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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Zuckerberg's Privation

It isn't easy to understand why the American response to comparably lethal mass-casualty events involving bombs and involving guns are so very different -- the one seeming to result always in more citizens under more surveillance, the other seeming to result always in more guns on the streets -- but in the aftermath of the latest illustration of this rather joyless and surreal ritual pairing of reaction we find ourselves once again contemplating calls for more good guys with good guns and less civil liberties for all lest they benefit bad guys.

Especially fragile in the face of the fears occasioned by "Terror" (which apparently is not what we are feeling when we contemplate the proliferation and penetration of guns into every public precinct), it seems, is that legal penumbra and subjective paradox we denote "the right to privacy." With every bomb blast hardboiled technorealists scatter onto our screens to extol the benefits of hidden cameras and warrantless searches and biometric data profiles, all the while suavely handwaving concerns over privacy away as altogether dispensable and old-fashioned in the age of Reality TV on every channel, cameraphones in every palm, tweets reporting our stomach contents to the world every second.

A few year's back Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg notoriously declared:
"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."
In so saying Zuckerberg is citing a long tradition of political idealists who have decried as hypocrisy the frustration of their ends by the doubly ineradicable plurality of the humans with whom they actually shared the world. I say we are (at least) "doubly" plural, simply because humans are plural both as psychic subjects with a dynamic unconscious and as citizen subjects with different situations.

What Zuckerberg formulates as a conventional futurological prediction -- "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly," and this because, as usual, of the determinative force of certain "new technologies" that happen to preoccupy his attention -- is of course completely baseless as a prediction and embarrassingly facile as a statement about the subject (humans) on which he is pretending here to be expert.

But what is more to the point is that -- again as is usual with futurological formulations that take the form of "expert predictions" -- what Zuckerberg is really expressing in this utterance is a wish, here the profoundly misguided dream of an assertion of total control over the frustrating finitude and open expressivity of never-knowable never-finalized humans.

The assumption of and aspiration to information awareness is always finally totalitarian in its ends -- whether "Total Information Awareness" expresses the paranoid nationalism that would paradoxically preserve the integrity of a homeland's borders by violating the dynamic substance of the homeland itself or whether "Total Information Awareness" expresses the sadistic/masochistic moralism that would produce and police a complacent competent continent labor force for the interminable elite-incumbent accumulation of wealth in a dead world with nothing worth spending it on.

None of this is to deny the force of the prosthetic articulation of human capacities and possibilities, but only to deny that anybody really knows or could know enough to know how this force is really playing out in the world. And it bears repeating that all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture, and that this has always been so and hence all this is in an important sense nothing new, but also that technoscientific vicissitudes have tended in their emergence to exacerbate confusion and not control and yet also that such confusion is eventually assimilated rather than abiding as a transcendentalizing disruption. The irrational rationality of instrumentality and its technofixated imaginary tend both to overestimate the personal capacity technoscientific change will bring them in its emergence as well as to underestimate the interpersonal capacity of historical struggle to assimilate the terms of technoscientific change back into familiar social forms. These misrecognitions are fundamental to instrumentalized vantages on the political and the historical, and indeed one might fairly characterize these falsifications as the essential clarifying and motivational work of this mode of rationalization, its lure and its fatality.

That we will be profiled by ubiquitous corporate-military surveillance may indeed be irresistible. Certainly that seems to be the case at times like these. That we will be defined by these profiles as people or our status as citizens determined by them absolutely can, and it seems to me also must, be resisted. Contra Zuckerberg and the revolutionists of the "digital democracy" of panoptic surveillance, targeted marketing harassment, crowdsourced precarity, and zero comments, I propose that to an important extent privacy is now becoming, if nothing else, the slippage between never-identical never-converging profiles of us reminding all of us we are always more than we are known to have been.

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