Sturm und Drang on the Internet
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.
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