This article is part of a series: ‘Stigmergy: Systems of Mass Collaboration’.
In the past, most of the world acknowledged in both cultural norms and the law that privacy was a basic individual right. It could be argued that this right was ours in a state of nature; mammals in general do keep personal matters private to varying degrees, and privacy can in many cases be equated with personal security. Culturally, it was an accepted practice in most regions of the world that personal business and family business were to be kept private, too much disclosure was frowned upon, and ‘snooping’ was met with ‘mind your own business’. Even names were in many cultures not to be handed out in full to people outside intimate circles, and even within families personal names were not always used. That is actually the last vestige of that privacy to be found in western society; children still frequently do not call their parents by their first names but the rest of the world now does.
In our surveillance culture of today, privacy is again quite literally illegal as it was in previous totalitarian states. ‘If you see something say something’ and the FBI’s all encompassing ‘Suspicious Activity’ list have made any attempt at privacy over even the most innocuous activity grounds to suspect you of ‘terrorism’. The prying of other members of your society is supported by government and corporate surveillance of everything from your conversations and your constantly tracked images to the amount of body heat you are giving off at a ‘checkpoint’.
The agenda of the states has been transferred to the wider culture; now all forms of privacy and even introversion have come to be viewed as negative traits. Anyone who is uncomfortable with sustained eye contact is labeled as hostile or untrustworthy, anyone who works more easily in solitary is ‘having trouble integrating’ and even the new protest movements embrace all new forms of thinking except solitary. The mainstreaming of privacy invasion makes it almost impossible to avoid having your personal data made available to all, but even if that is managed, your features are available to face recognition (gait recognition, etc.) software through surveillance cameras around the world and are easily matched to all of the rest of your data by the ‘two pieces of picture id’ required to function in any easy way in our society.
The normalizing of privacy invasion has spilled over into societies around the world. It is commonplace now for introductions to be followed by what amounts to an interrogation, with all personal and professional background demanded before acquaintance begins. It is even perfectly normal to approach complete strangers with demands to know all of their personal data. This new custom, encouraged by law enforcement in the United States, is endorsed by mainstream society. Any attempt to refuse personal information at first contact is met with indignation. The interrogator, who once would be labeled a ‘snoop’ is now characterized as ‘open’, ‘honest’, and having ‘nothing to hide’, while the victim is held to be a deviant of some sort or other and regarded with suspicion. The surveillance state has done its job when any request for privacy is met with shock, hurt, accusations of paranoia, and group shunning.
Invasion of the personal lives of individuals has been an accepted feature in the news media for decades. The public’s ‘right to know’, which once applied to the right to know all news required to participate in their own governance, essential in a democracy, became a right to know personal information. All individuals are private individuals, only their actions which affect public life are of public interest. Private individuals were labeled public individuals based on a very arbitrary assignment of all professions ‘in the public eye’ (such as entertainment) as public; the relabeling of these professions was then used to strip basic privacy rights from the professionals. While this was probably started to deflect attention from the matters those in power did not wish attention to be directed towards, and encouraged by ‘celebrities’ who were profiting from it, the custom has since expanded to include an ever increasing amount of private individuals whose personal lives are in the news for no explicable reason.
As the general population has taken over media gathering and dissemination, the media’s predatory nature has also become dispersed throughout the population. As the old media feels it has the right to use advanced surveillance attacks, stalking and sexual harassment in the form of creepshots, physical mobbing and verbal abuse to any woman who begins to have a voice in society, the internet is now also full of people who feel they are entitled to use the same tactics on any woman or girl who dares to enter the internet public forum. Any woman who attempted to work in news or politics would be met with relentless attacks on her personal life and physical appearance by old media; any woman who speaks or posts a picture on the internet now is subjected to the same treatment.
A society that has grown up with sexual harassment of women labelled as ‘free speech’ does not understand this harassment for what it is, mass censorship of female voices. The old media, instead of acknowledging their own behaviour staring back at them from the internet, lobbies against ‘cyber-bullying’, as if what they do is somehow different if it is done online, and claim the solution is for those bullied to lose all possibility of the protection of anonymity.
In order to have a society in which individual needs are respected, a balance must be struck between the right to speak and freedom of information versus the right to participate equally in society and own the truth about ourselves. Our presentation of ourselves is directly tied to our right to privacy; over exposure of even truths we are not ready to share can result in extreme mortification and trauma. We tend to overlook and belittle the impact of privacy violation, primarily as it so often is directed towards those with marginalized voices, but a look at the amount of suicides, as well as mental health problems caused by these violations is enough to show its importance.
The lack of importance placed on privacy may also be directly related to the rule by extroverts we have been subjected to since the beginnings of society. Until we had the internet, the leaders of large crowds were almost always charismatic people with a gift for public speaking and a natural resistance to personal attack, belonging to powerful demographic groups. As the internet has gained in power to the point where it is a direct threat to those currently holding power, as liquid feedback replaces public shouting matches, the powerful in the molecular world have sought to expose and control those in the online world. Any involuntary exposure has been met by violent reaction from the internet as it is the first place for many that has ever felt like a safe place to speak. One reason Anonymous and the internet in general has had a low opinion of those who seek personal fame may be that the internet is populated by those who have been persecuted and had their voices repressed by others with loud voices.
The voices of the 50% of the population who are naturally more introverted or the almost everyone eliminated from mainstream forums for one reason or another, are at least as important as those currently heard. This however, completely changes the society we are accustomed to, if the voiceless suddenly gain voices, if the creators no longer need the marketers, women do not need to speak through men, and children, the elderly, discriminated minorities, the ostracized of all societies can suddenly speak and have their messages amplified as well as anyone else. This would eliminate huge swathes of industry from communication and representative types of roles, everything from politicians, to media, to marketing companies. Not at all coincidentally, all of the lobby groups attempting to control the internet, strip privacy and anonymity, and manage access are from the groups who would no longer be required if everyone had a voice.
Personal information is power. Anyone who can obtain personal information on another has increased their power over the other; and that power ought not to be given lightly without established trust. What seems perfectly innocuous until it surfaces as e-book, revenge porn, or what ought to be irrelevant attacks on a message by character assassination of the messenger, ought to be kept private by default. Personal information is still every bit as valuable as our grandparents knew it to be. Until and unless our societies mature to the point where we are governed by data driven instead of personality driven systems, we need to recognize that freedom of speech which is actually simply a mask for suppression of the speech of others. And when we see private information being used to violate someone’s well being, it is no more appropriate to blame the victim for the existence of the information than it is for police in India to assume that if a woman has consensual sex with one man, then she can’t complain if his friends join in.
This is not to argue that we need laws inhibiting privacy violations, we have such laws and they only protect the powerful from exposure of secrets the public needs to know. We need a change in societal attitude, where we no longer applaud or tolerate assaults on privacy, personal attacks on public figures and, most of all, those public invasions of privacy that amount to sexual assault, whether committed by the media or the internet.
Even more than privacy, anonymity is viewed as a hostile act by those in power. A culture in which fame is the ultimate achievement cannot understand the value of ownerless ideas and shapeshifting personas. Anonymity has been equated almost exclusively with criminal activity by politicians and lawmakers.
Online anonymity is cherished by internet dwellers as the only means to pure thought exchange, where ideas can be judged on their own merits, unclouded by preconceived judgements based on unrelated data. Anonymity can be a revelation, as new personas can be tried on and provoke new reactions, revealing our stereotypes and inability to separate messages from messengers.
Anonymity is also simply practical safety. It has been proven enough times that authorities do not need to see any transactions or have evidence of any criminal activity to destroy your life; it is enough that you pull attention, that they are aware of your existence. The fact that you are doing nothing wrong or illegal is no protection if you have attracted the attention of someone with power or mental instability. Governments are not the only people on the internet; if you start expressing opinions you will find far more interesting opposition as well. Anonymity, once lost, can never be regained; even if you have no intention of ever expressing a controversial opinion, privacy should become a habit, like brushing your teeth.
In many cases, anonymity is the only way for a messenger to ensure their message will be heard. Either from their own association with the topic or from their association with other ideas or groups, very often the story of the messenger will override the story of the message. That is in fact the way media has been increasingly covering the news until we are at this point left with only messengers, rarely any message at all, and it is what audiences are trained to look for. Even when choosing political representation, “I don’t like him” is a perfectly accepted argument. In other cases, the message will be drowned out by the idea that the messenger is an inappropriate source, either because of association or because of who they are, such as when der Speigel and others lectured Pussy Riot on speaking at all when they had young children (and the Putin government used their identities to threaten to remove their children).
Pseudonymity is the best of both worlds for many, an identity which allows relationships but also provides control over personal information. This can be essential to create a personality which allows your voice to be heard in the way that you wish it to be. In the future, perhaps we will see everyone with at least three identities; one, to carry the two pieces of ID required by the military industrial complex, two, for family and friends in molecular life, and three, for online idea exchange.