In 2002, artist and professor, Hasan Elahi was interrogated off and on by the FBI as a suspected terrorist. In response to the experience, he created a website (trackingtransience.net) that made his daily activity available to the FBI and everyone else— something quite revolutionary prior to the rise of social media. Intelligence agencies continued to operate on the premise that currency is information— restricted access to the information is what makes it valuable. By borrowing the simplest of economic principles and flooding the market, the information the FBI had about him retained little value (Elahi, 2011; OTM, 2013).
“We’re in such an absurd age, when it comes to the way we think of surveillance; the only way you can really counter such an absurd system is by going even further absurd. As an artist, there is a sarcastic, comedic side, but at the same time, it is something incredibly serious. Instead of fighting this, I can comply – to the point of aggressive compliance – and it actually neutralizes this whole situation. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life” (Elahi, 2011; OTM, 2013).
The burden of proof seems to be shifting away from the authorities to the individual to prove, not only their innocence, but also their cultural loyalties. The trade-off often becomes an infringement on one’s personal freedoms or living under the heavy burden of suspicion. This simple act of hyper-documenting where he went, ate, slept, etc – the monotony of his life – alleviated suspicions, created a plausible foundation for an alibi, which could be later confirmed or further investigated. It enabled him to restore his personal freedom, by taking control and taking his personal information public (Elahi, 2011; OTM 2013).
This need to take control of personal-public information becomes heightened when one considers the impact of group polarization in a networked world. Group polarization happens when like-minded people, engaged in discussion, end up thinking the same as before— but in more extreme form. The phenomenon gains pace when groups with distinctive identities engage predominantly in ‘within-group’ discussion. The central factor behind it is the existence of a limited argument pool. Arguments become skewed in a particular direction, further entrenching and reinforcing pre-existing thought patterns— often resulting in extremism. New technologies make it easier for people to hear the opinions of like-minded others and to isolate themselves from competing views. For this reason alone, our connectivity enables a breeding ground for polarization. The flipside to this discussion is that group polarization is not always negative. It has helped fuel many social movements (ie. civil rights, antislavery, feminism, etc). Each of these movements was extreme in its time, illustrating that if greater communication choice creates greater extremism, society can be better off as a result (Sustein, 2001).
The implication here is not necessarily about extremism or groupthink… but the impacts that could potentially splash back onto one’s identity, and as a result, how this frames the issue of privacy. Blend our current geo-political climate with our connectivity and the human phenomenon of group polarization, and the stage seems set for niche social movements to rise up from dark corners – and the authoritative backlash is now predictable, if not formulaic. If individuals are mistakenly caught up in a movement, when authoritative suspicions arise and their involvement is unclear, making personal information public may be the easiest way to extricate oneself. In such cases, it is unlikely the individual’s focus will be on protecting their privacy freedoms.
Elahi, H. M. (2011, Oct 29) “You Want to Track Me? Here You Go, FBI.” in The New York Times (Opinion Column). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/opinion/sunday/giving-the-fbi-what-it-wants.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
McLuhan, M. (1994) “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” in Playboy Magazine. (Mar 1969) Phillip Rogaway (Ed.) Re-edited for “Ethics in an Age of Technology.” UC Davis ECS 188.
On The Media. (2013, Jan 4) “The Art of Self-Surveillance.” on “The Privacy Show” [podcast] WNYC Chicago: National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/2013/jan/04/art-self-surveillance/
Sustein, C. (2001) “Fragmentation and Cybercascades.” (pp. 453-468) Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. Retrieved from http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/I777777122307