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

Monday, December 05, 2005

Pancryptics: Introduction

"Pancryptics" is a word that evokes all at once for me the sense of an all-encompassing concealment, of an endless provocation to decipherment, and of a universe susceptible in its totality to coding.

Consider Alan Turing, a British mathematician, logician, and cryptographer whose life spanned the first half of the twentieth century. Turing is invariably credited today as one of the founders of both computer science and modern information science. In 1948 he published a paper entitled “Intelligent Machinery” in which he proposed that “[t]here is a remarkably close parallel between the problems of the physicist and those of the cryptographer.” He went on to “flesh out” this analogy considerably, suggesting that “[t]he system on which a message is enciphered corresponds to the laws of the universe,” and “intercepted messages to the evidence available,” and so on. At the time he published this paper Turing had devoted nearly a decade of his life, the years of World War II, to devising techniques for breaking enemy codes for the Allies, and so it is likely that this curious analogy reflected the preoccupations of this moment in his life as much as anything else. But I propose that whatever its origins in the biographical specificity of his circumstances Turing’s analogy reveals and complements assumptions that have come to freight information science more generally throughout its history as well as any number of other technocentric discourses into the present day.

On Turing’s analogy the universe is invested with a kind of personality that is assumed to have preferences in the matter of the way it is described. Arriving at scientifically warranted descriptions of the world is, for us, a matter of managing to discern these preferences. But because the universe is imagined as a secretive and even rather hostile antagonist to the humans who would strive to understand and cope with it these preferences are not conveyed to us outright so much as mysteriously intimated in the disposition of the furniture of the world itself.

With whom did Turing imagine the universe to be conversing in the first place in this analogy, one wonders, with its secret messages, laying out its scarcely scrutable evidences? Is the scientist as metacryptographer listening in on the voice of the world as it talks endlessly and forlornly to itself? Or did Turing imagine the coder as a kind of pilgrim, penitent, or, possibly, priest, becoming the proper recipient of the message of the cosmos simply by virtue of learning finally the language in which it speaks itself?

Whatever entailments rendered the analogy a compelling one for Turing, it intrigues me that his is a vision of scientific knowledge that threatens to deprive it of any avowable political life. Against an understanding of scientific inquiry and conviction as public practices, as the collaborative interrogation of a shared environment arising out of shared interests by means of shared protocols and eventuating in a shared, if imperfect and contingent, consensus of belief, Turing’s analogy locates the meaningfulness and significance of warranted scientific conviction squarely on the side of the universe itself. Turing stages in his analogy what amounts to an essentially private confrontation between the universe and anyone who would know it.

In 1985, in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway pointed out that “communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move –- the translation of the world into a problem of coding.” But for Haraway this move registers not so much the search for the true language in which to describe at last the world as the world would prefer to be described itself, the essentially theological vision at the heart of Turing’s analogy. She describes the projects of contemporary informational construals of biological and communications sciences as searches, instead, “for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange.” The ambition to discern or to craft the “common language” that would translate the world into a “problem of coding” is for Haraway the ambition to rewrite the dynamic heterogeneity of our environment in the image of a constellation of interchangeable terms without remainders, a world without intractable plurality or history, an open terrain in which an efficacious will can play out without inevitable friction or frustration.

Such a search should not be confused with the modest proposal of pragmatic philosophy that humans describe as “true” simply those convictions which seem best to facilitate their ends for now, whatever these may be. Pragmatism offers no reassurances that particular human ends will be achievable at last, nor even the diversity of human ends reconciled. But in its insistent depoliticization of scientific practice and knowledge, the faith that underlies the informational construal of biology and communication Haraway is talking about is curiously continuous with the vision of science animating Turing’s analogy as well.

While Turing’s analogy invests the universe with a kind of superlative subjecthood, the informational construals Haraway describes reduce the universe instead to an utter objecthood awaiting mastery and use. But both of these understandings impoverish or altogether refuse the intersubjectivity that is surely the condition of whatever confidence we might actually have in our scientifically warranted convictions such as they are, as well as the condition of the interminable contingency of such warrants for any practice of knowledge answerable to a changeable plurality of human ends.

