The self is not a territory

google portrait

Aram Bartholl, Google Portrait, 2011

Evgeny Morozov’s recent Technology Review essay about privacy emphasizes that technology is not born in a vacuum; the same is true of individuals. Both are born into a globalized capitalism and are invariably shaped by it.

In the essay, Morozov is particularly worried about the state and tech companies working together to surveil us and implement algorithmically generated “nudges” that will be beamed to our phones and pre-emptively guide our behavior “for our own good.”

Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy, or unsound. We wouldn’t necessarily need to know why the action would be wrong: the system’s algorithms do the moral calculus on their own. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. And why wouldn’t we, if we are promised slimmer waistlines, cleaner air, or longer (and safer) lives in return?

This vision, of people pre-controlled by irresistible recommendation systems, is similar to the one I tried to sketch here of “postauthenticity” — the feedback mechanisms of algorithms monitoring our mediated engagement with the world would supply our sense of self to us. This would replace the more primitive feedback apparatus our bodies come equipped with to form the self, and would have the appeal of seeming to flatter us, asking for our opinion and our consent constantly.

As unpleasant as that prospect is, the reverse idea that the self might pre-exist such feedback mechanisms, whether or not they are technologically amplified, seems dubious. Our self must develop in response to a comprehensible matrix in which it’s embedded. Generally, we prefer the feedback to be somehow “natural” to our environment, “organic” or commensurate with our localized everyday life, not generated by the federal government or corporations and imposed on us in exchange for free goodies (as Morozov worries).

Privacy could be understood in that light: In essence, privacy delineates unnatural feedback from natural, traditional, local (whatever you want to call it) feedback and creates a space where a politics independent of the overbearing influence of these outside forces can be nurtured. Morozov makes the excellent point that privacy is not about data ownership, or who controls personal information as property, but about who controls the flows of information, and whether these flows are readjustable by political intervention. (I also love that his policy recommendation is sabotage.)

But privacy can’t be conceived as being able to opt out of social influence if you so will it, or the refusal to participate in the social order like some Randian übermensch. Morozov argues that provacy conceived that way, “disconnected from any matching responsibilities, could also sanction an excessive level of withdrawal that shields us from the outside world and undermines the foundations of the very democratic regime that made the right possible.” Such a conception of privacy is just a fantasy about transcending the need for politics.

Morozov nonetheless ends up emphasizing “privacy” as politics’ savior, performing a kind of rhetorical legerdemain on the term. He premises civic participation on his version of privacy, one’s nonparticipation in the feedback loops driven by tech companies — entities we should rightly be wary of granting too much power over shaping the self. But defending that line should not be mistaken for the kind of privacy whereby one can withdraw from being influenced. All social behavior inevitably feeds back on the self, constitutes it. Privacy may only open the gap in time that allows the feedback loop to take on a more manageable shape. Privacy can’t make you self-created. And as Morozov emphasizes, privacy is a process of negotiation, not a fief you erect a wall around. Privacy is not autarky.

But it can be hard not to lapse into notions of privacy that are just about private property. At the end of his post about Morozov’s essay, Nicholas Carr argues, ” A sense of privacy is essential to the exploration and formation of the self, just as it’s essential to civic participation and political debate.” This may be a semantic quibble, but I think this idea of a self as a territory to be explored is misleading. It’s similar to the Lockean conception of the self as property that belongs to you, which fosters the mistaken notion that we are somehow personally responsible for everything that our self or our identity can come to represent socially. The idea that privacy nurtures the self’s property value plays into an ideological fiction about what human thriving should consist of.

I am much more convinced by the theory that we achieve a sense of individuation (from, say, Simondon and Stiegler) that the social embeddedness we are born into makes possible. The social backdrop for our individuality limits the potential self we can become; it opens up a bounded field in which identity can play. That concept of individuation nullifies the premise that we can become whatever we want to be with “hard work,” as if luck and privilege don’t play into shaping the scope of opportunity. It also ideally opens up a different conception of what human thriving looks like: rather than a deepening of the soul, a territorial expansion of some inner field of being; it may be a richer network made of bonds of respect and empathy. Social media networks offer the increased density of connection, but the individualist attitudes we carry into them — about the importance of personal reputation and growing our brand — arguably corrupt our usage of them (along with the commercial intentions of the platforms’ designers and owners), subtracting “respect” from the linkages they foster.

Another way of saying that is there is no “private self” — the self doesn’t exist in private. It has no meaning in social isolation. The self only coheres in attempts to communicate. It only appears through processes, practices. Trying to form a self in private is like trying to invent a language no one else can speak. It’s not really a language anymore.


2 thoughts on “The self is not a territory

  1. Nick Carr

    “Trying to form a self in private is like trying to invent a language no one else can speak. It’s not really a language anymore.”

    There’s quite a bit of rhetorical deck-stacking going on in those two sentences. Saying that a sense of privacy is essential to the formation of the self is different from saying that the self is formed in private.

  2. Pingback: The self is not a territory | Teaching Consumer...

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