Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

From the Individual to the Collective: Reconciling Retreat with Reform

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau advocates for a self-sufficient life of reflection away from the civilized world. He argued that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and wished to transcend the superficial experience of daily life through nature. Of course, we know that Thoreau actually lived very close to town and only spent two years there as a social experiment. Yet, this illusion can also be seen as an extension of privilege, for who else but those who are already of means have the time to reflect and try to “transcend” the pressure and banality of ordinary existence? A contemporaneous analogy to Thoreau’s philosophy might be weaning oneself away from the chokehold of social media and products of technology companies that have little respect for privacy. It is clear, of course, that isolation is not the most socially productive answer to political and cultural critiques. The challenge lies instead in harnessing an underlying philosophy of self-sufficiency while maintaining connections with the outside world.

Individuals who have spent formative years of their adolescence tethered to social media and regular intrusions on personal privacy have come to expect that the things they upload online are not truly private. It is this removal of expectation that has changed our culture to one that often does not understand the value of its own data, for it has been removed from us while we weren’t paying attention and monetized without our input. Is this loss of privacy now a philosophy of acquiescence as potent and inescapable as capitalism in American society? What does it mean to opt out from such a culture? Who gets to opt out, and what does it mean for those of us left behind?

It seems rather outrageous that one can physically be in the same space as one’s social circle while feeling removed due to a lack of online connection. Connecting via some type of online media is often a prerequisite to forming deeper relationships, although this is not always the case. Actively choosing to remove oneself from ubiquitous platforms like Facebook or Gmail means actively choosing not to be a part of an interaction one could otherwise have. But most humans have a desire for social conformity, and these websites prey on the “fear of missing out” by highlighting only the most “shareable” aspects of each person’s life, creating a virtual reality free of self-doubt. Yet, I am not convinced that opting out of social media and the information sharing it invariably brings is only an issue in our social lives.

We can commend individuals for being courageous in removing themselves from Facebook, not listing their resumes on LinkedIn? , and valuing their privacy. But isn’t there also an implicit message with these actions, one that says that whomever is doing this likely doesn’t need whatever “boost” these online platforms can give? If finding a job takes longer without networking online, individuals with more wealth automatically have more time to wait for other methods to get them where they want. This may be easier for people who did not grow up in an era where building a searchable online identity felt like a prerequisite for affirming one’s existence, for they could have pre-existing networks based off of less invasive infrastructures. This could also be true for individuals in a community built less on online interactions. For them, diving deeply into the privacy-stripping networks built by Google and Facebook is voluntary, much like how temporarily living in the woods was voluntary for Thoreau. He, too, could go back to “real life” when his experiment was over. He did not have to suffer the consequences of what truly living in the woods, isolated from society, and unable to capitalize on all that society has to offer, really meant.

The question, however, is what we do about the future. I believe that opting out of pre-existing behemoths of online interaction is not a viable solution. It is merely an illusion, a temporary escape to a comfortable fantasy on the fringes of society that is only available to individuals who have the ability to shut down certain aspects of their lives. A singular delusion of Thoreau-like philosophies is that individuals have the capacity to change their interactions with the world, and that this is the most important way one can affect change (similar to protesting factory farms by simply not eating meat). In my view, this is a rather selfish and complacent attitude. The responsibility of people who disagree with the way things are is to actively try to change them for the better. Of course, not being on Facebook and advocating for policy changes are not mutually exclusive actions, but it is important to not let self-righteousness be the dominant driver of one’s actions. While individual self-righteousness only ends in holing oneself up alone in a bunker-like scenario, collective self-righteousness has the capacity to change an entire culture. It was our collective ignorance that lead to the current situation, where millions of people upload photos of themselves to novelty websites that guess their age, only to later find out the images are now licensed to Microsoft. What’s more frightening, it is a situation where individuals don’t even care that this happening, because it is so commonplace, because we have become normalized to a slight whiff of the sinister. Yet, perhaps Thoreau’s enduring legacy is a reason for hope. While we are certainly not living in a country where everyone lives self-sufficiently in the solitude of nature, his ideas live on, and as the quality of life for the all sectors of society improve, more equitable ideas may mold the current situation into a more palatable normal.

-- EvelynPang - 06 May 2015



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r2 - 30 Jun 2015 - 14:22:52 - MarkDrake
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