“I am sitting here, six in the morning, I am staring at two people bascially naked in the shower together with 30 people watching and its like uh okay, but that’s the future.”-Josh Harris, We Live in Public
Perhaps the most haunting film I have watched on publicity and the digital network is Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public. On the surface the documentary is about the Josh Harris and his various internet ventures. But on a more significant level the film raises questions about what it means to “live” once that living is done almost exclusively in public. The movie covers several of Harris’s projects including “Quiet: We Live in Public” a bunker hotel in NYC where one hundred people agreed to have every aspect of their lives exposed to every other member of the community. Everything that happened was filmed, 24-7, and broadcast to the TVs around the hotel. Participants were filmed, eating, sleeping, showering, and having sex, nothing in the bunker was private (think of it as reality TV on steroids). For me the most disturbing scene comes at the end of the “experiment,” just before the cops break up the hotel. What exactly happens is a bit unclear, but a woman is taking shower as the community watches, when a men walks in and forces her to have sex with him. The level of violence isn’t entirely transparent in the film, but it is pretty clear that what is happening is not okay. But what is perhaps most disturbing though is that the onlookers, the rest of the “public” do nothing, take this incident as just the usual fair.
About ten pages into the introduction of Jeff Jarvis’s new book Public Parts I started wondering if he had seen TImoner’s film. By the time I had reached the third chapter I thought if I were to teach this book Timoner’s film would make the perfect counterpoint. At that point I couldn’t resist scanning ahead in the book to see if Jarvis was aware of We Live in Public. I was, I must admit, rather surprised to find that the film was included in the book (157). Reading Jarvis’s account of We Live in Public I began to think we had perhaps not even watched the same film. What I took to be a rather serious investigation into the concerns of living in public Jarvis takes as testimony to how far one can be public, adopting an entirely uncritical stance. And this is the problem with Jarvis’s book, although the introduction claims that the book will be an investigation into the value and importance of being “public.” What Jarvis actually delivers is less a nuanced understanding of the important debate between the ideas of publicness and privateness, and more a full throated defense of “being public.” As a result Jarvis either reads past examples (like We Live in Public) that would complicate his defense, ignores the nuance and complexity in the issues, or poorly represents the positions of the critics with which he engages. This is all really unfortunate, as there are things Jarvis and I agree on: that the internet enables sharing in a new way, that this sharing can have significant benefit. More important though than any intellectual agreement or disagreement I might have with Jarvis is the importance of this debate. I think that the issue of “Public and Private” is one of the most important discussions we ought to be having about the digital network. So, in one sense I am glad that we are starting to have this discussion, but in another I think Jarvis’s book is so poorly argued that it turns out to be a rather dangerous contribution to this debate and a poor place from which to begin.
Jarvis in Brief
Before I attempt to explain all of my concerns/problems with this book, I want to start by laying out Jarvis’s argument. The base of his argument is rather straightforward. Jarvis argues that being public has a great deal of value, and that any discussion of media and culture needs to recognize the centrality of this value to our culture. According to Jarvis recent debates about the internet have too heavily focused on privacy, and that we are currently running the risk of over valuing privacy, and thus running the risk of losing the value of publicness. There is a danger that we will become, “too obsessed with privacy,” and “lose the opportunities to make connections in this age of links” (5). Early on Jarvis recognizes that privacy and publicity are actually values for which we must “seek a balance,” but clearly Jarvis believes that we are over reacting to privacy, and need to learn to embrace are new publicness. Privacy advocates pose a greater threat to our future than publicness advocates. At one point Jarvis even quotes Philip Kaplan one of the founders of Blippy (a company that lets you share your credit card purchases) as saying, “[Privacy] is one of those things that is completely manufactured” (156). Although he is quoting another here, Jarvis clearly agrees: We are over-reacting to privacy concerns, this is an “engineered” frenzy.
In this regard Jarvis tells a history, a brief one, of how technological transformations have historically produced discussions about values and culture. The history presented here should feel like a familiar one to those who are familiar with the history of technology, or any of the recent discussions about the transformative roll of the net. New technological epochs arrive disturbing cultural assumptions and values, resulting in a need to realign culture: “Then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order” (10). Straight forward enough. Indeed as Jarvis presents this there is a long history of new technologies producing cultural angst, doom and gloom scenarios. In this case, Jarvis focuses on how technological transformation has a history of upsetting privacy values: “Again and again in history, technology has caused change and that change has sparked worries that privacy is being threatened” (9).
