heterodox: the blog
To Preserve Heterodoxy, Protect the ‘Incomputable Self’
The future of heterodoxy depends on viewpoint diversity, open discourse, and freedom of thought – and underlying each of these is privacy.
The ability to maintain an interior space for identity formation, unfettered mentation, and experimentation with ideas free from monitoring and interference is prerequisite to viewpoint diversity; and some autonomy to determine when to share one’s views with others, and who those others should be, undergirds open discourse.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the current state of heterodoxy mirrors that of privacy: undervalued, misunderstood, and compromised.
Legal theorist Julie E. Cohen recognized this interdependency in her prescient 1996 Connecticut Law Review article, “A Right to Read Anonymously,” examining the unspoken affordances of digital rights management (DRM) technology. Cohen observed that emerging digital technologies presented an intellectual freedom paradox: as they made information more accessible, they also made monitoring our access to information more powerful. Though “anonymous exploration and inquiry” (p. 42) and “associational anonymity” (p. 43) are both protected by traditional First Amendment chilling effect doctrine, Cohen presaged a soft chilling effect caused by technologies that track “the information-gathering activities that precede speech” (p. 38).
Cohen developed these ideas further in future works. In “Examined Lives,” she considers the implications of loss of privacy for learning, pointing out that autonomous thought is itself a learned behavior that “requires a zone of relative insulation from outside scrutiny and interference” (p. 1424):
The point is not that people will not learn under conditions of no-privacy, but that they will learn differently, and that the experience of being watched will constrain, ex ante, the acceptable spectrum of belief and behavior. (p. 1426)
Broader themes of selfhood and civic participation are explored in “What Privacy is For,” in which Cohen ruminates that privacy enables “a robust sense of agency, supportive and resilient networks of relational ties, and critical independence of mind” (p. 1910) – in other words, viewpoint diversity, open discourse, and freedom of thought.
Despite her decades of scholarship, Cohen most recently uttered the question that quietly plagues privacy scholars: just what, exactly, do we mean by privacy? In “Turning Privacy Inside Out,” Cohen baldly states the issue: privacy theory suffers from an “inadequate conceptual vocabulary” (p. 1) and seemingly inherent contradictions, such as between concurrent claims to autonomy and the social construction of self; or that privacy entails both informational boundary maintenance as well as consensual boundary-crossings. Likewise, while heterodoxy relies to a large degree on intellectual activities free from outside interference, its true value is realized when ideas are shared, debated, and synthesized.
One approach to reconcile these tensions is technology ethicist Helen Nissenbaum’s construction of privacy as contextual integrity. In her contribution for the 2004 University of Washington School of Law’s symposium, Technology, Values, and the Justice System, Nissenbaum articulated a framework of contextual integrity comprising information appropriateness – “a conception of the kind and degree of knowledge concerning one another which it is appropriate for [each other] to have” (p. 139) – and distribution – “movement, or transfer of information from one party to another or others” (p. 140). Put simply, contextual integrity is when the right people know the right things about you at the right time, because you are able to exert agency over your personal information flows.
Nissenbaum credits contextual integrity as the forces that maintain those “zones of ‘relative insularity,’” citing Cohen (2000), that
are necessary conditions for formulating goals, values, conceptions of self, and principles of action because they provide venues in which people are free to experiment, act, and decide without giving account to others or being fearful of retribution. (p. 148-49)
These claims will surely resonate with any thinker who has ventured to step out of line with the orthodoxy of her discipline or community. Consider, then, that Nissenbaum now sees threats to contextual integrity – and threats to our privacy – metastasizing into every dimension of human experience, across the lifespan from pre-conception to post-death, transcending geography from the outer space of satellites to the interior spaces of the body and mind, and at every scale from the planetary to the subcellular. These are the threats to a future for human personhood, connection, and dignity that Harvard professor emerita Shoshanna Zuboff unveils in her blockbusting 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.
Culminating decades of scholarship on the social implications of the technological age, Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism names the previously inarticulable effects of an emerging logic of power. Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a new social order that exerts instrumentarian power through behavioral modification at population scale, informed by predictive knowledge of our individual desires, thoughts, and actions harvested as behavioral surplus from our increasingly technologically-mediated everyday lives (p. 8). In fulfillment of the extraction imperative, the ‘smart’ devices we deploy in daily life activities survey and drill for behavioral data at incomprehensible breadth and depth, often beyond our conscious awareness, such that very few spaces of personal existence remain beyond their reach (pp. 199-201). These “reality mining” techniques seek first to tune the complex mathematical models thought to underlie all human behavior, so that this machine knowledge can ultimately be turned back on us to manipulate and herd our behavior at scale (pp. 420, 424-25). One impact of all this nudging, pushing, profiling, targeting, manipulating, observing, and exposing includes an extended chilling effect: the alteration of our real-life behaviors in consideration of unknown and imaginary audiences (p. 472). Among other things, privacy protects reflection, authenticity, creativity, and learning; freedom of thought thus depends on what Mireille Hildebrandt termed the “protection of the incomputable self” (2019, Theoretical Inquiries into Law).
If, as scholars and educators, we are committed to preserving open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, then we must also take an interest in privacy and its challenges. In “Turning Privacy Inside Out” (2019, Theoretical Inquiries into Law), Cohen calls not only for a fundamental reimagining of privacy theory, but also for renewed efforts to inspire “sufficiently private and privacy-valuing subjects” (p. 3). If privacy is to be a “paradigmatic information-era right” (p. 2), how should it be taught?
Librarians are increasingly taking up privacy literacy research and instruction as an emerging area of practice. My collaborator and I offer a co-curricular Privacy Workshop Series each year at Penn State Berks in partnership with first-year experience programming, Campus Life, Career Services, the campus Wellness Center, and in observance of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (October). Our Creative Commons-licensed, OER privacy literacy curricula is grounded in theory, field-tested with hundreds of students, and guided by our conviction that “privacy is a value system before it is a technology” (p. 317). Rather than proscribe digital behaviors or prescribe seemingly futile technological interventions, our approach focuses on the positive case for privacy, cultivating students’ “knowledge, behaviors, and critical dispositions regarding the information constructs of self-hood, expressive activities, and relationships” (p. 306) while respecting their lived experiences, dignity, and autonomy.
Privacy is not just personal, but also collective, and highly interdisciplinary. Engage your campus library to partner on integrating privacy literacy into your curriculum. If they’re unsure where to start, direct them to our Association of College and Research Libraries’ 2021 Instruction Section Innovation award-winning workshop materials or Digital Shred Privacy Literacy Toolkit. Learning activities from the series are readily adaptable to other instructional contexts in higher and secondary education, with peer faculty- and staff-facing privacy literacy learning experiences currently in development.
It is well to promote heterodoxy. But first, we must protect the incomputable self.
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