Unequal Exposure

Towards the end of the breathless and impassioned tour through privacy, surveillance, carcerality, and desire that is Exposed, Bernard Harcourt writes that “the emphasis on what we must do as ethical selves, each and every one of us – us digital subjects – may be precisely what is necessary for us to begin to think of ourselves as we. Yes, as that we that has been haunting this book since page one” (283). The call for unity and solidarity is seductive: if “we” are all exposed and vulnerable, then “we” can all resist and demand change. But that “we” – that reassuring abstraction of humanity and human experience – is not in fact what haunts this book. That “we” – unquestioned, undifferentiated, unmarked – is taken for granted and treated as the universal subject in this book. What truly haunts this book is everything that this “we” obscures and represses. Harcourt’s “we” is remarkably undifferentiated. Nearly every point Harcourt makes about how “we” experience digital subjectivity, surveillance, and exposure would and should be contested by women, people of color, the poor, sexual minorities (and those who belong to more than one of the categories in this non-exhaustive list). It is unfair, of course, to expect any one book or any one author to capture the full complexity of human experience on any topic. One writes about what one knows, and nuance must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of broad theory. But there is a difference between falling short of conveying the diversity of human experience and barely acknowledging the existence of differentiation. If one of Harcourt’s goals is to lead us to “think of ourselves as we,” it is vital to recognize that  “we” in the digital age are not equally represented, equally consenting or resisting, or equally exposed.

Let’s begin with Harcourt’s characterization of the digital age as a study in shallow positivity: “We do not sing hate, we sing praise. We ‘like,’ we ‘share,’ we ‘favorite.’ We ‘follow.’ We ‘connect.’ ‘We get LinkedIn.’ Ever more options to join and like and appreciate. Everything today is organized around friending, clicking, retweeting, and reposting. … We are appalled by mean comments – which are censored if they are too offensive”(41). This is a picture of the digital world that will be  unrecognizable to many people. There is no mention of online mobs, targeted harassment campaigns, career-destroying defamation, rape and death threats, doxxing, revenge porn, sex trafficking, child porn, online communities dedicated to promoting sexual violence against women, or white supremacist sites. No mention, in short, of the intense, destructive, unrelenting hatred that drives so much of the activity of our connected world. Harcourt’s vision of our digital existence as a sunny safe space where occasional “mean comments” are quickly swept from view is nothing short of extraordinary.

Next, consider Harcourt’s repeated insistence that there are no real distinctions between exposer and exposed, the watcher and the watched: “There is no clean division between those who expose and those who surveil; surveillance of others has become commonplace today, with nude pictures of celebrities circulating as ‘trading fodder’ on the more popular anonymous online message boards, users stalking other users, and videos constantly being posted about other people’s mistakes, accidents, rants, foibles, and prejudices. We tell stories about ourselves and others. We expose ourselves. We watch others” (129). There are, in fact, important divisions between exposers and the exposed. With regard to sexual exposure, it is overwhelmingly the case that women are the subjects and not the agents of exposure. The nude photos to which Harcourt refers weren’t of just any celebrities; they were with few exceptions female celebrities. The hacker in that case, as in nearly every other case of nude photo hacking, is male, as is nearly every revenge porn site owner and the majority of revenge porn consumers. The “revenge porn” phenomenon itself, more accurately described as “nonconsensual pornography,” is overwhelmingly driven by men exposing women, not the other way around. Many of Harcourt’s own examples of surveillance point to the gender imbalance at work in sexual exposure. The LOVEINT scandal, the CCTV cameras pointed into girls’ toilets and changing rooms in UK schools (229), and Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA employees share naked pictures (230) primarily involve men doing the looking and women and girls being looked at. The consequences of sexual exposure are also not gender-neutral: while men and boys may suffer embarrassment and shame, girls and women suffer these and much more, including being expelled from school, fired from jobs, tormented by unwanted sexual propositions, and threatened with rape.

There are also important distinctions to be made between those who voluntarily expose themselves and those who are exposed against their will. In the passage above, Harcourt puts nude photos in the same list as videos of people’s “rants, foibles, and prejudices.” The footnote to that sentence provides two specific examples: Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked photos and video of Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s Kramer) launching into a racist tirade as he performed at a comedy club (311). That is a disturbing false equivalence. The theft of private information is very different from a public, voluntary display of racist hatred. In addition to the fact that naked photos are in no way comparable to casual references to lynching and the repeated use of racial slurs, it should matter that Jennifer Lawrence was exposed against her will and Michael Richards exposed himself.

It’s not the only time in the book that Harcourt plays a bit fast and loose with the concepts of consent and voluntariness. In many places he criticizes “us” for freely contributing to our own destruction: “There is hardy any need for illicit or surreptitious searches, and there is little need to compel, to pressure, to strong-arm, or to intimidate, because so many of us are giving all our most intimate information and whereabouts so willingly and passionately – so voluntarily” (17).  And yet Harcourt also notes that in many cases, people do not know that they are being surveilled or do not feel that they have any practical means of resistance. “The truth is,” Harcourt tells us with regard to the first, “expository power functions best when those who are seen are not entirely conscious of it, or do not always remember. The marketing works best when the targets do not know that they are being watched” (124). On the second point, Harcourt observes that “when we flinch at the disclosure, most of us nevertheless proceed, feeling that we have no choice, not knowing how not to give our information, whom we would talk to, how to get the task done without the exposure. We feel we have no other option but to disclose” (181-2). But surely if people are unaware of a practice or feel they cannot resist it, they can hardly be considered to have voluntarily consented to it.

