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The Gilded Fishbowl

“Andrew McAfee’s coining of the “Varian Rule”(April 8) — that the future can be forecast by the increasing affordability of what the rich have today — has a corollary worth considering. The future may also be forecast by increasing middle class exposure to what the poor experience today. 

Like the Varian Rule, this would have predicted paternalistic bureaucracy, pervasive mass surveillance, the rude and antagonistic security apparatus, and debt traps. It may still predict a middle class epidemic of fatherless families, higher incarceration rates, skills obsolescence, usurious interest rates, substitution from healthy staples, and unstable employment.

Ceteris paribus, if one were taking bets, this corollary reflects a more plausible equilibrium.”

Letter to the Editor, Financial Times

“About the only part of a California house you can’t put your foot through is the front door.”

-Raymond Chandler

Privacy becomes an increasingly loaded topic as we hurtle into the digital future and discover more sophisticated and nuanced ways to compromise it. Like nuclear war in another era, privacy enjoys its moment as a widespread concern now that the necessary technology has aligned to make it matter. Privacy in a more innocent time meant keeping strangers from peeking into your backyard; today it’s protecting your identity, career, finances, and family from supposed good guys as well as bad guys to whom you’ve given access to the data trail your every action leaves, a trail that everyone must consent to creating if they hope to participate in contemporary life. The government, the biggest companies in the world, and hackers (which of those three groups are the “good guys”?) thus have insights about us that we don’t even have about ourselves, and the best case scenario, the one that we’re at least sure of, is that they merely use that data to make money off of us.

The familiar privacy paradox is that it can be difficult to imagine why privacy matters. There’s no alternative to constantly streaming your personal data on a multitude of devices, websites, and apps, the data collection occurs invisibly and silently, and the possible uses of that information aren’t entirely obvious, so it’s harder to worry about privacy than, say, ISIS. There’s the popular I-have-nothing-to-hide position, as well as security by obscurity—not being a person who matters enough to attract the attention of the NSA or Facebook, or the NSA via Facebook.

Because we don’t care enough about privacy as a society (although we must believe we do) or because we only think about it in weak, fuzzy ways, we get the version of it we deserve: privacy theater. Like “security theater,” the government’s empty post-9/11 efforts to create the feeling of protection through certain visible actions that didn’t make a difference, privacy theater comes in the form of terms of service and vague PR—actions unlikely to prevent a wide variety of intrusions that still must be seen by us, because that’s their whole purpose. Edward Felten used “privacy theater” to describe Facebook’s terms of service, saying “we pretend to have read sites’ privacy policies, and the sites pretend that we have understood and consented to all of their terms.”

Privacy theater, security theater, and every other kind of theater, which address their abstract goals with ham-fisted signals that have little bearing on their stated purpose, together suggest that much of the world is built for what in business jargon is called “optics.” While it’s tempting to blame this shortfall on pure cynicism and bad faith, there’s another possible explanation: failure to understand and adapt to a new reality.

With the suggestion that privacy theater is a kind of mistake, we find ourselves once again where we so often end up on this blog: Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control. Deleuze describes a progression from disciplinary societies that relied upon enclosures—“prison, hospital, factory, school, family”—to what we have now, the societies of control. In the former, one was only subjected to an institution’s discipline when one was physically there. Hence the exuberance of a student’s last day of school, a prisoner’s release date, or leaving work on Friday afternoon for the weekend—those were the moments that freedom was achieved. In the societies of control, these feelings are less common, because leaving the building doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Instead, we have “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control” like lifelong credit ratings, test scores, and never-empty email inboxes—information that follows us everywhere. Perhaps privacy is shorthand for freedom from these new modes of control: Not leaving a data footprint that feeds back into one’s profile is the equivalent of jumping the fence and leaving the confining enclosure, or not becoming trapped within those walls in the first place. Privacy theater is the outcome of organizations’ collective failure to fully grasp and acknowledge that we live in Deleuze’s society of control, and individuals’ failure to demand solutions on that level.

The suburban home may be the most concrete example of this failure to adapt to post-enclosure life. Philip Marlowe’s observation in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—that you can break through any part of a California house but the front door—wryly acknowledges the fallacy: The walls of the house no longer keep intruders out, but the part of the house that symbolizes its obsolete function as miniature fortress, the door, still does. The builders had understood this and played along, seemingly in on the irony. Architectural theater in the service of security theater. Long gone are the days when solid walls were all that was needed to keep the bad out and the good in, or vice versa, and only the best architecture embraces this truth.

As an image and nothing else, the house-as-castle is alive and well in suburban America and elsewhere—the built counterpart to our facile dealings with privacy and security. The suburban model of societal atomization, whatever benefits it once offered, now amplifies risks in a society of control: Traditional safety nets, such as community ties, grow weaker, and this in turn delivers us more readily to the digital environments that monitor and track us. Those who have “nothing to hide” and who are ordinary enough not to become “persons of interest” will get their privacy, but in all the wrong ways: privacy from their neighbors and from their own community buy not from the state, or from the corporations for whom their behavior is a product.

The Varian Rule posits that what the rich have now will be what the middle class has eventually. The letter above extends this principle to the bad as well as the good, and privacy is the perfect domain in which to observe this less optimistic version of the law. In a strange op-ed about Apple and self-surveillance, Paul Krugman cites the Varian Rule before listing three reasons not to be concerned about consenting to continuously track and monitor oneself: that most people don’t have anything to hide; that most people aren’t interesting or important enough to raise any eyebrows; and that “lack of privacy is actually part of the experience of being rich” (again, Varian’s Rule). Sounding like an emissary from the most sinister camp in the privacy debate, Krugman crystallizes the reasons to care about the topic: because you might aspire to matter enough or be exceptional enough that his reasons not to care about privacy don’t apply to you, or because “the opportunity to live in a gilded fishbowl” is no opportunity at all. In our Deleuzian world of ultrarapid free-floating control, do you really want to make yourself as average as possible, just to hide?


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