So, Jarvis contends that one way we need to understand the current technological transformation is in terms of publicness, “publicness is at the heart of a reordering of society and the economy that I believe will prove to be as profound as the one brought on by Johanees Gutenberg and his press” (9). Rather than worrying about preserving privacy, we should turn the argument around and worry about how to maximize publicness, over focusing on privacy means missing the advantages conferred by publicness, and as Jarvis argues these advantages are legion.
In this regard Jarvis says that when you pull back and take the long view of privacy you learn two things. First that privacy is culturally relative. In different cultures individuals chose to keep different parts of their lives private. In Germany people hang out naked in spas, but don’t like Google street view. In Norway and Finland citizens publicly list taxes and income, whereas in Switzerland and the US we (mostly) keep this information private. Second is that privacy as a value is historically relative. It is here that Jarvis shares some amusing stories of what has occurred in other moments of technological transformation, pointing out how people were concerned about the “Kodakers” violating privacy by taking too many photographs (63). Things at other moments that people would have kept private, we now share without any concern. And perhaps more importantly, and more problematically, Jarvis claims that privacy as a cultural value is a rather modern invention. The main idea here is that privacy really isn’t a value until the turn of the last century, or if it was a value, in past moments it was a negative value, “privacy was not an enviable state,” and “privacy was not assumed to be a good” (70). The idea behind both of these claims is to suggest that we need to keep privacy in perspective, not overvalue it, at the expense of harming the other value of publicness.
For Jarvis there are three levels on which we should value publicness: individual, corporations, government. That is that the individual, corporations, and governments could all be improved by being more public. And accordingly throughout the book Jarvis gives examples about how all three are improved by being more public. From Jarvis’s own personal stories about sharing his bout with Prostate Cancer, to businesses that have crowdsourced development, to governments who open up data to allow citizens to self organize, he piles on the examples of how being public can improve our lives. And since the internet allows us to be more public, we ought to leverage this.
The meat of the argument though is contained in Chps 2-5, where Jarvis wrestles with defining and explaining privacy and publicness. Most of the above is discussed in these chapters, the value of publicness (Chapter 2), the historical invention of the public and the private (Chapter 3), media history (Chapter 4), and defining privacy (Chapter 5).
But for understanding what Jarvis outlines here the fifth chapter is perhaps the most important, where he defines what he means by the terms public and private. The chapter starts by cataloging a range of privacy definitions, demonstrating how each fails to adequately cover our concerns, or how privacy concerns are often related to other issues (theft). At the end of this section Jarvis concludes (and it is worth quoting at length here):
“Do you feel any closer to definition of privacy? I don’t. I see a confused web of worries, changing norms, varying cultural mores, complicated relationships, conflicting motives, vague feelings of danger with sporadic specific evidence of harm, and unclear laws and regulations made all the more complex by context.” (101)
Rhetorically this is a deft move, privacy is too hard to concretely define, we often define it out of fear, and ineffectively so. As a result Jarvis argues privacy is not a value to be defined, but rather an ethic to be practiced. His conclusion: “Privacy is an ethic governing the choices made by the recipient of someone else’s information. Publicness is an ethic governing the choices made by the creator of one’s own information. Or put more simply: Privacy is ethic of knowing. Publicness is an ethic of sharing” (110). What Jarvis is doing here is realigning the debate to the axis of sharing and knowing, sharing is good and valuable, and privacy is not a matter of not disclosing information about yourself, but rather a matter of an ethic of how to treat information that others give you. In the end what he is suggesting is that privacy is about not using others data in nefarious ways, and publicness is about sharing all possible information about yourself. “If you have information that could in any way be valuable to other you must ask yourself: Why not share it?” (112). Got that? Privacy isn’t about you and your rights as an individual but rather about respecting others information when you have access to it, and publicness is about the value of sharing. Although at different times Jarvis strays from these definitions, this is the core of his argument.
In brief: Concerns about privacy are overstated. If we look at the matter historically and culturally we learn that privacy is a relative value whose worth is often overstated. The internet is a giant sharing machine enabling us to be more public. Sharing is good. Being public is good. We should make sure the public aspects of the internet aren’t harmed in our quest for privacy.
Or at least that’s what Jarvis wants his book to argue . . .
