Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, December 27, 2004

Secrecy and the Subject of Privacy

For those of you who have asked me to say more about the dissertation I am currently finishing up (apparently, mostly in my downtime from what sometimes seems my rather more rewarding but unremunerative efforts at blogging), here is a section from the Introduction to the dissertation in which I outline the argument of its three main chapters. Comments, criticisms, questions are, as always, welcome.

I’ll start with a war story. It is a story about a battle written from the perspective of its recent aftermath. And as often happens with wars, many of its warriors still nurse the wounds they acquired in its skirmishes and betrayals, many still mouth the platitudes that drove its reckless energies, and some still pine for and fervently anticipate its resumption. While it is commonplace for a certain perplexity and even absurdity to attach to the actual details in retrospective accounts of war, it seems to me especially surreal to survey the scene of the conflict that preoccupies me here, a conflict which for all its noise and heat now seems in a way best captioned by that wistful old anti-war slogan: “What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came”?

In the first and second chapters of this dissertation, I will tell you the story of what Paulina Barsook has called “The Crypto Wars.” It is the story of what amounts to roughly a decade of skirmishes in policy, in law, in code, in mainstream op-eds, and in the incandescent online manifestoes of a few inspired technology alarmists and enthusiasts, all moved by the development and proliferation of then-new and now-ubiquitous digital networked tools designed either to keep or to expose people’s secrets.

The application of encryption techniques to transactions undertaken over digital networks, for example, has especially exercised the imaginations of the writer and activist Tim May and the coterie of “Cypherpunks” (the name of an anarchic collection of coders and cryptography enthusiasts, and of the influential, sometimes notorious, online mailing-list where they gather to discuss these topics) for whom he was a founder and a spokesman and something of a folk-hero. Encryption is simply the process of enciphering or transforming information so that it is unintelligible to anyone but an intended recipient.

In Chapter One, “Markets From Math,” I will discuss a series of rather exhilarated arguments, initially widely circulated online in the mid-1990s, in which Tim May and Eric Hughes, among others, predicted that more and more social and economic transactions would come to take place behind a veil of impenetrable encryption. The ultimate consequence of this emerging state of affairs for May and Hughes and the other Cypherpunks was no less than that conventional national governments would soon be rendered obsolete and contemporary societies across the globe swiftly transformed beyond recognition. All this would take place because states presumably would no longer be able to police routinely encrypted social interactions, levy sufficient tax revenues on ubiquitously encrypted economic transactions to fund their traditional functions, nor even maintain geographical borders in a meaningful way for citizens devoted primarily to their participation in globe-girding digital networks.

In Chapter Two, “Markets With Eyes,” I will focus on work by David Brin, a popular science fiction author and essayist, who countered this “cypherpunk” perspective soon thereafter in a number of comparably influential articles, many of which also first circulated online, and then in a book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? There Brin argued, contrary to the Cypherpunks, that whatever security and obscurity might be afforded by encryption techniques would soon enough be bypassed by the overwhelming multiplication of powerful surveillance technologies of other kinds -- for instance, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology inexpensively imbedded into, potentially at any rate, nearly all discrete objects on earth, the ongoing “realtime” tracking of individuals via the biometric profiles they cast in their commerce with the world (traces of skin, hair, blood, as well as finger, iris, and voice prints, for example), and the proliferation of vanishingly small, exceptionally cheap digital cameras, even, imagine, long rolls of paper-thin adhesive-sticker “penny-cams,” all of them archiving or downloading content continuously onto public and private networks. Rather notoriously, Brin went on to celebrate what initially seems the somewhat chilling prospect of an emerging ubiquitous surveillance society as generating in his terms a kind of radical “transparency” that would, he insisted, encourage more critical dialogue, more honorable conduct, and more accountable authorities.

Ultimately, Brin’s vision of a “transparent society” presumes a technological transformation of society no less sweeping and unprecedented in its scope than the “crypto-anarchy” championed by the Cypherpunks with whom he often differed so contentiously. But more intriguing than their differences, I notice that May and Brin share certain unexpected affinities and key assumptions in making their separate cases. Of these, what strikes me most forcefully (apart from the fact that adherents of both viewpoints seem to consider the outcomes they dread or desire as equally inevitably eventuating from the technological developments that preoccupy their notice) is that both May and Brin affirm at the base of their conceptions of social life a rather specific kind of individual subject. Whether uniquely imperiled or encouraged by surveillance, it is in each case a subject characterized essentially by the capacity to make promises and enter into reliable contractual obligations. It is at root a subject on the market. And true to this shared point of departure, both May and Brin sketch what amount to similarly utopian portraits of a society constituted in its totality by promises and contracts, attained either through or secured against the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance technologies.

I will read these shared assumptions in Chapter Three, “Markets Without Materiality,” through the lens of Michel Foucault’s use, in his book on the emergence of the modern prison, Discipline and Punish, of the figure of the Benthamite Panopticon (an ideal institutional architecture proposed to impose upon prisoners a presumably “beneficial” regime of absolute and total surveillance) to describe how the conscientious liberal subject of industrial capitalism has been constituted through discourses and practices of surveillance, broadly construed. What is intriguing to me is the extent to which May’s own “pancryptic” project reproduces rather than eludes the central features of the panopticon Brin would seem, on the contrary, to embrace. And central to the normative ideals of both crypto-anarchy and total transparency I observe a shared and definitive recourse to a discourse of privacy, treated either as indispensable to human freedom and dignity (in May and Hughes) or instead urgently to be dispensed with in pursuit of the same (in Brin), and for which privacy is taken to be above all else a matter primarily of secrecy.

This leads me, finally, to the work of N. Katherine Hayles. For Hayles, the history and preoccupations of information theory, from its inauguration in the Turing Test for personhood as a matter of adequacy in ideally mediated, disembodied conversation through to the contemporary vision of roboticist Hans Moravec to “upload” consciousness into imperishable data, has continually reiterated the gesture of an erasure of the body, and continually makes recourse to reductive accounts of communication as information flows or a play of patterns which disavow the definitive embodiment of these experiences. I propose that both the pancryptic and the panoptic utopias/dystopias of cypherpunks like Tim May and transparency advocates like David Brin, relying as they do on the technological facilitation of market norms either through the unprecedented consolidation or obliteration of the circulation of public information, represent a second, conspicuously political face of this dematerializing tendency in information theory. Market libertarian technophiles, often explicitly inspired by these information models, offer up accounts of political life and publish strident manifestoes demanding political transformation. Many of these accounts insistently denigrate and deny the reality of legitimate social and public experiences, while many more of them seem curiously oblivious likewise to the actual material complexities of the terrain to which they would address even their legitimate grievances. And few of these accounts seem even remotely prepared to grasp the significance of what seems to me a conspicuous contemporary rematerialization of new media networks, on which are flowing more and more palpably and significantly these days not so much any presumably disembodied digital information strongly susceptible to secrecy, but bodily secretions susceptible instead to biometric surveillance and to ownership by others as patentable sequences of information.

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