Naked and Afraid

“Exposed” author Bernard E. Harcourt does an outstanding job of describing what he calls our “Expository Society” in the book’s introduction, observing that “everything we do in our new digital age can be recorded, stored and monitored,” (p. 1) and explaining in detail how and why it happens, and ways to think about the situation.  The introduction does a nice job of cueing up the topics Harcourt will cover in the rest of the work. It also foreshadows the complexity of ideas and expression that the reader is about to encounter.

If all you want to know from this review is whether I recommend buying and reading this book, my recommendations are, yes and yes.  It’s not the kind of book that you will likely read at a single sitting, but if you persist, it draws you back and you will find yourself thinking about its lessons frequently.  I certainly have. Nevertheless, in the spirit of this group review, I offer the following criticisms:

  1. Writing Style

“Exposed” is an excellent book in many ways.  It covers a lot of important information in minute detail, and it raises many provocative questions.  But after the introduction, something about the tone of the book becomes decidedly off-putting.   Harcourt uses devices like deployment of the pronoun “we” to avoid sounding mocking or condescending, but it doesn’t quite work.  For example, Harcourt writes: “Most often we expose ourselves for the simplest desires, the pleasure of curiosity, a quick distraction—those trifling gratifications, that seductive click the iPhone shutter makes, the sensual swoosh of a sent email.” (p. 15). And he asserts we lack discipline. (p. 17).  And he says: “it is precisely our desires and passions that have enslaved us, and ensnared us in this digital shell as hard as steel.” (p. 283). There is aggressive shaming here and throughout the book that the author’s self-inclusion by use of the first person plural does not dilute.

Although the writing is at times very elegant, it also runs to the impenetrable.  For example, Harcourt’s infatuation with Foucault takes even the well-known panopticon privacy metaphor and makes it obtuse.   A little over a third of the way into the tome I encountered this paragraph:

“The ambition of virtual transparence magnifies the disciplinary ambition of visibility within enclosed structures.  Recall that there was an important gradual evolution from rendering visible to transparency during the disciplinary turn.  “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure, Foucault wrote, “began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies.”  Rendering visible would develop into internal transparency, to the point that the panopticon itself would “become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.”  Foucault refers to Bentham’s panopticon as his “celebrated, transparent, circular cage,” and places the element of transparency at the center of the panoptic principle: it is what made “architecture transparent to the administration of power.” The element of transparency played an important role in the internal structure of the disciplinary edifices. “The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly,” Foucault emphasized.”” (p. 119-20).

If you can absorb all that in the first reading, I congratulate you.  But I don’t know too many people outside of academia and maybe a few think tanks who will want to put as much work into its reading as this book demands.  The writing is breathtakingly brilliant in places, but its accessibility to even educated and highly interested readers may be limited.  Expressing complicated ideas in clear language is hard but worth it. If the wonderful and clear writing Frank Pasquale had not recommended this book so strongly, I am not sure I would have made it through the first couple of chapters or agreed to write this review.

  1. Uncharitable Generalizations of  We the Proletariat

So engaged is he in excoriating us for indulging our desires and passions online, Harcourt fails to fully acknowledge the degree to which people are compelled to participate in what he describes as our current digital situation. I don’t know anyone in real life who doesn’t “get” the importance of privacy.  I don’t know anyone in real life who doesn’t care about their privacy.  And I definitely don’t know anyone personally who thinks they don’t have to worry about privacy if they aren’t doing anything wrong.  Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly once said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”  But this is a fairly anomalous statement, made by a man who profits directly and greatly from personal data.  Of course he would like to shame people into disregarding their own privacy.   But there is no evidence that he has succeeded.

In the world of ordinary people, every single person I know has had an unpleasant airport security line episode, or has found fraudulent charges on a credit card bill, or had an email or Facebook account hacked, or an interception of their income tax refund, or some other identity theft issue.  No one is complacent!  All are aggrieved.  But there is no clear path to better privacy or security.  You can’t (or at least definitely shouldn’t) avoid filing your federal tax forms, even though the IRS is demonstrably terrible at keeping them confidential.  You can’t stop eating or wear clothes, so you have to buy food and clothing somewhere.

People who travel need access to plane tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars.  Some travel is for hedonic purposes, which Harcourt might be especially judgmental about if we are inattentive to personal privacy concerns, but many of us also need to travel for work.  This requires credit cards, and therefore involuntary contributions to data streams.  Many of us have to advance the funds for work related travel out of our own pockets and on our personal credit cards, and then wait to be reimbursed, sometimes for lengthy intervals. Compromising our data privacy along the way is simply another burden we bear.  We need the rental car waiting for us in the parking garage when it is very late or very early and the service desk is closed. We loath flying a tiny bit less if we can occupy one of the plane’s aisle seats.  It’s nice to have free wifi at a hotel, because otherwise we might have to pay for it out of pocket. And if submitting great swaths of personal information to the government in exchange for “TSA pre-check” at airports means an extra hour of pre-flight sleep in the morning, should we really be ashamed of this sybaritic desire?  Is forgoing an “easy pass” and instead waiting in long lines to pay highway tolls with cash the kind of activism that is going to foster a privacy revolution?

  1. Under-Appreciation of Law as a Tool for Digital Resistance

Even simple new legislation can improve lives and lived privacy. For example, implementation of a short, clear law establishing privacy favoring defaults on commercial websites could be a simple way to start changing the culture of online commerce.  I prefer not to “remain signed in” to any website.  Because “remain signed in,” or “remember me” are the proactive defaults at most websites, this means I have to affirmatively uncheck the “remain signed in” or “remember me” boxes dozens of times each day.  Occasionally I forget or am unable to uncheck the box, and have to figure out how to log out of a website, which is rarely obvious.  If the law required an unchecked “remain signed in” or “remember me” box as the default, joining the production of an online data stream by signing on permanently to a website would require a volitional act. This would improve privacy and enhance awareness about data collection. The same sort of law could require online merchants to give consumers the option not to have their credit card information stored by the store website, and even make a “do not remember credit card info” option the default, leaving less information around for hackers to appropriate as well as improving the privacy climate.

These and other relatively small changes instigated by new laws could eventually lead, albeit incrementally, to significant changes.  A federal data breach notification statute could replace and improve upon 47 different state law approaches, and enhance the lives of people living in the three states with no data breach notification laws at all. Another possibility is a law that forces venders on and offline to offer the same prices to customers who do not have “loyalty cards” or memberships as to those who do, so that no one will have to cede personal data for a product discount.

Ultimately individuals in the United States would benefit from a European Union style approach to data privacy.  Harcourt indirectly makes the case for why it is needed, but doesn’t advance the cause overtly.  Instead he advises readers about technological steps they can take if they can afford them and understand computers well enough to implement them.  And then he insists we engage in resistance, in the form of hip, edgy political disobedience. I think direct lobbying for a better legal regime will be more effective in the long run. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive of course, but I think that openly and assertively advocating for specific new laws could be the most effective mechanism for change, and attract the most support.

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