Cohen develops a complex theory of a networked self that helps us distill a better working definition of privacy than the worn and somewhat limited one Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis dubbed “the right to be left alone” in their landmark 1890 article on privacy rights in the Harvard Law Review.3 Through Cohen, we can see that privacy does not consist merely of those aspects of our lives that we withhold from others. Privacy is more than the autonomy we exercise over our own information. It more accurately comprises the ways we manage our various reputations within and among various contexts. Those contexts might include school, church, the public sphere, a place of employment, or a family. Each of these contexts shifts and overlaps with others. Borders change, contexts blend. So configuring a “self” in the twenty-first century is a lot more work than it used to be. The fluidity can be liberating, especially for those who seek niches supportive of marginalized identities. But it can also be a terrifying and vertiginous liberty—sometimes exhausting and even potentially dangerous.
Unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, the Cryptopticon is not supposed to be intrusive or obvious.8 Its scale, its ubiquity, even its very existence, are supposed to go unnoticed. So while a closed-circuit television camera mounted over a counter at a convenience store openly warns would-be shoplifters or robbers to behave or risk being caught, the Cryptopticon relies on browser cookies, data streams retained by telecommunication firms, satellite imagery, global positioning system traces, covert voice surveillance, store discount cards, e-book readers, and mobile applications. Each of these things masks its real purpose: to gather or provide data and to track the behavior of millions of people with stunning precision. Beguilingly, though, most of these instrumentalities offer something valuable (convenience, security, connectivity, information, efficiency, lower costs) to those who engage with them—often “for free.”9
Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we do not know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we do not regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance. Instead, we seem not to care. The workings of the Cryptopticon are cryptic, hidden, scrambled, and mysterious. One can never be sure who is watching whom and for what purpose. Surveillance is so pervasive, and much of it seemingly so benign (“for your safety and security”), that it is almost impossible for the object of surveillance to assess how he or she is manipulated or threatened by powerful institutions gathering and using the record of surveillance. The threat is not that expression and experimentation will be quashed or controlled, as they supposedly would have been under the Panopticon. The threat is that subjects will become so inured to and comfortable with the networked status quo that they will gladly sort themselves into “niches” that will enable more effective profiling and behavioral prediction.
We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails. For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers. Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.
As a professor with lots of experience giving Ds and Fs, I know full well that the value of the liberal arts will always be lost on some people, at least at certain points in their lives. (Whenever I return from a conference, I worry that many on whom the value of philosophy is lost have found jobs teaching philosophy!) But I don’t think that this group of people is limited to any economic background or form of employment. My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.
One morning, my history teacher drew the numbers 1066 on the blackboard. “Can anyone tell me what happened in this year?” she asked. My classmates seem to lapse into a semi-stupor. But for me, those four digits set off a cascade of images and ideas in my head. When I raised my hand, my teacher raised her eyebrows.
“Yes?” she asked, pointing to me, squinting with suspicion. Until that point, I had rarely spoken in class. I opened my mouth, and to everyone’s surprise the answer just spilled out. Dates, names, places, battle tactics. I could have taught the class that day.
My teacher’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Where did you learn that?” she asked. “A video game” I responded. She snorted derisively, and turned back to the board.
And here’s the real laugh. Despite the way my teacher had rolled her eyes when I admitted to learning about history from a video game, it turns out real historians play games too. I’m a junior in college now — and a history major. Like all the most enthusiastic students in my history classes, I know how to weigh evidence, think critically, study primary sources, and debate the important historical questions of a period. But in casual conversations, professors and classmates alike reveal that games like Empire Earth, Age of Empires, and Civilization offer a narrative framework that animates our studies.
To us, gaming has made history seem less remote and more, well, epic. It’s a secret we keep mostly to ourselves. It’s easy to memorize dates when you know the stories already.
4. Predicting a Future Where Products Are Parented
So much of the framework we use to determine ownership, intellectual property, patents, etc. is going to have a hard time keeping up with what’s coming.
Waving his smartphone at the audience, Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy said, “I’m trying to grow one of these.” Let the day of mindblowing conversations about the future of biology begin.
Endy joined Google Director of Engineering David Glazer, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, and Merck Director of Scientific Modeling Platforms Chris Waller for the Techonomy Bio 2015 opening panel, “You Say You Want a Revolution.” Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick moderated the discussion about how innovations at the intersection of IT and biology will transform industries and products beyond life sciences.
Communications hardware probably wasn’t anyone’s top candidate for bioengineered disruption, but Endy explained: “Think about how an object like a cell phone is manufactured today. Imagine you live in the future and think backwards about where we could take surplus manufacturing capacity, [which is] now invisible to us because we just choose to ignore it, and say, ‘We’re going to repurpose a type of plenty that we have to grow objects in a different way.’”
What’s a “plenty?” Endy pointed, for example, to gardens in the community of Menlo Park, which he said collectively ship 16 million pounds of clippings, pine cones, grasses, and leaves—what Endy calls “state of the art nanotechnology”—to the compost heap annually.
How is a pinecone nanotechnology? “You can take a wood fungus that eats plant material and have it recompiled over a period of time to differentiate into an object that you wouldn’t think of as being manufacturable via biology,” Endy said. “It requires doing hybrid synthesis of biomaterials, it requires program patterning, but I mean it quite literally.”
“The difference between intelligence and education is this: intelligence will earn you a good living” – Charles Kettering
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