Privacy, Conspiracy, Surveillance
First, consider the unfettered and total liberty of the individual self when it is engaged in thought. Before we ex-press (formulate, articulate, utter) our ideas, whether they take the form of mathematical proofs, fantasies reduced to allusive verse (or paint, or stone)– whatever their form– they remain completely secret, and entirely within our control. That is what we mean when we speak of bedrock privacy or of the liberty ‘enjoyed’ by a prisoner entombed alone in a dungeon. Such privacy has a value, but the value is pre-political, and social only to the extent that our individual personalities, talents, and predilections are products of the milieu in which our infancy was cultured.
Next, consider the privileged liberty we cherish in the context of the parental bedroom, and thence extending perhaps to the family dinner-table, and beyond that, in a series of circles that ultimately expands to designate as ‘private’ the utterances of gossips at the village wash-house– and beyond that, to the public square, the soap-box orator, the march, the mob, the sect, the church, the state. We constitute the outer spheres of this Ptolemaic system of liberty in sacred documents like the Bill of Rights. The “Rights” we have are chosen powers, to speak our minds with impunity, and with our own chosen risks that trust might be betrayed gratuitously, but not extortionately. The minute we speak our mind, we con-spire, through vocalized signals in a common language or through instruments invented to embody thought in an intelligible communication. Conspiracy is a breathing-together: it presupposes the categories of “insider” and “outsider,” addressees or audience, and absentees.
Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently and persuasively about the public and the private realms that make up the Human Condition. We should revisit her teachings now that we live in a world where the only Arendtian “space” for private conspiracy is encrypted space– and that space is vulnerable to technological advances in the art of eavesdropping. The “eaves”in eavesdropping stand metaphorically for spheres of expected privacy, of confidence and trust that among private interlocutors, the only residue of their discourse will be the several memories of the participants– supplemented (sometimes ) by consent to real-time notes or memoranda. The spoken word dissipates in the air of real historic spaces where speech, public or private, has remained throughout history the primal medium of political and social thought.
Sound is now easily and surreptitiously recordable. Rooms and persons can be bugged. Technology allows in principle for the invasion of every form of private communication. When our privacy is invaded without consent by ‘private’ actors, a tort or crime is committed. When it is compromised by government officials, we are oppressed. Sometimes an intrusion may be allowed or ‘warranted’ by law. Historically, in our legal tradition as exemplified by the Fourth Amendment, this has meant a judicial warrant, limited by published standards for evaluating ‘good cause’. When official intrusion is secretly authorized, through chains of reasoning derived from statutory authority to ensure public safety, warrantless intrusions are at best sacrificial violations of our common spheres of conspiracy. Be it understood that we can and do ‘conspire’ to surprise friends with a birthday party, or to pull a prank, or engage in a thousand other lawful activities, all of them, in the widest but also the deepest sense, conspiratorial.
Now, imagine a quasi-counterfactual: suppose that all sound, everywhere, is instantly, permanently, and recoverably recorded. The last island of true privacy lies behind the forehead, in the form of the unuttered thought. Utterances are entirely digital, and the limited spectrum of perturbed air where interpersonal audible signals come and go, face-to-face (or mouth to mike to speaker to ear) is reduced to digits. Digits are readily transcribable in microscopically small spaces. They may be cheaply redistributed to assure an enduring archive. We might even fantasize a future physicist who finds a relationship between time’s illusory arrow and dark matter, such that the arrow’s point, signified by now is shown to be a stylus writing upon the dark matter of alternate universes, one of which we describe in our limited understanding as “the” historic past. The entity referred to as God is a being in a currently undiscovered dimension with a power we call omniscience, to replay the recorded transcription and perhaps (let theologians debate!) to edit it. Everything is bugged, everything is potentially public; God himself is accessible, a DJ at the command of secular and transitory powers that be.
Have we described the ultimate dystopia, or only the tendency of our times? We might find some positive, even redemptive, features in this fantasia. Surely the speculated new physics would put us in touch with more advanced beings elsewhere in the universe by reversing or diverting the space/time line which we inhabit; but even in the real world of today, it is conceivable that the most ephemeral phenomena of light and sound are fossilized at some infinitesimal nano-level. We might some day hear the roaring of dinosaurs, just as we can see the delicate structures of Jurassic leaves in a split stone.
If such dreams fall within the compass of contemporary imagination, so must we expect that scientific research will one day (in the nearer reaches of realms beyond our conceptual horizon) dissolve Cartesian duality, to reveal the material substrate of consciousness with exquisite particularity. Muteness and a poker face will no longer be prevent revelation of our innermost ‘selves’. Every aspect of our ‘freedom’ will be public.
Will we fill the ancient philosophical prescription to “know thyself” at a species level in this era of genetic engineering? Fill it well enough, at least, to ensure that we can continue to conspire, subvert, conceal, and retain the privacy that enables us to choke the planet with our swarming success?