I have used the term pancryptics in the title of this dissertation to conjure up and then to criticize three animating and interdependent images at the heart of such an informational construal of the human world: First, there is an image of social order construed as an object which can be described exhaustively in terms of transactions susceptible to encryption techniques, the model of sociality as a congeries of contracts. Second, there is an image of the material universe construed as an object which can be described exhaustively in numerical terms, the model of the cosmos of classic information science. And third, there is the curiously vacuous and apolitical image of the individual subject complementarily implied by each of these models.

Technological development is an ongoing provocation on our many private and public lives. Indeed, continual developmental interventions into "given" norms, laws, trading conventions, and the customary limits of public architectures and personal morphologies constitute a definitive and abiding crisis of cultural life in this historical moment. And the same is true no less of the fraught technocultural practices through which we struggle individually and collectively to re-weave these disruptions into unprecedented, provisionally meaningful relations with our histories and our hopes.

And as contemporary societies variously confront the bewildering ongoing and upcoming technological transformations of human capacities, assumptions, and legible limits it is interesting to notice just how often legal, theoretical, and popular contests over the meaning and force of human agency caught up in this developmental storm-surge turn specifically again and again to the subject of privacy as the lens through which to articulate many of the most urgent hopes and fears in play.

I focus my attention in what follows on these technocultural discourses of privacy and on the publicity that these discourses of privacy inevitably evoke and in which they are implicated. There are of course any number of vocabularies through which we make various and separate recourse in our efforts to negotiate a workable sense of individual dignity and agency amid the vicissitudes of the world. Subjecthood, citizenship, continence, authorship, property, and rationality are all examples of such vocabularies. But I argue in what follows that the language of privacy in particular stands in a unique relationship to technological development as an ongoing source of threats to and hopes for augmentations of such agency.

Practices of publication and collaboration facilitated by new digital networked information and communication technologies and social software, the practices on which I focus most of my attention here, are palpably reconstituting the lived demarcation of public from private life in this historical moment, and so are reconstituting much of our lived experience of the political as such. The same could be said of medical practices facilitated by new and emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies, like assisted reproductive technologies and neuroceutical medicines that radically intervene in mood and memory: As experimental subjects we have come to inhabit and even incarnate nodes in bioremedial networks of genetic information, intellectual property, administrative scrutiny, and informed consent. And so, I discuss ways in which prosthetic practices not only reflect and respond to but constitute and produce our sense of private life, and how they inspire the various claims we make in the name of privacy. I am keen to think through some of the ways in which the constellation of interrelated discourses and customary intuitions that have long been woven tightly together through the figure of privacy –- concerning bodily integrity, personal security, legitimate possessiveness, legible consent, and, perhaps most profoundly of all, secrecy -– might now be unraveling somewhat under pressure of contemporary technological change, thereby changing what we mean by privacy and what we demand of it in significant ways.

But as I have proceeded to sketch out some of the technological transformations of the subject of privacy, I find that I collide again and again against a related but importantly different discourse of privacy, freighted with its own assumptions about and quandaries for agency.

Contemporary American technocultural, technofuturist, technophiliac rhetorics sometimes seem fantastically fixated with what are described as “markets.” In the final section of the Epilogue to the dissertation I provide an extended critique of an anarcho-capitalist libertarian viewpoint for which many technophiles, especially American ones, seem to have a nearly unshakable ardor. I encourage readers who are unfamiliar with the contours of this viewpoint to skip ahead to that general discussion before delving into the proper subject of the dissertation, my account of the fraught relations between contemporary discourses of technology and privacy. In a nutshell, according to the libertarian viewpoint contemporary market relations are uniquely expressive of human nature, the sum of these relations is taken to constitute a space of freedom figured as a spontaneous order, and the principal emancipatory demand is for the elimination of state regulations that are imagined to restrain this order from its otherwise inevitable crystallization. This deregulatory demand is figured precisely as a radical privatization of the institutions of civic life hitherto associated with the public sphere.

The key contribution of specifically technophiliac free-marketeers to American market libertarian discourse would appear to be the regularly reiterated proposal that some particularly disruptive emerging technology or other is about to arrive on the scene. This technology might be digital networks, or encryption technologies, or surveillance devices, or virtual reality systems, or nanotechnologies, or some vague, shifting combination of these. The sudden ubiquity of this disruptive technology will, or so say these technophiliac free-marketeers, introduce a profound and creative destabilization that will break the crust of convention, bypass the intractable knot of pluralist stakeholder politics, overcome the regulatory impasse and thereby facilitate the emergence of a “stateless” and spontaneous market order in due course. So suggestive, insistent, and incessant are these extraordinary claims that three of my chapters have come to bear the imprint of my confrontations with variations on this argument: Chapter Two, “Markets From Math,” which discusses encryption and the “crypto-anarchy” of a coterie of technophiliac privacy activists called the Cypherpunks; Chapter Three, “Markets With Eyes,” which discusses video and biometric surveillance and author David Brin's vision of a “transparent society”; and the Conclusion, “Markets Without Matter,” which briefly discusses the frustrated hopes that animate the discourse of virtual reality.

In 1958, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the “Prologue” to her book The Human Condition of what she called “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction,” that “nobody yet has paid [it] the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” Over the nearly half century that has elapsed since the publication of Arendt’s book, of course, a whole cottage industry of scholarship has emerged devoted to the redress of this deficiency, studying science fiction in popular film, in literature, in the imagery of television commercials, in passionate subcultures of fandom, and elsewhere. But despite all that it still seems to me that it is just as true as ever that few have paid anything like enough attention to the vital topical and tropological life of “science fiction” beyond fiction, in the presumably nonfictional discourses of corporate futurology, management literature, legal analysis, and policy language.

Futurity is an openness so radical we seem to demand its domestication from the start, and so we speak of “the future” instead. As if there were a road we’re on, as if there were a destination we’re on our way to. Policy-makers, bioethicists, technocritical theorists all take their own measures of distance from the whirlwind, and talk about contemporary quandaries through recourse to narratives from centuries past, Icarus, Eden, Babel, Faust, Frankenstein, 1984, Brave New World, while all around them, right now, today, unexpected unprecedented uncannily powerful devices vanish before our eyes into the nanoscale, digital networks proliferate and girdle the globe, biomedical interventions derange the customary limits, capacities, morphology, and span of bodily lives, and the very climate of the planet itself complains of the recklessness of crudely extractive industrial civilization in a tantrum of Greenhouse storms.

In the readings that follow I found that I too was drawn again and again to the writings of contemporary science fiction authors to delineate my account –- from pieces by David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, to Vernor Vinge, among others. But the works on which I have concentrated my attention here are not at all the fictions to which these writers have devoted the better part of their own attention, but certain curious and curiously influential forays they have made into technology polemics and public policy discourse. These writings of theirs (as well as those of technology critics and enthusiasts that reverberate conspicuously with the influence of these writings) have yet to attract as much as you would expect in the way of scholarly attention, especially readings attentive to what seems to me their unexpectedly shared recourse to certain basic assumptions, characteristic images, idiosyncratic cultural frames, and habitual rhetorical gestures; that is to say, precisely those aspects of their writing that would almost certainly be the ones foregrounded in serious readings of their various fictions. And so, part of what I am documenting here is an episode in an ongoing conversation about technology and privacy within a particular milieu, by means of which I mean to evoke a characteristic strain of technology discourse more generally, and even, I hope, to contribute something to (and somewhat against the grain of) that conversation myself. But first, I will want to survey the historical and conceptual terms of this conversation about technology and privacy in a more general way and so clarify its stakes, both for them and for me.

Go to Next Section of Pancryptics
Go to Pancryptics Table of Contents


David Venezia said...


I've been reading and enjoying your postings for well over a year now. I just wanted to send you a quick communication conveying my excitment for you that the dissertation is finally tightening into a perspicuous and coherent piece of original writing. I don't know how long you've had it in this form, but I'm looking forward to reading it through the way you have organized it for yourself and your board.

thank you for the good thoughts, clear writing, and public sentiments,


Dale Carrico said...

And my thanks to you for your support and intelligent feedback!