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.