When Our Thoughts Are No Longer Our Own

bdnews24 desk
Published : 12 July 2018, 10:04 AM
Updated : 12 July 2018, 10:04 AM

Turning Point: WikiLeaks releases trove of documents detailing methods the C.I.A. might have employed to break into smartphones, computers and Internet-connected TVs.

In 1855, the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson sent a poem to her sister-in-law.

"There is a solitude of space"

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself —

"Finite Infinity."

A century and a half later, we live in a world where the first two kinds of solitude — that of space or of sea — are nearing extinction. Even if we travel into the desert or far out over the ocean, we must be resigned to the idea that someone could be watching, via satellite or drone. For much of our lives, as we go about our business in the heavily surveilled spaces of modern cities, carrying the seductively packaged trackers we still quaintly call our "phones," we are under observation.

What is privacy? It's not just an occasional preference for solitude. It is the capacity to conceal things: parts of our bodies, aspects of our lives. Privacy is more than solitude; it's not simply visual. We sweep through the world trailing clouds of metadata, and, with new and inexpensive tools to store and process it, pictures of our intimacies are being drawn that are not only descriptive, but actually predictive, of how we will behave, given certain inputs.

Within a few years, the intensity of surveillance will increase almost beyond measure. Researchers at the University of Stuttgart recently described an information-gathering  technology nicknamed "smart dust," employing lenses the size of a grain of table salt that can capture images sharply and could be manufactured quickly and cheaply using commercially available 3D printers. Imagine tiny cameras injected into the brain to detect tumors! Wonderful! Now imagine the effect of ubiquitous, near-invisible, networked surveillance of all social and political life, using tools so cheap that they can be manufactured in unimaginably large quantities, the world's spies and secret policemen scattering their eyes like farmers sowing seeds. At that point our expectation of privacy will fall to zero, and with it still more of our ability to resist established power, whatever its political complexion.

This is the era of pattern recognition, and our habits, our predilections, the desires which shape our behavior, are ever more susceptible to quantification, prediction and control. We have learned to marvel at the big box chain that knows we're pregnant before our partner does. We are less conscious of the e-reader that gathers information on which pages we skip, and which words we linger over. We are only beginning to understand the political power of network architecture, of information silos (whether liberal or conservative) that feel to their inhabitants like the entire world, of political advertising calibrated to the precise dimensions of our particular, individual fears.

Say I'm a gun owner. I live in an area of high crime. I recently bought exterior lighting for my home. Surely, I fear a home invasion. My advertisement opens with a shadowy figure, a flashlight sweeping across the faces of sleeping children. My neighbor's ad is completely different.

When you are always, at least potentially, being watched, any form of self-expression is also a sort of betrayal, a cardplayer's tell. With ubiquitous visual surveillance, we will surely retreat inside ourselves, into the realm of the unexpressed, Emily Dickinson's "profounder site" of privacy, the "soul admitted to itself." While the language is spiritual, it describes a state that secular people also recognize. We have an expectation that, before we go forth into the social world, we can occupy a private interior space for experiment and contemplation, a space free of the judgment of others. This interior space is by its very nature both utopian and transgressive. On it we rest our ideas about freedom, choice and moral responsibility.

For a generation or so, we have been fantasizing about the possibility of becoming posthuman. What would our own evolution look like? What are we becoming? When we think of our successors, we lazily imagine sovereign individuals who are somehow more powerful than ourselves, whose sense of themselves is more intense, more luxurious. The superman, the Extropian genius, the next wave. But we are making a world where such a possibility seems increasingly remote, at least for the majority. Perhaps augmented powers and an expansive interiority will be achievable for a small elite, to those who will be able to pay for privacy. Most people will find themselves living more muted, circumscribed lives.

If our sense of self looks likely to be transformed by the erosion of privacy, it is also under pressure from the erosion of the social world of work, and the human identities that come with it. Automation is about to destroy the livelihoods of many kinds of worker, from taxi driver to investment banker. It is encroaching on many of the domains of the "human," those of expertise, craft and even art, and taste. Low payroll costs mean higher profits, and private companies have no obligation to ensure full participation in the labor market.

The advent of that much-heralded thing, the Leisure Society, looks less like a seven-day party weekend than large-scale human warehousing. We define ourselves through our social roles. We are socialized to be useful, to participate, to maintain a state of high productivity. Our politicians, eager to reduce the cost of providing a social security, grind into us the notion that idleness is a great sin. But for many, idleness will be enforced, and along with it the shame of being watched and treated as sinners. For as citizens excluded from economic life, the idle are always the most disruptive, and have historically been subject to the most intense surveillance.

Posthumanity is too grandiose a term for what is on the horizon. This is about power, and an economic reorganization that is driving wealth upward, not a species evolving toward some sort of Borglike network form. A nostalgic yearning for the halcyon days of humanity may allow us to strike melancholic poses, but it will do little to halt the vast processes that are driving these changes. Instead we need to imagine a kind of politics that still assigns a value to private life, and new forms of belonging that do not revolve around work.

Hari Kunzru is the author of "The Impressionist," "Gods Without Men," and most recently, "White Tears."

© 2017 Hari Kunzru
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate