Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Transmogrification of Self: Surveillance, Privacy, and Personhood

-- By SylvieRampal - 03 Mar 2009

People are so obsessed with innovation and modernity that they spend little time assessing the costs. The ubiquity of surveillance sprang more from ‘innovations’ in convenience—the credit card, the transport pass, the mobile—than from fear or the desire for governmental encroachment. People are not apathetic, they have simply struck bargains for convenience-sake. But in so doing, they have not bettered quality of life. They have unfettered themselves from the weight of liberty and human dignity, not just tedium and drudgery.

The commmodification of self and the general unveiling that surveillance imposes are not just threats to the vague idea of privacy but more fundamentally to who we are as people, as individuals. What is at stake is not a distant ideal that seems apart from who we are in our daily lives. What is at stake is our humanness: how we choose to define ourselves—composition, mechanisms of communication, disclosures. The hidden self (our secrets, who we are in private) is a necessity not a luxury; the ‘self’ is defined in part by relationships and autonomous self-disclosure is indispensable to building the trust and intimacy relationships require; information-filters used to ascertain what is true help create our personal realities. Perhaps viewing that which imperils the constellations of privacy—secrecy, autonomy, anonymity—as imperiling personhood, ‘self’, may help illuminate the bargain for convenience.

Secrecy. The hidden self—Tampering with the “curtain” between public and private life.

Freedom cannot exist in a world that demands, by the denial of privacy, that our private and public selves be the same. Unifying the private and the public eliminates the separateness needed to fully develop the core self and inner-life. In Testaments Betrayed, Kundera says, “the real scandal was not [] daring talk but the rape of [] life …private and public … two essentially different worlds”, and that “respect for the difference is the indispensable condition,[] for a man to live free”. The hidden self creates protective stasis—offering calm and respite from exposure to the chaos of modern life. When we return from the exertions of socialization—e.g. the requirements of public masks, the variety of selves we must be to adapt to different circumstances and contexts—the hidden self, the private life, comforts and relieves.

Autonomy. Self-disclosure of inner-life.

Relationships—family, romantic, and friendship ties; affinity groups; political organizations—and the roles that are created through them are important elements of identity and humanness. Relationships teach us appropriate behavior, respect for others, how we are distinct from others, and separates us from “others”. Behavior and uniqueness formed by relationships are responsible for the conformity and non-conformity choices we use to self-distinguish.

Additionally,the choice of how, to whom, and to what degree we self-disclose evidences our trust in those who are privy to our disclosures, and the rarity of the disclosure fosters intimacy. Relationship building requires both trust and intimacy. But the loss of privacy makes revealing what is hidden from public view involuntary and non-discretionary. How can any relationship we have be more special and closely bonded than another in a world where the revelation of our selves is not made by choice? Where for the right price we can be known by anyone?

Fragmentation of self as failure in self-representation

Reducing people to data elements makes them less human and more object-like. Using data to define identity shifts control away from the individual—third party electronic diaries supplant the self-created life-narrative. Data centered representation fragments and rearranges ‘self’ in ways that seem inauthentic and inconsistent with self-image. Separating certain consumer behaviors (the purchase of a certain book) from the whole of a person (daughter, pro-environment, choir singer, science fiction-loving, Temptations-listening) makes the ‘self’ contextless. Finally, the recognition of ‘self’ is divorced from actual reality— relegated to digital reality.


The diary that each person keeps of their personal history, their personal narrative, is how they perceive and define their ‘selves’. Bernstein argues that “anonymity enables the exploration of unconventional aspects of the self without fear of retribution”. But anonymity does not merely facilitate identity creation, it is itself a part of identity. If anonymity may be labeled as a state of being unnamed, unknown, invisible, it might also be called the preservation of self. In that, in the digital world those who are known, named, or visible are owned (at least in part) by those who know, name or see them. It is to this facet of personhood that O’Harrow is speaking, when he says “the details about our lives . . . belong to the companies that collect them” . When people are reduced to data elements, loss of anonymity is loss of self.


Digitization of media and emotional perception.

Compassion for social pain—pity, sympathy, empathy—requires additional processing: “the time course of the neural process in the anterior insula is slower than for compassion pertaining to physical pain” . Compassion demands longer periods of emotional attention than is commonly paid to media (e.g. news reports, social networking sites). Indeed, a clinical study reports that “[t]he rapidity and parallel processing. . . which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions”. Finer emotions like compassion, admiration, empathy that are so much a part of our humanness—how we relate to and value the lives others—are, potentially, eroded.

