Sunday, February 17, 2008

Your Epidermis is Showing

In "Naked in the Nonopticon" Siva Vaidhyanathan reviews several books for the Chronicle of Higher Education to propose a more appropriate theory to suit contemporary notions of privacy that are evolving in the age of life lived largely online. To show this he points to the Beacon Facebook rebellion and what it represents for users of the popular networking site, since the managers of the popular networking site had assumed that since their users already put personal details on their regularly updated "feeds" they wouldn't mind including recent online purchases as well.

(I should note that the company incorrectly uses the term "social advertising" for this practice, which drives those who have been involved in non-profit social advertising for public health, safety, and social activism up a wall. Check out Osocio for examples of what these marketers for change consider to be real "social advertising.")

To provide context for his privacy thesis, Vaidhyanathan's essay reviews books by Daniel J. Solove and James B. Rule and includes material from pop-culture journalist Emily Nussbaum.

"Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion," Nussbaum wrote. "Every street in New York has a surveillance camera," she said. "Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not."

True, despite warnings from nervous academics and almost weekly stories about extensive data leaks from Visa or AOL, we keep searching on Google, buying from Amazon, clicking through user agreements and privacy policies (which rarely, if ever, actually protect privacy), and voting for leaders who gladly empower the government to spy on us.

But wait. If young people don't care about privacy, why do they care whether Facebook airs their purchases to hundreds of acquaintances?

It turns out that broad assumptions about the irrelevance of privacy among the young — or the old — share a basic misunderstanding of the issue. That's partly because we too often assume that the word "privacy" stands in for a set of aspects or qualities that people generally wish to keep to themselves: i.e., matters of sex, drugs, and, occasionally, rock 'n' roll.

Privacy is not a clear and common set of traits that might include sexual orientation or HIV status. Nor is it the same issue in every context in which we live and move. "Privacy" is an unfortunate term because it carries no sense of its own customizability and contingency.

When we complain about infringements of privacy, what we really demand is some measure of control over our reputation in the world. Who should have the power to collect, cross-reference, publicize, or share information about us, regardless of what that information might be? If I choose to declare my romantic status or sexual orientation on Facebook, then at least it's my choice, not Facebook's.

Through a combination of weak policies, vapid public discussions, and some remarkable technologies like camera phones and the Internet, we have less and less control over our reputations every day.

Vaidhyanathan also argues that the much cited image of the Panopticon from Foucault (and then Bentham before him) is no longer quite valid. Instead he proposes the existence of a "nonopticon," which he describes as "a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it." Of course, I might suggest a secondary meaning of the word nonopticon in light of reading Geert Lovink's Zero Comments, one that argues that all this reputation management in service of the technologies of the self doesn't have any actual audience in the public sphere. Thus, contemporary netizens may be living in a world in which they express their most private thoughts, and even their closest friends don't notice in the digital onslaught of feeds from others. At the same time, marketers are paying attention to things that may have no emotional or personal value at all, like the number of kleenexes that you went through crying about your latest angst-related episode revealed on the web and their exact brand and color.

Of course, as Henry Jenkins has recently pointed out in his blog, privacy means something different in China among its increasingly wired youthful population. Jenkins cites a recent study on how "China Leads the US in Digital Self-Expression" and quotes statistics that indicate that Chinese citizens are five times more likely to be engaging in parallel lives online. and are more likely to experiment with how they present themselves online. Chinese participants in Internet culture were also about twice as likely to value anonymity as their "nonopticon" U.S. counterparts.

Note: You can block schemes like Beacon's with a little reconfiguration of your browser to suit the design of the social networking site. See these Facebook instructions for Firefox users as an example.

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