Sturm und Drang on the Internet

Polemical manifestos on behalf of sweeping notions as privacy and “publicness” do not help much. The hard work of fashioning an information environment that we are all prepared to live in will have to occur in the uncertain and ambiguous space between maximalist positions.

Tagged privacy

A fascinating spat has blown up in recent weeks over the role of the Internet in public life. It begins with Evgeny Morozov’s October review in The New Republic of Public Parts, a new book by Jeff Jarvis, a TV personality, blogger, professor, and all-purpose prophet of the benefits of the Internet.

jeff jarvis.jpg

Morozov is author of The Net Delusion, the widely reviewed and much-praised expos&#233 of the role of information technology in tracking and suppressing grassroots movements around the world. Published just before the so-called Arab Spring, Morozov’s closely documented work provides a counterpoint to the blandishments of social media as universal engines of democratic empowerment.

Morozov’s review of Public Parts is long, detailed, and unremittingly hostile. He casts Jarvis as an archetypal “Internet intellectual”—a category of thinkers that “left unchallenged…may succeed in convincing us that we do inhabit the digital wonderland of their imagination.” In their world, Morozov notes, the Internet affords a cornucopia-like flow of benefits for public life, including richer public debate, more efficient and responsive public and private institutions, and (of course) economic bounty. Morozov scores Jarvis’s paeans to “publicness” and his skepticism of privacy advocates. He takes Jarvis to task for shallowness, inconsistencies, and simplistic renditions of heavyweight thinkers from Arendt to Habermas. You begin to wonder: If the book is really this bad, why spend more than 6,000 words picking it apart?

Jarvis fires back point-by-point in similar detail and language no less extreme. Morozov’s review amounts to “character assassination,” he holds. Jarvis denies being categorically against privacy, but merely proclaims himself against “self-appointed watchdog groups, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers…” Far from trading in pronouncements that are pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous as Morozov charges, Jarvis protests, “I despise closed worlds—whether in the academe or media or government. I distrust priesthoods who would exclude others from entering their fields…” And on and on, via print and electron, as others join the fray. With example piled against example and charge following counter-charge, you feel that this could go on forever—and given the articulate energies of the principals, you fear that it may.

What are we to make of all this? First, a reading of Public Parts confirms that the work is indeed target-rich. True, Jarvis’s book offers factoids that grab one’s attention—for example, his account of efforts in early-twentieth-century America to outlaw the activities of “fiendish kodakers,” i.e., reporters bent on photographing unwilling subjects with the cutting-edge information technology of the day. But overall, the attention span is short, and the analysis no more than retina-deep. The author’s self-advertisement is pervasive—perhaps in keeping with his proclaimed ethos of “publicness”—and his stance toward Internet magnates (above all Mark Zuckerberg) almost fawning. Most alarming is the “what, me worry?” attitude toward the social world emerging in concert with the Internet. “Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do,” Jarvis writes. “[M]odern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom.” That will be news to the many who have taken beatings, literal and figurative, from misappropriation of their personal data by unfriendly parties ranging from identity thieves in consumer societies to the victims of political repression in Iran.

But even acknowledging the deficiencies of Jarvis’s book, one senses that Morozov’s relentless assault on its every detail is not the whole story of their disagreement. Like a couple who argue incessantly over every little thing, Morozov and Jarvis are actually warring about something deeper. At work here are deeply antipathetic mind-sets on the role of science and technology in human affairs that go back at least as far as the Enlightenment. At one end of the spectrum are thinkers who see in the elaboration of science—these days especially including information science—the hope of realizing all the best of human potentials. At the other are those who fear the mobilization of science and technology as central to real-life horrors ranging from mechanized death factories like Auschwitz; to unacknowledged, one-sided government and corporate surveillance over “private” life; to the devolution of public discourse into tweets and sound bites. Enlightenment visionaries like Saint Simon imagined that scientific thinking would ultimately transform matters of political conflict into scope for rationally guided administration. By the late twentieth century, science and technology were getting much more skeptical treatment—as in Herbert Marcuse’s portrayal of them as instruments of pervasive repression. Exponents of these contending visions have about as much chance of playing nicely with each other as dogs and cats.

There is no sense in debating whether science and technology are ultimately life-giving forces for a better world or ultimately dangerous and destructive. Both these possibilities (and many intermediate ones) obviously play themselves out in specific settings, at specific moments. It simply doesn’t help to cast discussion in terms that sound very much like “Information technology— Whoopie!” versus “Information technology—Booo!”

But some debates on very big, and closely related, questions do have to be waged. These are debates on how to fashion principles of law and policy to shape the social role of science and technology—in this case, to channel the evolution of the Internet and other information technologies in directions compatible with key public values. For the most pressing of practical reasons, the public must decide what uses of information, and particularly personal information, will be encouraged, permitted, or proscribed.

For guidance in these matters, it will not do to invoke mantras like “Information wants to be free.” Neither “Information” nor “Technology” nor any other disembodied force offers directions for human affairs apart from the interests associated with them. The interests in play here are both disparate and contentious. We need to fashion basic grounds rules for what kinds of information are subject to what kinds of control and regulation under what sorts of circumstances. Such decision-making can only be political—in the best and broadest sense of emerging from collective soul-searching about what kind of (technologically abetted) world we want to live in. (See Rule’s “The Whole World Is Watching,” Issue #22.)

A perfect case in point is delineation between personal information held normally accessible as part of the public sphere versus that defined as private, a distinction often invoked in the Jarvis-Morozov dust-up. Nearly everyone must agree that such delineation is essential to any civic life worth living—and anyone who has tried to fashion a practical principle to enact it will agree that it is excruciatingly difficult to do so. People must be able to refuse others’ prerogatives of recording, disseminating, and profiting from some forms of information about themselves. Yet a world where others could never compel any disclosure of personal data would be morally intolerable—as when my neighbor is reasonably suspected of carrying bubonic plague, or nuclear weapons—as well as totally unfeasible. Thus hardly anyone would challenge the prerogative of the state to station a police officer on a street corner to try to spot a wanted felon. But should the state be permitted to train face-recognition technologies on all passers-by at any (or every) street-corner—thus moving us a step toward tracking of all citizens, all of the time?

Clearly, answers to any such questions compel us to weigh deeply contested and ultimately unknowable dangers against equally hypothetical benefits. But as citizens of a world where information technology affords more and more such choices, we have no alternative but to take a stand—or have such choices made for us by highly interested institutional parties.

Polemical manifestos on behalf of such sweeping notions as privacy versus “publicness” do not help much here. Morozov and Jarvis have dug in on high ground in their dramatic and polemical face-off. But the hard work of fashioning an information environment that we are all prepared to live in will have to occur in the uncertain and ambiguous space between maximalist positions.

Read more about privacy

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus