Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”

Maybe.

I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.

Technology and Perception: That By Which We See Remains Unseen

“Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
– C. S. Lewis

I wrote recently about the manner in which ubiquitous realities tend to fade from view. They are, paradoxically, too pervasive to be noticed. And I suggested (although, of course, this was nothing like an original observation) that it is these very realities, hiding in front of our noses as the cliché has it, which most profoundly shape our experience. I made note of this phenomenon in order to say that very often these ever-present, unnoticed realities are technological realities.

I want to return to these thoughts and, with a little help from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, unpack at least one of the ways in which certain technologies fade from view while simultaneously shaping our perception. In doing so I’ll also draw on a helpful article by Philip Brey, “Technology and Embodiment in Ihde and Merleau-Ponty.”

The purpose of Brey’s article is to supplement and shore up certain categories developed by the philosopher of technology, Don Ihde. To do so, Brey traces certain illustrations used by Ihde back to their source in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Ihde sought to create a taxonomy that categorized a limited set of ways humans interacted with technology, and among his categories was one he termed “embodiment relations.” Ihde defined embodiment relations as those in which a technology mediates an individual’s perception of the world and gives a series of examples including glasses, telescopes, hearing aids, and a blind man’s cane. An interesting feature of each of these technologies is that they “withdraw” from view when their use becomes habitual. Ihde lists other examples, however, which Brey finds problematic as exemplars of the category. These include the hammer and a feathered hat.

(The example of the feather hat is drawn from Merleau-Ponty. As a lady wearing a feathered hat makes her way about, she interacts with her surroundings in light of this feature that amounts to an extension of her body.)

In both cases, Brey believes the example is less about perception (although it can be involved) and more about action. Consequently, Brey offers some further distinctions to better get at the kinds of relations Ihde was attempting to classify. He begins by dividing embodiment relations into relations that mediate perception and those that mediate motor skills.

Brey goes on to make further distinctions among the kinds of embodiment relations that mediate motor skills. Some of these involve navigational skills and tend to be of the sort that “enlarge” one’s body. The feathered hat fits into this category as do other items such as a worn backpack that require the user to incorporate the object into one’s body schema in such a way that we pre-consciously navigate as if the object were a part of our body. Then there are embodiment relations which mediate motor skills in interaction with the environment. The hammer fits into this category. These objects become part of our body schema in order to extend our action in the world.

These clarifications and distinctions are helpful, and Brey is right to distinguish between embodiment relations geared toward perception and those geared toward action. But he is also right to point out that even those tools that are geared toward action involve perception to some degree. While a hammer is used primarily to mediate action, it also mediates perception. For example, a hammer strike reveals something about the surface struck.

Yet Brey believes that in this class of embodiment relations the perceptual function is “subordinate” to the motor function. This is probably a sound conclusion, but it does not seem to take into account a more subtle way in which perception comes into play. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the manner in which technology in-hand affects our perception of the world not only by offering sensory feedback, but also by shaping our interpretive acts of perception, our seeing-as. I won’t rehash that argument here; instead I want to focus on the withdrawing character of technologies through which we perceive.

The sorts of tools that mediate perception ordinarily do so while they themselves recede from view. Summarizing Ihde’s discussion of embodiment relations, Brey offers the following description of the phenomenon:

“In embodiment relations, the embodied technology does not, or hardly, become itself an object of perception. Rather, it ‘withdraws’ and serves as a (partially) transparent means through which one perceives one’s environment, thus engendering a partial symbiosis of oneself and it.”

Consider the eye as a paradigmatic example. We see all things through it, but we never see it (unless, of course, in a mirror). This is a function of what Michael Polanyi has called the “from-to” character of perception. Our intentionality is directed from our body outward to the world. “The bodily processes hide,” Mark Johnson explains, “in order to make possible our fluid, automatic experiencing of the world.”

The technologies that we take into an embodied relation do not ordinarily achieve quite so complete a withdrawal, but they do ordinarily fade from our awareness as objects in themselves. Contact lenses, for example, or the blind man’s cane. In fact, almost any tool of which we become expert users tends to withdraw as an object in its own right in order to facilitate our perception or our action.

In short essay titled “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis offeres an excellent illustration of this dynamic. Granted, he was offering an illustration of different phenomenon, but I think it fits here as well. Lewis described entering into a dark toolshed and seeing before him a shaft of light coming in through a crack above the door. At that moment Lewis “was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.” But then he stepped into the beam:

“Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”

Notice his emphasis on the manner in which the beam itself disappears from view when one sees through it. That through which we perceive ceases to be an object that we perceive. Returning to where we began then, we might say that one manner in which a technology becomes too pervasive too be noticed is by becoming that by which we perceive the world or some aspect of it.

It is easiest to recognize the dynamic at work in objects that are specifically designed to enhance our physical senses — eyeglasses, for example. But the principle may be expanded further (even if the mechanics shift) to include other less obvious ways we perceive through technology. The whole of Marshall McLuhan’s work, in fact, could be seen as an attempt to understand how all technology is media technology that alters perception. In other words, all technology mediates reality in some fashion, but the mediating function withdraws from view because it is that through which we perceive the content. It is the beam of light into which we step to perceive some other thing and, as with the beam, it remains unseen even while it enables and shapes our seeing.

Nathaniel Hawthorne Anticipates McLuhan and de Chardin

Those familiar with Marshall McLuhan will remember his view, and it was not his alone, that our technologies are fundamentally extensions of ourselves. And in McLuhan’s view, electric technologies were extensions of our nervous system. So, for example, In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes:

“With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.” (65)

“When information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system, man is confronted with the obsolescence of all earlier forms of acceleration, such as road and rail. What emerges is a total field of inclusive awareness.” (143)

“It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.” (460-461)

Those familiar with McLuhan will also know not only that McLuhan was a Roman Catholic (recent essay on that score here), but that he was influenced by the thought of a relatively fringe Catholic paleontologist and theologian/philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, who, in The Future of Man, spoke of technology creating “a nervous system for humanity … a single, organized, unbroken membrane over the earth … a stupendous thinking machine.”

As it turns out, McLuhan and de Chardin were trading in a metaphor/analogy that had even older roots. At the outset of his fascinating (if your into this sort of stuff) study Electrifying America, David E. Nye cites the following passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, in which the character Clifford exclaims,

“Then there is electricity, the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” … “Is it a fact — or have i dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but a thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”

Hawthorne’s novel, in case you’re wondering, dates from 1851.

Training Perecption, Awakening to Experience

The challenge of McLuhan’s work, both in the sense that it is challenging to read and that it lays down a challenge to be taken up, involves the difficulty of thinking about that which shapes our thinking — it is akin to attempting to jump over your own shadow.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of his method, perplexing and infuriating as it could be, seems designed to coax readers over their shadows, to become aware of how their thinking has been formed by the media environment.  Biographer W. Terrence Gordon, citing McLuhan’s own description of his teachers at Cambridge, gets at this when he writes, “There could be no more succinct statement of his own aims, as he left Cambridge to begin a teaching career, than ‘the training of perception.’”

Later on, Gordon cites a letter to Mrs. Pound in which McLuhan writes, “The appeal must be to the young … they have been systematically deprived of all the linguistic tools by which they could nourish their own perceptions at first hand at the usual traditional sources.”

Walter Ong, a former student of McLuhan’s and outstanding scholar in his own right, classified teachers as follows:

A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively.  A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for the learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting.

“By this criteria,” Ong went on, “Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people’s minds.”  Ong also noted that, “… even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it.”

Putting all of this together yields, in my estimation, the nature of McLuhan’s enduring significance.  In one respect he may be likened to the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s illustration who knows one big thing — changes in media environments change the way we think and the way we experience life.  But he was also a little like the fox who knows many things in that he approached the one big idea from countless angles and drawing promiscuously from the whole of experience.

As some have noted in taking the measure of McLuhan, he drove that one idea home so well that he rendered his work superfluous.  But this is not quite right.  While others have perhaps done a better job of articulating and systematizing the big idea, they have perhaps also domesticated it.  Knowledge has been imparted, but perceptions have not been trained.  Ironically, this may be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to the medium, i.e. McLuhan’s method.