Also, if people often do not know that they are under surveillance, this undermines one of the more compelling concerns of the book, namely, that surveillance inhibits expression. It is difficult to see how surveillance could have an inhibiting effect if the subjects are not conscious of the fact that they are being watched. Surreptitious surveillance certainly creates its own harms, but if subjects are truly unaware that they are being watched – as opposed to not knowing exactly when or where surveillance is taking place but knowing that it is taking place somewhere somehow, which no doubt does create a chilling effect – then self-censorship is not likely to be one of them.

Harcourt suggests a different kind of harm when he tells us that “[i]nformation is more accessible when the subject forgets that she is being stalked” (124). That is, we are rendered more transparent to the watchers when we falsely believe they are not watching us. That seems right. But what exactly is the harm inflicted by this transparency? Harcourt warns that we are becoming “marketized subjects – or rather subject-objects who are nothing more than watched, tracked, followed, profiled at will, and who in turn do nothing more than watch and observe others” (26). While concerns about Big Data are certainly legitimate (and have been voiced by many scholars, lawyers, policymakers, and activists), Harcourt never paints a clear picture of what he thinks the actual harm of data brokers and targeted Target advertisements really is. In one of the few personal and specific examples he offers of the harms of surveillance, Harcourt describes the experience of being photographed by a security guard before a speaking engagement. Harcourt is clearly unsettled by the experience: “I could not resist. I did not resist. I could not challenge the security protocol. I was embarrassed to challenge it, so I gave in without any resistance. But it still bothers me today. Why? Because I had no control over the dissemination of my own identity, of my face. Because I felt like I had no power to challenge, to assert myself” (222). While one sympathizes with Harcourt’s sense of disempowerment, it is hard to know what to think of it in relation to the sea of other surveillance stories: women forced to flee their homes because of death threats, parents living in fear because the names of their children and the schools they attend have been published online, or teenaged girls committing suicide because the photo of their rape is being circulated on the Internet as a form of entertainment.

Harcourt uses the term “stalk” at least eight times in this book, and none of these references are to actual stalking, the kind that involves being followed by a particular individual who knows where you live and work and means you harm, the kind that one in six women in the U.S. will experience in her lifetime, the kind that is encouraged and facilitated by an ever-expanding industry of software, gadgets, and apps that openly market themselves to angry men as tools of control over the women who have slipped their grasp. What a privilege it is to be able to treat stalking not as a fact of daily existence, but as a metaphor.

Harcourt’s criticism of what he considers to be the Supreme Court’s lack of concern for privacy adds a fascinating gloss to all of this. Harcourt takes particular aim at Justice Scalia, asserting that even when Scalia seems to be protecting privacy, he is actually disparaging it: “Even in Kyllo v. United States…. where the Court finds that the use of heat-seeking technology constitutes a search because it infringes on the intimacies of the home, Justice Scalia mocks the humanist conception of privacy and autonomy.” The proof of this assertion supposedly comes from Scalia’s observation that the technology used in that case “might disclose, for example, at what hour each night the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath – a detail that many would consider ‘intimate.’” Harcourt assumes that Scalia’s reference to the “lady of the house” is an ironic expression of contempt. But Scalia is not being ironic. Elsewhere in the opinion, he emphatically states that “[i]n the home… all details are intimate details,” and many of his other opinions reinforce this view. Scalia and many members of the Court are very concerned about privacy precisely when it involves the lady of the house, or the homeowner subjected to the uninvited drug-sniffing dog on the porch (Florida v. Jardines, 2013), or the federal official subjected to the indignity of a drug test (Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 1989 (dissent)). These same members of the Court, however, are remarkably unconcerned about privacy when it involves a wrongfully arrested man subjected to a humiliating “squat and cough” cavity search (Florence v. Burlington, 2012), or a driver searched after being racially profiled (Whren v. US, 1996), a pregnant woman tricked into a drug test while seeking prenatal care (Ferguson v. Charleston, 2001 (dissent)). In other words, the problem with the Supreme Court’s views on privacy and surveillance is not that it does not care about it; it’s that it tends to care about it only when it affects interests they share or people they resemble.

The world is full of people who do not have the luxury of worrying about a growing addiction to Candy Crush or whether Target knows they need diapers before they do. They are too busy worrying that their ex-husband will hunt them down and kill them, or that they will be stopped and subjected to a humiliating pat down for the fourth time that day, or that the most private and intimate details of their life will be put on public display by strangers looking to make a buck. These people are not driven by a desire to expose themselves. Rather, they are being driven into hiding, into obscurity, into an inhibited and chilled existence, by people who are trying to expose them. If “we” want to challenge surveillance and fight for privacy, “they” must be included.

You may also like...