Archive for July 24th, 2018

“The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018
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“A clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

My post a few days ago about Google and privacy  got me to thinking about our surveillance culture, about the suspiciousness directed towards those who want to keep something of their souls untouched by the masses. Where all is public, everything is outward, and when everything is outward, the inward shrivels. Sometimes we need to incubate, to mull awhile without the world screeching at our ears. For that reason, our culture is getting more and more superficial, more preoccupied with ephemeral trends, more focused on consumption. If there’s any shortage today, it’s a shortage of inwardness.

In a 17th century village, everything was known because it was nearby. The late twentieth century atomized that model. Now, in a strange inversion of the village culture, everything is known even if far away, while many of us do not know the names of the person who lives next to us,  in Apartment 3B.

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And that turned me back Dave Eggers, author of The Circle, and his onstage conversation with Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, one of the nation’s leading writers. Here’s an excerpt from the November 9, 2014 exchange:

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.” He continued: “It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t’s.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

So how has it changed in the years since? Here’s a more recent interview with Dave Eggers, on the making of The Circle into a major film. Here’s what he says now in an interview at The Marketplace called, ‘’The Circle’ author Dave Eggers thinks the internet is getting creepier”:

Eggers signing books at Stanford. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Kai Ryssdal: So what was going through your mind when you wrote this novel, when you brought it out in print in 2013?

Dave Eggers: I think the thing that created the real impetus was one day I saw a friend on the street who said — he’d emailed me a few days before — and he said, “Hey, how come you haven’t answered my email?” And I did the usual white lie, “Oh, I haven’t gotten it yet. I didn’t check my email.” And he said, “Oh, I happen to know that you did get my email and that you opened it at 4:13 last Tuesday, and I have software that allows me to know when my mail has been opened, and I want an answer, why you haven’t answered my message.”  And I thought, well, you know that among so many things indicated a real sort of change in what I think we saw as the pure ideals of a connected world … sort of how it alters our, I don’t know, our moral fiber in a way.

Ryssdal: Do you think it does? I mean it’s interesting to me that that guy called you out and said “Oh no, I know you’re full of it man.”

Eggers: Well, that’s the thing is that it had altered him. The ease with which we can surveil each other alters what otherwise is normal relationships. You know, it creates spies in all of us. I mean people spy on their kids, they spy on their spouses, they spy on their friends, you know, actively, passively. So the book was exploring a lot of those themes, kind of creating a worst-case scenario.

I confess to googling friends. Especially since many of my friends are writers, I want to see what they’ve written lately. But where does it stop? The truth is it doesn’t. In this case the dynamite quote, or one of them, comes from the interviewer rather than the interviewee: “The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.”

“Who’s monetizing it?” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Eggers: Yeah, it’s moving a lot faster than I thought. And there’s not really a lot of speed bumps along the way. And then when we just had the rollback of some of the regulations —you know, the ISPs … they can buy and sell our search histories. You know, the regulations that Trump just rolled back — it’s very disturbing. I think that there needs to be a real pause. You know, why in the digital realm was privacy or surveillance — why was surveillance baked in?

Ryssdal: So here comes the deeply cynical answer, but it turns out that way in the book and the movie right? The reason we don’t have any privacy is because people can make money off of our not privacy.

Eggers: So, many of my friends, you know, did well in technology and created some amazing tools. What I didn’t see coming, and I think what was very disturbing, is that surveillance part that was baked in. Who’s collecting data on who? And who’s monetizing it? And who has control of it? And who’s storing it? All of these things make what could have been a beautiful thing into, I think, a very creepy and increasingly creepier machinery. And I don’t know, I think that we need to examine and think about what do we really want?  

Ryssdal: People are going to watch this movie though, and they’re going to look at that giant company at the heart of it that gets to the transparency and the privacy thing as a central plot point, and they’re going to try to puzzle out which company maybe you were talking about — or maybe you’re talking about all of them. But I’ll just, I’ll just throw out the fact that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that privacy is not a social norm anymore.

Eggers: Yeah, I thought that was an odd statement. I have to say, it has no basic basis in human history. We’ve always had privacy, and it’s always been integral to what makes us individuals. Right now all of these things — what you want and what you search for and what you’re looking at — all of these things are monetized, and they’re no longer private. So that’s one small step away from the elimination of the privacy of the mind. I say all this while I’m an optimist, so I always feel like I think ultimately people will do the right thing and demand, you know, some boundaries here. Who knows where it will go.