McLuhan understood, as Ong put it, that if learners are too learn anything they are the ones who will have to do it.  All of the probes, the paradoxes, the gnomic statements, the quirkiness, the esotericisms, the inconsistencies, the absurdities, the juxtapositions, the koanish assertions, the puns — all of it aimed at drawing out the work of learning from the learner in such a way that their perceptions would be trained.  Simply clarifying the big idea, extracting and re-presenting the kernel of the thought only captured the data, it did not train perceptions, it did not heighten sensibilities, it did not lead to practical wisdom.  In the end it may very well darken and numb perception.

This insistence on the training of perception, fully embodied perception involving the whole human sensorium, may have been McLuhan’s chief contribution.  Perceiving the world, which is to say being alive to the world, is not a given and much less so in certain media environments.  McLuhan as a teacher seems bent on awakening us to experience; agitating, provoking, inciting us to perceive.  That is no small thing when some degree of variously imposed numbness becomes the cultural default.

McLuhan: 100

The medium is the message … five words, plump and alliterative though they may be, are wildly inadequate … he was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911 … He speaks in canned riddles … Speech as organized stutter is based on time. What does speech do to space? … “Clear prose indicates the absence of thought” … Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose … he gave us language that made “media” into a thing …

It feels wistful to imagine a time when people didn’t go about their daily routine with the assumption that at any moment another massive media technology will be dumped on us by some geek in California … “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up” …

“What if he is right”? … “Instead of the book as a fixed package of repeatable and uniform character suited to the market with pricing, the book is increasingly taking on the character of a service … and the book as an information service is tailor-made and custom-built” … First of all – and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer – I’m not advocating anything … “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment” …

an alchemical mix of his vast historical and literary knowledge, his bombastic personality and a range of behaviors we might now place on the very mild end of the autistic spectrum … McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas …

First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions … a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired … what mattered was merely the fact that you were watching TV. The act of analysing the content of TV – or of other mediums – is either sentimental or it’s beside the point … Annie Hallthe fastest brain of anyone I have ever met, and I never knew whether what he was saying was profound or garbage… He wanted his words to knock readers out of their intellectual comfort zones, to get them to entertain the possibility that their accepted patterns of perception might need reordering ..McLuhan was an information canary …

“He writes by paradox — that makes him hard to read (or hard on the reader),” wrote McLuhan … he loved Chesterton’s rhetorical flourishes, imbibed his playfulness, turned his impulse to try out new combinations of ideas into the hallmark of the McLuhan method … He became a daily Mass-goer …

There is absolutely no inevitability … what will be the psychic fallout of these technologies on our inner lives? … Like Marx and Freud, he was an intellectual agitator, a conceptual mind expander, the yeast in the dough …  James Joyce and Ezra Pound especially … The web. The web, with its feeds and flows and rivers and streams … That kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic style … In that Playboy interview … a celebrity-seeking charlatan …

lost all hope “that the world might become a better place with new technology” …  people who classify McLuhan as a techno-utopian aren’t simply making stuff up … Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress … Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it … And so eschatological hope appears as nothing more than an early manifestation of cyber-utopianism … Look at what these media are doing to our souls … “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left” …

Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified … merely that such reactions are useless and distracting … “Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer” … But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout … someone who didn’t just have strong ideas but who invented a whole new way of talking … all a teacher can ever do is get people to think …

outlived his fame … he died in a state of wordlessness …

That’s what McLuhan did.

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In case it is not apparent, only a very few of these words are mine.  Sources:

Webs and whirligigs:  Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours by Megan Garber
Why McLuhan’s chilling vision still matters today by Douglas Coupland
McLuhan at 100 and McLuhan on the Cloud by Nicholas Carr
Why Bother With Marshall McLuhan by Alan Jacobs
Divine Inspiration by Jeet Heer
Marshall McLuhan:  Escape into Understanding by W. Terrence Gordon
McLuhan, Chesterton, and the Pursuit of Joy
McLuhan as Teacher by Walter Ong