TfE: Information and Freedom

Screenshot 2019-08-22 08.39.16So, I switched to the official twitter app, and then once more failed to understand how it handles threading: my mistake was assuming that ‘add tweet’ meant ‘add tweet to thread‘ in this context. Apparently not.

Regardless, I’ve realised that it’s actually quite good practice to transfer some of my better social media contributions here, if only so I don’t lose them to the endless Heraclitean river of online content. For a while now I’ve been posting fragments of older writing under the heading of One from the Archives (OftA), so I’m going to tag these more spontaneous outbursts Thoughts from Elsewhere (TfE). Here’s the first one, about conceptualising freedom in the age of information.

So, let’s try another couple philosophical thoughts, this time with a more political flavour, and hopefully adequate threading.

Here’s an experience I expect many people reading this will have had: you’re on social media (e.g., Facebook) or some website with targeted adds, and you see something that is too well targeted at you specifically.

In this moment, you’re aware that you have somehow leaked unintended information about yourself, but you don’t know whether this was a direct leak of information from a source you can’t place, or an indirect leak of data that can be used to extrapolate the relevant facts.

Here’s my example: I can’t grow a full beard. The goatee is fine, but it’s embarrassingly patchy otherwise. I don’t know how, but FB is targeting me with ads for beard growth kits. I’d be tempted to buy one, if it weren’t for the data dysphoria the ads induced when I saw them.

Did amazon Alexa overhear me explaining this to someone and then sell the data on the open market, or did FB do some deep learning magic with pictures of my stubble? Who knows. It is increasingly hard to tell.

This is a new kind of information ‘insecurity’ that combines infosec as traditionally understood with the psychological sense of the term.

These insecurities are only going to proliferate and intensify from here on in, and they will produce strange forms of sensitization and desensitization in equal measure.

There are two philosophical points I want to make about this, one historical and one thematic, though they are importantly related.

First, I’ve long explained the concept of freedom to people by articulating three overlapping distinctions between types of freedom: positive/negative (cf. Isaiah Berlin), qualitative/quantitative (e.g., Sartre vs. Spinoza), and cognitive/non-cognitive (more my own emphasis).

What is truly unique about Foucault’s work on freedom is that he considers quantities of negative cognitive freedom. In plain English: how hard it is for individuals and institutions to predict and influence the decisions we make? That’s the significance of his work on power.

Those who think Foucault has no account of freedom tend to be either existentialists who see only qualitative freedom (e.g., Badiou) or anarchists who see only domination (e.g., Graeber). They’re both wrong, and we need to understand the axes they ignore now more than ever.

Foucault’s work, and his later work especially, should be a resource for thinking through these issues; at least, if we can wrest him back from the strange caricature produced in the humanities by his friends and enemies alike.

Second, it’s not like these issues aren’t being thought about. The dysphoria I describe is common enough (as are industrial scale data leaks), that researchers are flocking to the topic in the public and private sectors. Academics smell new niches like sharks smell blood.

However, the terms of the debate have already been skewed: people are largely focused on the question of data ownership. It is seen principally as property, both by those who fear extraction of surplus value, and those who want to see its further marketization (for good or ill).

Unfortunately, though it would be useful to contrast data ownership with ‘data sovereignty’, the latter is generally used to refer to the national or communal case, rather than the personal one.

Personal sovereignty is about ownership only insofar as it is the limit-case of property, i.e., control over the conditions that enable agency as such. Traditionally, this has been thought as bodily autonomy, but this concept must change along with our conception of agency.

On the one hand, we need to talk about morphological freedom. Trans rights are but the thin end of the wedge. Unfortunately, posthumanist ‘critiques’ of transhumanism tend to be rather trite and reactionary on this point. See above complaints about the appropriation of Foucault.

On the other, not only is control of personal information increasingly a matter of personal agency, but the excess of the personal over the morphological is increasingly informatic. I am entirely comfortable describing this as the broad arc of history.

I thoroughly expect some to label me as a technological determinist, a reactionary Cartesian, or even just implicitly right-wing because of some yarnwork connections they’ve drawn between my references and the bad people. But y’know, fuck’em.

For those who’re willing to engage, great. For those who aren’t, life’s too short to worry about those who would put the tools academia has given them to the task of rationalizing their own incuriosity.

I think that’ll do for tonight.

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