Surveillance and Our Addiction to Exposure

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Bernard Harcourt ExposedBernard Harcourt’s Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press 2015) is an indictment of  our contemporary age of surveillance and exposure — what Harcourt calls “the expository society.” Harcourt passionately deconstructs modern technology-infused society and explains its dark implications with an almost poetic eloquence.

Harcourt begins by critiquing the metaphor of George Orwell’s 1984 to describe the ills of our world today.  In my own previous work, I critiqued this metaphor, arguing that Kafka’s The Trial was a more apt metaphor to capture the powerlessness and vulnerability that people experience as government and businesses construct and use “digital dossiers” about their lives.  Harcourt critiques Orwell in a different manner, arguing that Orwell’s dystopian vision is inapt because it is too drab and gray:

No, we do not live in a drab Orwellian world.  We live in a beautiful, colorful, stimulating, digital world that is online, plugged in, wired, and Wi-Fi enabled.  A rich, bright, vibrant world full of passion and jouissance–and by means of which we reveal ourselves and make ourselves virtually transparent to surveillance.  In the end, Orwell’s novel is indeed prescient in many ways, but jarringly off on this one key point.  (pp. 52-53)

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Orwell’s Vision

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Life Today

Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to DeathHarcourt notes that the “technologies that end up facilitating surveillance are the very technologies we crave.”  We desire them, but “we have become, slowly but surely, enslaved to them.” (p. 52).

Harcourt’s book reminds me of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published about 30 years ago — back in 1985.  Postman also critiqued Orwell’s metaphor and argued that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a more apt metaphor to capture the problematic effects new media technologies were having on society.

Postman wrote:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

HuxleyIn a similar way, Harcourt points out how individuals are addicted to exposure and businesses and the government are addicted to surveillance.  Being exposed often doesn’t feel awkward or bad or oppressive.  Companies foster exposure, making it alluring, engaging, and intoxicating.  It is akin to the drug soma in Brave New World.

With gusto, Harcourt invokes the oft-mentioned Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault, and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon to explain how surveillance and exposure is bringing us under ever-greater control of others.  His discussion at points evokes Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self (as well as her earlier work on surveillance)  and Neil Richards’ Intellectual Privacy.

I agree with many of Harcourt’s critiques and his views on the value of privacy, and I appreciate his passion and poetry.  His solutions, though, seem to be no match for his critiques.  For example, he points approvingly to our taking self-help measures “diminish our own visibility” and to people who “build platforms to throw sunlight on covert governance and corporate operations.” (p. 270).  But if Harcourt is right about how beguiling technologies of exposure can be — and about how potent technologies of exposure are — then would people readily snap out their bewitchment, wake up to the dark side, and take steps to cover up and shelter their data?  Harcourt is trying to fight an addiction with poetry, and as valiant as this attempt might be, I think it is doomed to failure.  Most people will not take self-help measures.  They won’t wake up.  They don’t want to wake up.  Like Cypher in the movie, The Matrix, they want to be in the Matrix, despite its dark side and deception.

Harcourt suggests that we “privatize” personal data — “truly marketize the personal data for the benefit of those who are producing them, to give the genuine holders of personal data the ability to control their dissemination and cash in on their value.” (p. 274).  This reminds me of proposals to treat personal data like property.  But people will readily sell their data — and one could argue that people are already selling their data in exchange for free Internet services like Facebook and Google.  When data is a form of property, then companies could readily entice people to alienate their data.  The end result is that people get paid a little bit, but ultimately, the larger problems will remain.  Consider how supermarket and pharmacy discount cards work — people trade personal data for “discounts.”  The companies are paying people for their information — or perhaps the companies are in effect charging a highly-marked up price for those who don’t supply their data.

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Harcourt also urges more transparency about the government and companies using our data.  He urges peaceful protest.  He mentions using Tor and Bitcoin as ways of resistance.  He also discusses “lying about your personal information on websites.”   He concludes: “From avoidance techniques to throwing stones at the digital monitor or leaking troves of military and intelligence secrets: there are indeed a range of disruptive strategies, a lot of new weapons.” (p. 278).

But these weapons aren’t new and are at best mildly disruptive.  Most are akin to throwing a stone at a tank.  This might work in George Lucas’s fairy-tale ending at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, where Ewoks managed to defeat an armor-plated army of troops and vehicles with sticks and stones.  But the Empire had quite an ineffective army, unable to shoot and hit a target and covered with armor that seemingly served no function.  The forces that Harcourt critiques are far more formidable.  For example, lying on a website will likely not do much damage at all.  Companies have so much data that some isolated bits of bad data will not have much of an effect.  It’s akin to trying to turn the ocean red by putting in a few drops of red dye.

More transparency of government and company practices can definitely help, but we have seen many cycles of whistleblowers and reform.  The surveillance abuses by spy agencies that were addressed in the 1970s seem to have been all but forgotten, and our generation now has Snowden vs. the NSA.  Snowden’s leaks have led to change, but in 20-30 years, the lessons might once again be forgotten, having to be learned all over again.

A few like-minded individuals to Harcourt might try to resist, but Harcourt’s own critique shows why such a resistance will likely not succeed — the world of exposure and surveillance is too enchanting, too addictive, too wondrous, too convenient — and the power of the watchers is profound.

Harcourt’s book is an eloquent synopsis of the problems of surveillance and exposure.  Its strength is in its engaging narrative.  Its weakness is in its very brief ending of hope, which is the feel-good Hollywood ending that we all crave, but which is not really a fitting ending to this book.  The more fitting ending is that we’re all going to Hell, but it won’t feel all that unpleasant.  After a while, we won’t even realize it’s Hell because we’ll be enjoying it so much.

I am not suggesting that there are no solutions and that we’re all doomed.  I am merely pointing out that Harcourt’s book lacks solutions that measure up and fully address the critiques he has raised.  But his book works well when Harcourt is critiquing. It is an eloquent dissent to our digital age.

Other Posts of Interest

Big Brother on the Cover: 50+ Covers for George Orwell’s 1984

5 Great Novels About Privacy and Security

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Daniel J. Solove is the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at GW Law School and President & CEO of TeachPrivacy.

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