People talk often about the rights of privacy but very little about what privacy is, how it came about, and in particular the odd relationship we have with privacy today. We weren’t always private, by the way. It seems odd in our world to say this but the idea of privacy is very much a modern, constructed one. It began sometime in the 18th century and is being brought to the close thanks to social media's construction of Neoprivacy as we speak...
Whatever the history of privacy as a concept or the political ramifications of cases like Cambridge Analytica, one thing is certain, we have a pretty unique idea of our own privacy these days. So unique it needs a name. Let’s call it neoprivacy, because it is new, and because it is based on a neoliberal business model that is actually the foundation of the success of Web 2.0.
A superfast broadband history of the net y’know, just because I can. The web originally sprung up celebrating freedom of speech and agency, and asking that government use a light-touch when it came to regulation, so that tech firms could expand unheeded by laws. It was exciting and explosive but ultimately, financially, it was a flop. When Web 2.0 came along it added in a new ingredient. It took basic human behaviours and monetised them by selling info on how we tend to behave to ad companies. The net was saved, hooray. Some of the behaviours are public, Instagram is based on showing off, Twitter on gossip, but the most successful are those based on the power of the idea of a private self, Facebook being foremost in this regard.
Neoprivacy then is a powerful sense of individual value, gleaned from your unique thoughts and feelings about the world, sentiments that maybe before you kept to yourself. A value so high, you choose to publish it, and hope that others will share it and love you for who you are based on what you say about stuff. It is, like all forms of privacy, a construct that reflects the times during which it was built. And, like many other kinds of privacy, neoprivacy is an idea that is dramatically at odds with the facts.
We think we go online and use a product to share our private lives. And when those platforms sell our content, we complain that they do so without our consent, thus violating our privacy rights. And then governments pass laws such as GDPR, to protect those rights. What a load of nonsense. If you believe that you might as well believe I am Father Christmas.
For the record, here is what really happens. In using Facebook, you make yourself into a product. This product is composed of the idea of a private individual with needs and desires and hopes and fears which they want to share with other similar individuals who they can’t see right there in front of them. So Facebook makes you into a character, just as much as Jane Austen made Emma into a character, gives you the space to speak, listens in, and shares what you say with other people who will pay to hear it.
Here then is the problem. You see that character from the inside as a person, a subject, a private individual. But in reality, from the outside, Facebook and other parties model you as an economic product, whose self-belief in being a private person they can exploit for money. Facebook isn’t the product, you are the product. Facebook is in truth the magical workshop that makes you into that product.
So when you complain you didn’t give consent for your data to be sold on, you misunderstand the relationship with your platform of choice. There is no you, and so you have no consent. When you use Facebook, because Facebook costs a lot to run, you get the awesomeness of the platform for free. It’s a great deal, too great it transpires. Because when you do that you have already given consent to Facebook to fund itself from your data so that it can give you that costly time and space that privacy constructions have always needed.
Because if there are two things we have learnt about the history of privacy, first there is no such thing. As soon as you say to someone that’s private, you are, in effect, publishing it to them. You are also giving it value, because when people see a curtain, believe me they always want to lift it and peek in at the grotto inside. Which means second, privacy is not a right but a currency. It costs money to construct, it costs money to run, and to fund it you sell it because there is nothing more valuable in the age of individualism than who you really are, your so-called authentic self.
Cambridge Analytica were one of the first companies to realise that neoprivacy has an additional value, not just monetary but political. What you really want and reality think is the most valuable political commodity in an age of populism and lies. If CA overpromised, undersold and go caught with their hands in the till, it doesn’t mean that their politicisation of neoprivacy is going away. And before you object, “I won’t consent to that!” and post it to all your followers, too late, you already did.
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