Public ≠ Sharing ≠ Openess ≠ Transparency ≠ Public Sphere ≠ The Public
Perhaps the first thing that one notices in reading public parts is that while Jarvis will say that he is seeking a balance between publicness and privacy, and he recognizes that privacy is important, he clearly sees publicness as the privileged term. While being public is directly responsible for human civilization and progress, “our publicness and our connections bring progress,” (69) the advantages of privacy are less easily defined. Indeed one might read the entirety of Jarvis’s book and wonder why one would be private all, given the advantages he assigns to publicness and the serious dearth of value assigned to the private. But this indeed is Jarvis’s aim, to show that privacy is an over rated value, while demonstrating that publicness is underrated.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of having this debate is not only the slippery definition of the concept of privacy, but the myriad ways the word public is used throughout the book all with different resonances and applications. And while Jarvis is quick to limit the definition of privacy he is equally quick to expand the definition of public. Although he defines public as sharing, he often uses other terms as synonyms for being public. So while being public is a matter of sharing, at other moments he argues that being transparent is being public, being open is public, that being in the public is public, and that the public sphere is public. It is true that these words are certainly related, but there is a need to not only be precise about which term we are talking about, but to also treat them separately. The public is not public, is not being public, is not publics, is not sharing, is not openess, is not transparency and is not the public sphere. Sure these terms inform each other, and often share a familial relation but treating them as conterminous, as Jarvis often does is seriously problematic.
To see why this is lets break down some aspects of this book:
1. Net Neutrality. In the closing sections of the book, Jarvis argues that we need to preserve the open net, coming out strongly in favor of net neutrality. I am not at all sure what this has to do with being public, unless you are willing to substitute the word open for public. Don’t get me wrong, this is an issue which Jarvis and I clearly would agree (at least on the level of policy), I think net neutrality is one of the most important issues when it comes to preserving the digital network. But, I would argue this is just as much a matter of privacy as it is publicness. Individuals have the right to access web pages and not have their traffic monitored by ISPs (one aspect of net neutrality), I don’t want ISPs intervening in individual consumption on the net, whether they are throttling bandwidth, or directing traffic. Individuals ought to be able to control their net access, and do so with a sense that browsing history will not be monitored or compromised by ISPs. Sure we could phrase this as a debate about keeping the net open, but that is open as in open for all to access and broadcast equally, not open as in public. And I certainly would support government intervention here as a way to protect the net and people’s privacy.
2. Throughout the book Jarvis works hard to equate publicness with sharing. Most blatantly he claims that publicness is an ethic of sharing. But this is not the way we tend to use the term. There is a strong overlap at times, but the words are by no means coterminous. Consider how we often share things with certain individuals but expect them to nevertheless remain private. Indeed the law recognizes these cases, protecting this type of sharing from public disclosure. Information one shares with a doctor is required by law to be kept private. The court cannot force individuals to disclose things revealed by a spouse in private, although sharing took place, it was not a public sharing. In fact sharing something with another in private, that is non-public sharing, is a crucial aspect of building relationships.
3. Why is this book for sale? I ask this rhetorically but also with a purpose. By placing the content of this book under copyright Jarvis has essentially made the book “private” property. Rather than “sharing” the book with the widest possible audience he chose to make it public only to those who purchase it. He could have easily posted this book to his own website and allowed anyone to download it free of charge, making it an open book available to anyone in the public. Indeed if Jarvis believes that public is the way to go and that we should have an ethic of sharing knowledge in order to foster the public good, not making the book public is an ethical failure (by his own standards). The book as Jarvis readily recognizes was in part the product of conversations he had on his blog with others (although he argues he would do it more for the next book). The book is a result of a public process. If this is the case what gives Jarvis the ethical right to then make the product private and sell it on the market. The answer is simple? Because he wants to. Jarvis recognizes this is a “sin” (181) that Simon & Schuster paid him to write the book, and that he garnered sufficient advantage from leveraging the private here. Or slightly later Jarvis confesses that he writes books as a means to “build public reputation, which lead to other business” (181). In short Jarvis argues that one should be public when it leads to individual gain, private when it leads to individual gain. Clearly not the ethic of share, be open, be public all the time.
4. Or, let’s take Jarvis’s central example. His private-public parts. Jarvis recounts his decision to be very public with information about his prostate cancer. He uses this as the ultimate example of something people are inclined to keep private (personal medical information about their very private parts) that he chose to make public and how the resulting public conversation yielded social good. Discussing his treatment, wearing diapers, his use of Viagra and Cialis, along with a penis pump, lead others to disclose, building a community of individuals who could support each other and share experiences. Jarvis shares several people who email him thanking him for being public, and recounts how his publicness led to an appearance on the Howard Stern show, further yielding revenue for prostate cancer research. But that’s not the whole story. In his account he admits that he wasn’t fully public about what happened. “When I received my cancer diagnosis, my reflex was to go to the blog and talk about it. I had to wait. Our son was away that summer, and I certainly didn’t want him to learn about my cancer in a tweet. Once he returned, I told him and and our daughter, Julia, and the rest of our family. And then I blogged” (35). Again in other words what Jarvis is saying is that he carefully controls and balances the public and private deciding when to be public (when it serves his own interest) and when to be private (when it serves his own interests). But in the world he describes we would lose control of this balance. Indeed he notes how he himself almost lost control of this balance when a friend noticed his delicious bookmarks before he had gone public. Imagine a world where individuals would lose this control. Any purchase you make in a store is made public (Blippy). After a cancer diagnosis you purchase a book about recovery on Amazon and everyone knows what you have purchased? Or because others might benefit from sharing your medical data as soon as a diagnosis occurs it is posted to a public health site? Clearly this is not the future Jarvis wants, but it is the one the book seems to be arguing for, share everything. Or at least share everything that might help others. And if this is the case I somewhat rhetorically ask why did Jarvis not post videos of his sex “struggles” after prostate cancer. Telling us that he was taking Cialis or using a Penis Pump is one thing, wouldn’t the community be helped more by having the full disclosure? Again, the point is that Jarvis controls what data is public and what is private. He shares more than most and gains advantage from this (reputation, financial status, etc.). But for all his claims that we should be public, he is not public or rather only public when he wants to be.
The issue isn’t about publicness or sharing or transparency or any of those things, the issue is about controlling one’s own information.
It’s About Control
So this brings us to the central issue/problem with Jarvis’s book. For whatever reason he doesn’t seem to recognize that this is about power and control. The axis of public/private or even the more mundane one he often champions of sharing/not-sharing isn’t the issue, the issue is the degree to which individuals do or do not have the ability to determine this themselves.
As I mentioned in the summary of this book, one of the central claims is that we are being overly concerned about privacy, running the risk of ruining the value of publicness with all of our concern. I am not sure what history or critics Jarvis is analyzing, but it strikes me as a patently absurd claim to suggest that we are becoming more private. I think by nearly every measure imaginable we are now more public than ever. (Indeed at other points Jarvis agrees, arguing that the internet makes us more public than ever.) The internet, as a giant data sharing engine certainly renders more information than ever public. Jarvis seems to be arguing that the internet increases the volume on sharing, but rather than be happy with setting the dial at 8 or 9 we should crank it all the way to 11.
The army of privacy advocates screaming that we should be scared about our over-sharing are really more of a strawman argument, or at least an argument that is about 5 years old. True at the inception of social networks I read a great many articles expressing angst about “kids these days oversharing” posting too much of their lives on Facebook. But we are sort of past that point now, instead much of the discussion is about how to insure that people maintain control of privacy and publicity.
The largest mistake in this respect in the book is the way that Jarvis treats people, corporations, and governments as equal players here. Corporations would be better off he argues if they were more public (kept fewer secrets) and governments likewise would be better off is they were more public (kept fewer secrets). Ostensibly the reason for this is that if corporations are more public they garner benefit (increased profits) and more importantly here, transfer power to individuals. That is if corporations were required to be more public they would be held more accountable to the public (individual citizens). The same argument holds true for government. By being public governments can become more efficient (perform services better) and more importantly here be held more accountable to the public (individual citizens). Now lets try and apply that reasoning to individuals, by being more public individuals can gain more advantage (why Jarvis is public with his life) and more importantly be held more accountable to governments and corporations? That’s an odd formulation, but that’s partly what Jarvis is arguing for. If individuals are more public more power is than transferred to the government or to the corporations. And make no mistake about it, power is often what is at stake here. Jarvis never recognizes the asymmetry in place here.
If you doubt me on this consider all the myriad ways governments are infringing on individuals privacy (forcing them to be public) all of which seem to be absent from Jarvis’s book. Governments representing a wide range of political models, not just ones labeled despotic, are using technology in general, and the internet specifically to monitor and surveil their respective populaces. Should the government be allowed to monitor internet traffic? Should internet services be required to supply the government with user data without a subpoena? Should the government be able to use GPS or cell phone data to track a suspect 24-7? Should corporations be forced to give governments back door access to encrypted files? All of these are serious questions, questions about balancing the public with the private and matters of power. The simple answer to these questions is make everything public, there is much benefit to be had, and only those who have things to hide would need to be concerned. (“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it” (127)). This seems to be the answer that Jarvis supports. We have built an internet of Ubiquitous Surveillance, this troubles me, but doesn’t seem to bother Jarvis.
Or one last example here and then we can turn to the corporations. Last month a police officer at California State University wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that universities should data mine/monitor all traffic on their networks in order to surveil students and have the power to intervene in case one of them is mentally troubled. For so many reasons this is a remarkably bad idea. But Jarvis would argue not only that there is benefit to be had from doing this monitoring, but more troubling that students should just offer this data up, agree to be public, for in the first case they have nothing to hide, and in the second the police only have public interest at heart and the community could benefit from this monitoring.
And then consider the corporations here. Increasingly corporations are attempting to harvest data from users, both with and without their consent. Jarvis adopts one of two approaches to this question, either don’t worry be happy users are likely to benefit from this scenario, or corporations have a right to use individuals data. Again lets take a look at two of Jarvis’s examples.
The first example Jarvis leverages to convince the user that he is correct in this regard is Google Street View. He questions why is it that Germany restricts what Google can do with street view, really poking fun at the Germans who seem to be so focused on privacy that they don’t want their houses on the internet, yet go to the spas naked. Jarvis says that any law restricting Google from using photos publicly taken from the street could interfere with other uses of data. For example by what means would you restrict Google from taking a picture and posting it to street view but not also restrict any individual from taking a picture on a public street and posting it on the web? A couple of things are particularly telling about this example. First that Jarvis sees the interest of a corporation designed for profit as the same of an individual. Clearly we can and probably ought to, distinguish between privileges and rights we grant to companies and those we grant to individuals. Indeed often the tension is located precisely here, not between public and private, but whether or not individuals have the right to not have corporations decide for them whether or not the information is public or private (the issue is control not public or private). Or imagine Google has a car with infrared cameras and other imaging devices that would drive down the street and not only take pictures of your house from the street, but take pictures of inside your house from the street. If you think I am being ridiculous, I point you to the ways that police are already doing this. And couldn’t Google argue that there is public value here? (Measuring population density? Which houses are using the most electricity?) Sure this is a limit scenario, but it is a scenario we ought to consider and make decisions about, not just default to saying, “no worries. Being public is good.”
Or in one of Jarvis’s later examples he argues that companies have a right to track users on websites. His reasoning is that without tracking they cannot serve up ads, thus killing their revenue stream (not tracking is equivalent to stealing?). According to Jarvis you can no sooner order up a newspaper with all the ads removed than you should be able to access webpages without being tracked. Notice what a bizarre equivalence this is. (There are problems with how Do Not Track is being implemented, but Jarvis is arguing beyond this, that corporations have a right to track people.) This is a bad analogy. Rather the correct one is imagine if every time you wanted to walk into a store, read a newspaper, access a piece of literature you had to submit a 50 page questionnaire detailing demographic information about you, all past services you used, products you bought, and things you have read. I think clearly we would say the companies are asking too much, tipping the balance in their favor. No one is talking about eliminating ads from the internet, what people are talking about (an important conversation) is the degree to which we ought to let corporations track users, and what they can do with this data once they have it. We might decide that a certain amount of tracking is acceptable but that certain levels are too much (try ordering a pizza in a world in which everything is public). This is to say nothing of the issue of corporate responsiblity to protect data and not reveal it, or the degree to which we can trust them to protect data once they have it, and whether or not they should be held responsible for privacy breeches. Setting the balance to all public, with occasional exceptions for private (the Jarvis model) seems to me the irresponsible, less nuanced approach.
To be sure I am raising some fairly nefarious examples here, but contrary to Jarvis’s claim that there is “no point in dwelling on dark potentialities” (91), it is only by dwelling on both the dark and light potentialities that we can correctly address these concerns, ignoring the “dark” side here is liable to lead us to a future where individuals have decreasing control of their own lives. It is irresponsible to only highlight the utopic vision.
Technology isn’t Good or Bad . . .
Throughout the book Jarvis is found of saying that Technology is not good or bad it’s neutral. Or in other terms technology is a tool which we can use for good or ill, and it is how we use it that counts. (“It is also true that the tools are neutral-they can be used by bad actors as well as good (209).”) It is odd then that consistently Jarvis assigns the bad consequences to the social space, but the positive consequences to technology. Technology lets us share = good. But the consequences of sharing (persecution for beliefs or sexual orientation for example) are societies’ fault.
The problem is that Jarvis either doesn’t know the philosophy of technology, or chooses to just ignore it. While it is true that at moments of technological change we often see declination narratives (“The internet is evil because it allows us all to share to much. We are all going to hell in a hand basket now that we are sharing so much.”) we are equally as likely to see utopic narratives as well. (“Now that we can share so much, we can all share and learn to get along, be better humans, resolve our differences and do away with social strife. A claim Jarvis seems to be making about the net, but that was also made of the telegraph. See the Victorian Internet Chapter 6.)
The real lesson is that technology isn’t good or bad, but it isn’t neutral either. That is, that while a given technology will not necessarily produce positive or negative changes in a society, once that technology enters said society it will be transformed. Technology is not merely a tool but fundamentally alters how we structure our social space and even understand what it means to be human.
It is too bad that Jarvis is not a better reader, or at least not a more genuine reader, as the sources from which he so often quotes contain precisely this message.
Take for example the Warren and Brandies legal article. Jarvis uses this article to show that privacy wasn’t even a right that was legally recognized until the early 1900s, “there had been no established legal right to privacy” (65) (somehow, the fact that there was not also a legal right to publicness at the time doesn’t matter for Jarvis). Near the turn of the century there was an increasing concern about how technology was altering individuals lives (some of this was about photographs but the context is much larger, even though Jarvis would have you believe it is all about Kodakers). The history that Jarvis tells is that Warren and Brandeis responding to people’s concerns write this essay suggesting courts ought to recognize a right to privacy. Oddly Jarvis wants to assign this essay to personal motives on the part of Warren and Brandeis (press coverage of a daughter’s wedding?), saying that, “it’s not known precisely what raised Warren and Brandeis’ hackles” (65). This is an entirely disingenuous reading of Warren and Brandeis, as if it is some outlier essay that has to be explained by a personal vendetta against the media.
What Warren and Brandeis actually argue in that essay is a idea that Jarvis should probably consider. Warren and Brandeis are not arguing that technological transformation has yielded a threat to privacy and that we must respond by passing new laws (that’s the secondary concern of the piece). Rather what Warren and Brandeis argue is that technological transformation has yielded a new question of what it means to be public and private. That is technological transformation should force us to rethink, consider a new, answer lingering questions about privacy. What technology does is change the definition of what it means to be public and private. What Brandeis and Warren argue is that the founding fathers understood the importance of being private, that being private was an essential part of the “right to live.” So the constitution protects a range of legal rights that preserve this “right to life.” Given the technology of the late 1700s the framers protected people against certain kinds of invasions into their persona, for example unlawful search and seizure. Warren and Brandeis were concerned that technologies now enabled privacy to be breached in new ways. Technological transition requires the court to “define anew the exact nature and extent” of the protection the government provides to the rights of the citizens. Their central point is that technological transitions require a rethinking of legal values and frameworks, rendering past ones useless. Technological changes produce changes in what it means to be public and private and thus requires legal intervention.
To see how this is the case we only have to turn to another one of the sources Jarvis seems to very selectively read, danah boyd. Jarvis raises boyd’s research to point out that teenagers do preserve privacy online and value it (it is difficult to tell if Jarvis thinks this is good or bad or just is). But boyd’s research isn’t just about how teenagers maintain privacy online, but more importantly how socialization is fundamentally different now that we have online social spaces. Having socialization be informed by these online spaces Facebook and Myspace means that there are, according to boyd, four aspects of socialization that make it different from prior moments in history: persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences. Indeed boyd’s very point is that now that socialization is in part augmented by these digital devices we need to rethink what it means to be public and private, from both a social standpoint and a legal one. The idea isn’t to throw your hands in the air and say “concerns about privacy are over-rated, we have always had those kinds of fears, lets just all be public and get over it.”
In some sense it is probably not fair to hold Jarvis to the standard of you should read ‘x’ philosopher or critic on the history of technology. He is not an academic who studies such things, he is an academic whose focus is journalism, not the long complex debate about the intersection of technology and its effects on society. But in the same respect I don’t think it is setting the bar to high to ask him to accurately portray the work he is dealing with. (His reading of Habermas is phenomenally bad, he actually portrays him as arguing the exact opposite of his position, and misses several of the main points. Since this has become a much talked about point maybe I’ll address it later, but snark aside Morozov’s critique here is pretty much accurate.)
But if I could prescribe one critic for Jarvis it would be Walter Benjamin. I won’t attempt to recount all of Benjamin’s work here, or even try and sum up the entire essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rather I will try and point out one major thesis that pretty much unwinds all of Jarvis’s book.
Written at the moment where the photograph is becoming popular, Benjamin addresses the question of whether or not the photograph is art. But rather than argue whether or not the photograph is art, he makes the rather deft move of realizing that this is a bad question. Instead of asking is the photograph art, Benjamin realizes the better question is to ask, “what does the existence of the photograph do to our concept of art.” In other words when new technology comes about we need to ask larger questions, not is this or that art, is it good to be public or private, but rather what does the internet do to the very concept of publicness and privateness.
Back to Watching Naked People in the Shower
“At first everyone will like it, but then there will be a fundamental change in the human condition.” -Josh Harris
And so back to where I started with Josh Harris. I could probably write several articles on how poorly Jarvis reads his sources and the degree to which he abuses and misrepresents those he quotes, but I am sure Jarvis would respond with the excuse that he is not an expert on these scholars and he is still working thru them. Fair enough. But although he says he has watched We Live in Public, I can’t help but wonder if we have seen the same movie. For Jarvis the movie serves as an example of taking being public to the extreme, mostly with benefit, and more importantly as a glimpse into the future. The section closes with a quote from Harris: “The audience are going to demand self-surveillance,” to which Jarvis adds, “It has already begun” (160). Jarvis is so unreflective and nonchalant about this observance that it is hard to know whether he realizes the full impact of this conclusion.
Harris’s point, and one the movie makes over and over again, even explicitly in the form of a narrative voice over at the end of the film, is that an increase in the scale and pace of our sharing will fundamentally alter what it means to have relationships, to be social, to be human. (Harris is at least as much a prophet of publicness as is Zuckerberg even if Jarvis doesn’t want to listen to his warnings.) Publicity will certainly have its advantages (people will order pizzas to have delivered to your house, the public can help you find your keys when they are missing–both events happen in We Live in Public), but it will have rather serious effects as well, primarily on individuals ability to build relationships.
There are two particularly telling moments in this regard, one in each of the two “experiments” Josh runs. In ”Quiet: We Live In Public,” one of the participants observes that it is mentally draining to live in “Quiet” because of the lack of privacy. It is difficult to get to “know” anyone because you know everyone. The participant rather astutely observes that intimacy is a matter of revealing to people secrets which others do not know. In other words one of the ways we express trust, build intimacy is share with others our private lives, but if we have no private lives building that intimacy becomes all but impossible.
But Jarvis knows this, even if he is not willing to say it in the pages of the book. He cops to this. He will consistently note that while he is public the one thing he does is shield his family from the publicity he chooses to accept for himself. Why? If he really believes being public aides society why not open his private life to more public scrutiny, there is clearly information there that could in some way be valuable to others (112). The answer is not simply that he is respecting the privacy of his family (why respect privacy if publicity is the value? why let his family succumb to the engineered overhyped message of being private?), rather Jarvis knows that to keep that relationship healthy it requires a certain amount of privacy, not things that are not shared, but rather things that are only shared between a small select subset of people (family). Quiet “developed into a perhaps predictable bacchanal of discord and decadence” (116) not because of the people Josh picked, or the rules he set (these certainly might have helped but the lesson is only that these sped up the process) but rather because of the “heat of the spotlight” a spotlight which Jarvis suggests that we now all uncritically and unreflectively bring on ourselves.
The other particularly telling, and difficult to watch moment, in the film comes during Harris’s second experiment, called just “We Live in Public.” He and his girlfriend Tanya have a fight, part of which involves violence on his part, ultimately leading to a break up. But that particular scene is just part of a larger problem in their lives, as Tanya observes in the film (and Jarvis mentions in the book), that the two were unable to have constructive conversations with each other. When they had a disagreement each would retreat to the net to rally supporters, get feedback from the crowd, in other words fight in public. The result is that each became more interested in winning an argument than resolving a conflict, not a productive situation in which to find oneself. Indeed, it is pretty easy to find examples of what Tanya and Josh experienced now in our daily lives. Individuals now frequently fight and break up with each other “in public” on Facebook, spurring vicious arguments, which quickly degrade due to the contributions of the crowd. One thing the speed of the internet is good at providing for is the dividing up of teams. I am on this persons side. Team #kanya. Team #Taylor. Indeed Jarvis himself is now a victim of this dynamic as he and Morozov have a very public argument about the merits of this book, that really isn’t at this point at all about the content of the book but rather about scoring snark points. While I doubt that Morozov and Jarvis would ultimately agree, I think it is pretty clear that the publicness of the controversy has increased the vitriol. For Jarvis and Morozov this is probably not a concern as I don’t see them trying to build an intimate relationship anytime soon, but when this dynamic starts to inform all of our social relationships the consequences are fairly significant.
And this is where I will turn to one last critic that Jarvis enlists in his book, but whom he seems to totally miss the point of (sorry I couldn’t resist and this one is important). Throughout the book he frequently cites Daniel Solove who is easily one of the most important critical voices on the question of privacy. Solove’s writing is rich, diverse, and nuanced in its consideration of the question of privacy. And this is what makes Jarvis’s use of Solove so abysmal. Let’s just take one point. Jarvis quotes Solove as saying “Privacy seems to encompass everything, and therefore it appears to be nothing in itself” (93). So Jarvis is leveraging the Solove quote here to back up his point that privacy is a slippery, almost impossible to define value, that is overrated. But let’s look at the Solove quote in full context. It is true that in Understanding Privacy Solove critiques “many existing theories of privacy” (8), arguing against the “abstract incarnations” which are “not nuanced enough to capture the problems involved” (8). But, he is in no way arguing that privacy is “protean” or undefinable, rather he is responding to critics like Judith Jarvis Thomson who say that “nobody seems to have a clear idea what it is.” (7) Indeed the very point of Understanding Privacy is to build a clear and precise definition of privacy and express why it ought to be valued. It is almost as if Jarvis stopped reading on page 8. I won’t try to summarize all of Solove’s argument here (maybe at a later time), but what he argues, borrowing from Wittgenstein, is that privacy is best understood as a family of concerns, best “conceptualized from the bottom up rather than the top down” (9).
But even if Jarvis had missed all of this argument maybe we could give him a pass, he says the Dewey arguments (from which Solove draws) are not really his concern, and maybe he is not a Wittgenstein scholar. Still the larger error comes when he either intentionally reads past or fails to recognize Solove’s central point:
Privacy is a public good.
This is in one sentence Solove’s central argument. Somehow Jarvis misses this. Solove is arguing that contrary to the idea that privacy is an individual good that must be balanced against the social good, privacy and publicness are both public goods that must be balanced against each other. To strip a society of privacy, whether thru legislation and government surveillance, corporate data mining and surveillance, or engineered individual choice is to significantly alter that society. And in Solove’s terms, and I would agree, alter for the worse. Privacy is a necessary part of social living. We all act differently in private then we do in public, and maintaining that difference is crucial to developing productive citizens. A public world with an always on panopticon carries serious social consequences.
So here’s the deal.
Jarvis writes this book because he believes that publicness is threatened and we must learn to appreciate it, or lose its advantages. But this is a spurious claim at best. We are (and I think this is beyond arguing) more public than we have ever been. We are not faced with a scenario whereby we are going to slide into a world where people are completely private, or the law steps in to outlaw being public, or corporations prevent us from being public. What is happening though is a technological change which is calling into question the lines upon which we draw privacy and publicness. And the real issue is making sure that we have serious thoughtful conversations about what this new balance is going to be. The real threat here is that we lose control over our ability to decide what should be public and what should be private. Corporations and governments are increasingly making decisions sans individual input about what is public, determining for us where the line about publicness and privateness should be drawn. This is a question that is fundamentally about power and control and Jarvis just wants to give up on it, “lets just all become public.”
And this is why I think this book is dangerous. It’s clear to me that this book is written to affect policy and convince people that change is coming, we should just get on the bus or be run over. But that is not at all the case, technology is not a run away bus (as if we are stuck in the movie Speed) that we either chose to board or get run over by. And Jarvis is certainly making the rounds, promoting this book, suggesting this idea. “Don’t worry. Be happy. All this publicness is actually a good thing. Let’s all just be public and the world will be a better place.”
We are not becoming less public, or losing control over our ability to be public, that’s a ridiculous argument. What is happening though is that we are losing control over our ability to decide what we want to be public, and what we want to be private, losing control over this to corporations and governments who are making this decision for us. This is a bus we don’t have to get on, a bus we don’t have to be resolved to ride on or get run over by. We can choose to intervene and figure out legal, social, and technical solutions to make sure we maintain a balance, but more importantly give individuals the ability to find a balance in the digital media ecology.
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