April 18, 2012
thinking deep thoughts.
In Code 2.0, Lawrence Lessig says that a good argument against invasion of privacy in cyberspace can be to think of it as an affront to personal dignity protected by the fourth amendment:
But it may be that we understand the Fourth Amendment to protect a kind of dignity. Even if a search does not burden anyone, or even if one doesn’t notice the search at all, this conception of privacy holds that the very idea of a search is an offense to dignity. That dignity interest is only matched if the state has a good reason to search before it searches. From this perspective, a search without justification harms your dignity whether it interfaces with your life or not.
Although I generally agree with this interpretation of the fourth amendment, I disagree with the argument made that all digital survellance violates the amendment. If a worm or a bot is installed on your computer and it is programmed to performed just one query, I don’t see it as being in violation because even though that search might have been performed without your knowledge, there’s a good chance that it wasn’t performed without your permission. Everyday, we give permission to monitoring mechanisms by using the technologies that we use. We might not know that we are giving permission to the government and to corporations to put us under constant surveillance. We might know and agree to use these technologies anyway, thinking of it as a price to pay for the conveniences that they offer. In this respect, in the corporations’ view at least, dignity isn’t being violated because you sign user agreements that give them the permission to do that. Where one can strongly argue that dignity is being violated is when the technology involved isn’t technology that you agree to use or had the option to sign a user agreement for. Methods produced by these technologies might be unobtrusive but the feeling of knowing that the sole purpose of this technology is surveillance and that there’s nothing you’re getting in return might create a clear feeling that your dignity is being violated.
If the argument is that the fourth amendment protects against offenses to human dignity, what exactly does dignity mean and how is it violated? Digital surveillance and search occur en masse unobtrusively because new technologies make it easy to do this. If they occur en masse, I don’t think personal dignity is an issue because it isn’t like being singled out, monitored and searched. There’s an example Lessig gives which I don’t think is a very good example because it doesn’t factor in the massive aspect of modern-day surveillance. To explain how search can be undignified even if the person being searched doesn’t feel like it is intrusive, Lessig uses the example of young teens being stopped and searched by police officers after an incident was reported nearby. Simply put, there were singled out and searched. There were probably bystanders, onlookers and passers-by present during the search. Online, there are no bystanders, onlookers or passers-by, we are all subjected to the same search and monitoring. In Lessig’s example, I think the youth who vividly expresses his outrage is also accounting for bystanders, onlookers, and passers-by when he feels his dignity is being violated. Online, digital surveillance is a shared experience and to me, doesn’t feel like an affront to dignity so long as when I find out that I’m being searched, I don’t feel singled out.
In Republic 2.0, Cass Sunstein explores the effects of filtering for consumers on their ability to be good citizens and on future democracy. Many people see the ability to filter the information you receive on a daily basis – the ability to have a Daily Me – as a positive because it cuts down on the amount of time you spend trying to find pertinent information. Years ago, you would’ve had to drive down to the neighborhood video-rental store to sort through many options to find the one obscure film you’d been meaning to watch. Today, Netflix can suggest a list of obscure films you didn’t know you’d been meaning to watch. On the surface, filtering seems to be very liberating to consumers, freeing them from unwelcome and unwanted information, but Sunstein argues that filtering hurts democracy in the long run because it eliminates forums for healthy, public discourse.
Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems. People may even find it hard to understand one another. Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by the media, provide a form of social glue.
Sunstein talks about viewing the Internet as a street or a public park. Most streets and public parks are by law open to speakers looking for a diverse audience for their opinions, arguments and ideas. Street corners and public parks are public spaces and the Internet by its initial definition is also a public space but it is also becoming an increasingly commercialized and privatized space. Sunstein’s description of the tension between our roles and rights as consumers versus our rights as citizens mirrors the tension that exists on the Internet between truly public aspects and commercialized spaces governed by corporations. All the major websites and SNSs are owned by corporations which, by definition, make it good practice to deliver consumers what they want. Websites like the Facebook, Netflix and Amazon would not be nearly as successful today without many consumer-centric practices which include filtering. In addition to filtering, some of these websites, rather than push the feeling of being on a street corner or public park, strive to make visitors feel like they are at home by allowing them to customize and filter their experiences online. Sunstein talks about the difficulty of convincing lawmakers to officially recognize the Internet as the new street corner because of this tension.
This tension is even more complex when we consider mobile experiences and how smartphones, mobile devices and social media apps used to access the Internet are viewed and marketed as highly personalized extensions of ourselves. Apps like Tweetdeck and Facebook for iPhone make it even easy to filter not only your online experiences, but your offline experiences as well. Before the emergence and ubiquity of mobile Internet and all the services that plug into it, your filtered online experience ended once you were away from your computer or out of the house. Today, your filtered experience follows you everywhere. A conservative leaning citizen doesn’t have to make the effort to process ideas in a speech from a liberal politician when bloggers and politicians that share his political views are also listening in and live-tweeting their reactions. During the State-of-the-Union address, Republican senators in attendance can live-tweet their reactions so that their conservative followers don’t have an unfiltered experience of the President’s speech. This practice of live-tweeting and live-blogging, when consumed from a narrow group of like-minded sources, flies in the face of Sunstein’s optimistic view of general interest intermediaries and advances consumer sovereignty even further. When consumed from a wide range of diverse sources, live-tweeting and live-blogging promotes political sovereignty:
The idea of political sovereignty stands on different foundations. It does not take individual tastes as fixed or given; it doesn’t not see people as simply “having” tastes and preferences. For those who value political sovereignty, “We the People” reflect on what we want by exchanging diverse information and perspectives.
When you have a smartphone with you, you can literally be on a street corner or public park, point your device at something you disagree with and get instant instructions on exactly how to feel about it. In essence, your mobile device becomes not only a live-filter, but more importantly an interpreter of unplanned, unanticipated experiences so you don’t have to do it yourself. The filters you set up or have set up for you online become so powerful that even shared experiences end up having little effect on your preconceived opinions and points-of-view. You don’t get the feeling of being in a public space when you have your consumer-centric smartphone with all its apps and filters with you at all times filtering your environment so that unfamiliar ideas and arguments come to you in familiar interpretations.
In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov calls into question the real role of communications technologies and tools like twitter and facebook in recent uprisings in places like Iran. What sort of roles did they play and how effective were they in helping activists achieve their goals? More importantly, how did the American government and most media talking heads understand the role that these tools played in the uprisings. Taken into account are wildly optimistic, naive, and unsubstantiated claims that had been collected in many publications in the aftermath of the failed Iranian protests of the explosive power of the Internet to rid the world of authoritarian regimes.
Morozov calls this a resurgence of long-standing optimism about democratizing the world that was birthed in the Cold War – now viewed as the Google Doctrine. According to the reading, the biggest flaw in the Google Doctrine is failing to see the Internet as an indiscriminating place – open not simply in the sense that it advocates freedom and democracy for all, but open in the sense that it adapts easily to any and all agendas, good and evil. On the inability of the doctrine’s proponents to see past the good, Morozov observes: “that Al-Qaeda seemed to be as proficient in using the Internet as its Western opponents did not chime well with a view that treated technology as democracy’s best friend.” This observation about the Internet as a double-edged sword and about the inability of many to see this fits nicely with the analogy of the Internet as a tool with no handles, we’re uncertain of what it can be used for, but even more uncertain of what it can’t be used for. According to Morozov, this uncertainty is very dangerous when it isn’t acknowledged. The November 2008 attacks in Mumbai show how connectedness in the information age can be harnessed for evil… many seemed equally surprised by the tools used to coordinate the attacks as they were surprised by the attacks themselves. Blackberry Messenger, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook are all tools more frequently identified by their ability for social good when their propensity for aiding evil-doers should be just as apparent.
On the subject of the American government’s awkward relationship with these technologies in times of civic unrest, Morozov talks about government officials doing more harm than good when they assign more influence than is need to the Internet in uprooting authoritarian regimes. After reading about the actions of the state department official who requested that twitter hold off on its scheduled maintenance for a few hours during the Iranian protests, it seems less like pure paranoia to me that governments in India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been pushing for telecom companies like Research In Motion to grant them unrestricted access to data on the mobile phones. Carelessness on the part of the US government in deciding how much distance to maintain between itself and Internet services like twitter (that count on their apolitical standing to gain open entry in many countries) has led to even more restriction of access to information in countries under authoritarian and oppressive regimes. Terrorist cells aside, oppressive governments also have as much a penchant for new communication technology as do activists and bloggers. The Internet is just as accommodating to being used to maintain oppression as it is to being used to spread ideas of freedom and democracy.
During a recent performance, a comedian observed that the difference (or distance) between “knowing” and “not knowing” has virtually been erased because access to tools like google search is now available everywhere – in your pocket, by your bedside, etc. To summarize his observations, trying to track down a specific piece of information years ago was an almost adventurous undertaking. When you were done, you felt like you grew or advanced a little as a person. Today it’s as easy as entering a question into google’s search bar. You don’t seek out information anymore. In a sense, information comes to you on command. Unlike information you receive through older traditional media outlets, this information can be remarkably specific to your interests. What was a character referencing on a recent episode of your favorite show? What parts do you need to build something from scratch? What’s the fastest, most convenient way to get from one part of the world to another? (a question Google will soon become even more involved with after its proposed acquisition of travel management software ITA is done) The answer to very specific questions like these are usually a couple of clicks away thanks to the efforts of active participants on the Internet.
Active participation is more responsible than any technological innovation for closing this gap between knowing and not knowing. This observation that the feeling of having acquired an obscure piece of information isn’t as satisfying anymore is only compelling when you aren’t an active participant. Admittedly, I’ve made this complaint myself once before, which is why it stuck out when I heard it. Most of the time, I’m a free-rider – I mostly use the Internet to get information but I rarely offer any information back in return. As a free-rider, it is easy to notice the closing of this gap because your media experience is still very passive and reminiscent of old media-consuming habits. New communication and networking technologies aren’t taking the fun and excitement out of learning or searching for information, they are simply shifting the fun and excitement to a new form of individual participation that isn’t limited to just getting information but also sharing and producing information in return. The satisfaction in the end now comes from seeing how much of an impact you can make in your network by sharing what you stumble upon and contributing whatever information you have, however obscure or broad. Simply finding information and holding on to it gets you nothing anymore because it has almost become a purely automated act, made even more lifeless when the information is received through tools like Google or Wikipedia.
There are lots of networking tools in the market today that seem to take the fun out of knowledge consumption when used incorrectly. Wikipedia is a good example of a website that many visitors use only as a tool to acquire information. If more people were willing to participate fully in Wikipedia the way it was intended, many of the complaints about it (misinformation, hive-mind, etc) wouldn’t be as prevalent. The satisfaction and excitement that comes from participating actively and contributing to discussions would increase the user’s knowledge (or knowledge of the knowledge) on whatever subject he/she wants to learn more about by encouraging him/her to take ownership of the subject and search for more answers than are readily available. When that happens, more people will see Wikipedia not just as a knowledge source, but as a source of empowerment. There are other information gathering tools that are encouraging active participation even more explicitly. They push for participation that involves gathering information, not simply seeking information. I think that if everyone (me included) kept this in mind, we’ll see that there’s more than enough fun to be had in this era of fast, readily available information.