Information filtering institutions and identity.

For some people everything they see and hear is translated through the context or lens of religion. Nationality may act similarly. Americans are deeply invested in the idea of civil liberty as an element of ‘American-ness’. So, the loss of privacy undermines the credibility of the institutions we hold dear, forever changing truth/ reality perception. Loss of institutional credibility imbues the statement, “They hate us for our freedom” with irony. There is a sense that in the wake of tyranny, a new, invidious, and suspect “American democracy” has emerged; one which behaves in ways antithetical to our national identity.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" on the next line:

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, SylvieRampal

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of that line. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated list

Sylvie, I wasn't sure if you intended for this to be publicly viewable or not. On the theory that you did, I added a comment box.

If I could make one suggestion: it would be very helpful to turn the quotes into hyperlinks where the documents are available online. Right now, it's a bit hard to discern which source each quote comes from.

-- AndreiVoinigescu - 05 May 2009


I don't say this to be unkind, but I have to confess this paper leaves me more than a little lost. The ideas you are presenting are interesting, but extremely unclear. I think you are arguing that privacy is part of (or tantamount to) personhood, and thus threats to privacy also threaten personhood. If that is your argument, the essay is too wordy and too vague to effectively make your point. (And if that isn't your argument, then it's certainly true that the essay is too vague to make your point). At least part of what you're doing here is just simply stringing together catch phrases about personhood and privacy, which both makes your writing hard to understand and undermines the argument you're trying to make. Better roadmapping of your argument and some aggressive editing would go a long way in making your essay really sing.

-- DanaDelger - 05 May 2009

Thanks Andrei, will do.

Actually Dana I am very grateful for all comments, because I want to know what works and what doesn't. (So thanks for the advice, Dana!)

I think the problem may be too much metaphor. I have more specific examples but they might lead in other directions (e.g. the role of social networking sites in constructing identity and the life-narrative; the interaction between digital media and how we process human emotion). Would these examples help?

Yes, I was trying to say that privacy is an element of personhood. But also that privacy fosters the creation of other elements of personhood i.e. relationships and our life-narrative.

Also, I wanted to get across that the commodification of self and the general unveiling that surveillance imposes are not just threats to the vague idea of privacy but more fundamentally to who we are as people, as individuals. Would saying that up front make things clear?

-- SylvieRampal - 06 May 2009


I definitely think saying the "commmodification of self and the general unveiling that surveillance imposes are not just threats to the vague idea of privacy but more fundamentally to who we are as people, as individuals" right up front would help a lot. That's an insightful idea, and if you let your reader know right away that it's the framework for the essay, the structure and argument become much more clear.

I agree that part of the problem is too much metaphor. It's a issue I tend to have in my own writing, so I understand the impulse to hang on to a bit of interesting or beautiful language, even at the expense of clarity, but it's something to be attentive to, if not always against. Many of the metaphors you use are, in some sense, poetically valuable and interesting, but there are so many, and so little framework that they end up detracting rather than adding to your essay. I think that introducing a more clear argument (like the kind you suggest in the comment) and replacing at least a few abstractions with concrete examples would really improve the essay. I read it again after having read the comment, and having your argument clearly spelled out in my mind as I read made a big difference in the impact of the piece, so I suspect this will help a lot.

-- DanaDelger - 06 May 2009

Hi Sylvie! I was just wondering, tangentially, if the opposite of your point can be true as well. Can the "unveiling that surveillance imposes" also reinforce our true identity as individuals? We each create a persona or identity and project it to the world at large, and choose what/how much of ourselves we reveal to others. However, if we are "under surveillance," and are no longer able to maintain a zone of private identity, does that finally allow others to see who we truly are?

-- ElizabethDoisy - 10 May 2009

Liz, I think you've hit upon the paradox of privacy-as-integral-to-personhood and the development of individual identity. Can individuality even be defined without comparing and contrasting one's actions and reactions with the actions and reactions of others? As much as we need space to develop and grow as autonomous individuals, we also need enough of a window into the minds of others to let us understand how we are different from them. And to make the stranger predictable enough to allow a highly interdependent society like ours to function.

I don't think the hard part is articulating reasons why a certain degree of privacy is essential; privacy is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. Rather, the hard part is the line drawing--what must be protected at all costs, and where can privacy be balanced against other interests?

-- AndreiVoinigescu - 10 May 2009



Webs Webs

r11 - 05 Jan 2010 - 22:31:14 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM