Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Language of Place

-- TheodoreSmith - 15 June 2009

Table of Contents

Growing to Simplicity

There is a point early in the growth of a network where the emergent complexity dwarfs the capacity of the human brain to see order: the possible permutations of communication channels grow beyond the ability of the individual to hold them in an aneristic state. An engineer drawing flow diagrams on a whiteboard will, at this moment, abandon his carefully plotted lines and connections in favor of an ambiguous cloud straddling the center of the field. (The internet appears frequently and exclusively as a cloud in these diagrams – a good tip if you find yourself playing pictionary with a software engineer). The vast complexity of our interconnected world makes such symbolism eminently practical, both for illustration and thought; a reduction of complexity to metaphor is normal and natural.

A Better Metaphor

“The internet is interconnection, a social condition: it does not exist, it obtains.” Such a metaphor is nonphysical and abstract, designed to counter a myriad of more concrete similes. Though I understand the logic driving the metaphor, the similes hold sway. There is a place I imagine the internet to be - dark and strange - but a place: where information exists not as data flow and communication, but as brick and soil – knowledge as ordered physical structure. As the complexity of a network system transcends our ability to organize and resolve, the symbolic system perfectly adapted and designed for chaotic natural environments takes over, rendering the abstract in the idiom of the concrete.

It is not my intention to deride our attempts to symbolize the internet as an abstract state of human affairs: this is a powerful and revealing metaphor. I can, however, no more maintain a working concept of abstract interconnection than I can imagine my own actions absent the comfort of free will. It is entirely possible that I am a man of little imagination; however, my own constant regression to the physical leads me to the conclusion that, as important as this metaphor is, it is not satisfying to some deeper sensibility. Adapting the symbols of technology and freedom to the patterns of the mind seems far easier than adapting minds to fit our symbols.

No Man's Land

In the vernacular of place, most internet users are, to some extent, nomads: constantly moving from place to place - staying long enough to achieve information of value – then moving on. Facebook’s popularity in this context does not stem wholly from service or convenience, but because it provides a stable location on a shifting web. Indeed, 50% to 80% of web usage is encompassed in the revisitation of previously viewed pages. The corners of the web I frequent are often not places that inform an immediate interest, but are rather destinations that are comfortable or familiar: places that are dedicated to me, that, to some extent, I may craft in my own image.

The personal “wall wart” server proposed in class provides an excellent chance to parlay this desire for stability and ownership into an increased recognition of the importance of information. In the language of place, Facebook and Google are mere landlords, leasing us space in exchange for our identities. The perceived benefit of the wall-wart server in this paradigm is neither directed at an abstract threat to identity, nor wholly reliant on the ability of wall-wart developers to implement a more attractive service: the appeal is concrete and instinctual - a personal space in a world we do not own. Couching benefits to identity and personal information within the idiom of place and ownership allows us to reach an audience beyond those already speaking in the language of privacy.

Owning Information

Harnessing the symbolism associated with place and property allows us the opportunity to present personal information as something of actual and material worth. Bits of information duplicated across a network are difficult to conceptualize as elements of shared value. (A point demonstrated by the continued ineffectiveness of the RIAA’s “educational” campaigns). Filling out a form feels subjectively different than making a payment, regardless of the objective equivalence between the two. The providence of a personal space where personal information may be gathered and managed could act as an important prop to dispel the illusion of “mere information.” Once our information is gathered in a place we own, we have the opportunity to see identity as a complete and concrete thing of worth; we have the chance to stop and say, “this is who I am.”

Finally, although “placeyness” has been suggested as a cause of the 4th Amendment’s limited applicability to digital matters, fully embracing the language of place could provide a starting point for the expansion of individual rights onto the internet. Common maintenance of personal information on wall-wart servers would begin to address some of the immediate problems with current 4th Amendment internet doctrine simply by tying (at least one source of) information to a physical location. Although the majority of this data would still exist in the hands of third parties, a cultural shift towards individual control over personal identity could support a parallel shift in our shared assumptions regarding the importance of information ownership and privacy. Americans often define themselves in terms of what they do and what they possess. The more ownership and control we have over our own information, the more likely we are to associate information with our identity, and the more likely we are to demand legal protection over this information once it leaves our hands.


While a focus on the physical and concrete is to some extent at odds with a sophisticated understanding of the internet, these inapt terms are the building blocks of insight. Elimination of the idioms of place may prove ultimately impossible in a population generally unfamiliar with the technical or philosophical underpinnings of the network. Instead of fighting our natural tendency to render the abstract in colors we can perceive, we should focus on recasting our arguments in the palette of the concrete.

  • This is a very interesting draft, Ted. I don't have recommendations for revision, because it feels to me more or less complete as it is. I don't see how one can argue more effectively for the position, which I think is more a provocation than actionable intelligence. Your illustrations are helpful and compelling, though they may be a more exhaustive set of the illustrative benefits of your conceptual approach than you let on. But you've achieved a workable example of one of your preferred art forms: an ironic, informative, thought-provoking essay that pays its respects to the locally-received wisdom while moving in a very different direction. Writing as hacking, I think we might say, and well done of its kind.



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r3 - 05 Jan 2010 - 22:33:54 - IanSullivan
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