[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

Sean Cubitt scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Wed Sep 23 15:02:02 UTC 2009

Arising from question and answer session at a talk yesterday at the
Pervasive media Studio in Bristol. The central topic was the environmental
impact of digital media, but I threw in the thesis below. A very smart
questioner raised the question of anonymity. It took me several hours to
work through just how important that question is. I think it has a bearing
on the playground/factory issue. I hope so anyway. The de carolis ref is to
Massimo de Carolis, 1996, Toward a Phenomenology of Opportunism in Virno and
Hardt's collection Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics

Private property stands to the public good as identity stands to anonymity.
We cannot achieve public good without sacrificing both private property and
identity. Privacy is not a given but an ascription, whether
self-administered or provided by others. This is also the case with
identity, which poses itself as the obverse of community. Both identity and
privacy are results of historical processes of capital, which required the
individuation first of households and later of persons as units of
consumption and reproduction. This is the position we must start from in a
socialist analysis of surveillance

Thesis: Privacy was only ever the privilege of a small proportion of the
world's population for a brief period in history. For about 150 years, the
European bourgeoisie enjoyed private rooms, private water closets and a life
distinct from the life of the street. That period is now over, thanks to the
development of always-on, ubiquitous media. The only people left with a
direct interest in privacy are wife-beaters and tax-evaders.

Corollary: The 'loss' of privacy is no loss for those who never possessed
it. Privacy was born in the invention of the division between public and
private, and remains dependent on that division. As capital has moved from
production to consumption; as consumption has moved from mass to
personalised; and as personalisation has moved from choice to the active
participation of prosumers and user-generated content, the distinction
between public and private has become harder to maintain. But the
publication of private information in blogs, social networks and other
convergent media has not been undertaken innocently either.

If on the one hand there is no naturally given privacy which can be lost,
the social construct had been altered. In line with the post-marxist
tendency in contemporary theory, much analysis has focused on the
surveillant state. But the state has had relatively little to do with the
formal principles of contemporary surveillance which, as Elmer has argued,
is far more properly associated with commerce. The extraction of
commercially exploitable 'personalities' from data flows such as online
behaviours also structures forensic data mining, but is almost invariably
pioneered by commerce. Commercial surveillance is at least as effective as
political in constructing concepts of the self attired in the mystery of
privacy and identity. These two ascriptions are a pair. Privacy expresses
the economic condition of private property; identity expresses the political
construction of individuality in regimes of power. Both, being historically
produced, necessarily have histories.

Antithesis: Anonymity is a tactic required of whistle-blowers, who act in
fear of reprisal. Anonymity is the enemy of self-expression. The publication
of the private self which is the ideological engine of social networking
technology's user-generated content, is self-expression. Whether undertaken
in your own name or under a pseudonym, the principle is the same. True
anonymity is not hiding behind a nickname, but abandoning the principle of
self=expression in favour of speaking something other than the self. That
act can be called 'speaking the truth'. (This is an apt label even if an
anonymous whistle-blower is mistaken: they nonetheless wish to speak
truthfully of objective situations).

Self is the outcome of the governmental structuring of demography: gender,
ethnicity, income, age and patterns of consumption. This kind of self was at
the centre of the attention economy discussed by Dallas Smythe, when groups
had become the target of advertising and public relations. The
micro-targeting provided by cookies and other commercial surveillance
technologies intensified this corporate gaze, placing the self rather than
the group at the centre of the enterprise of commercial communication. On
the one hand, then, self-expression is an opportunistic and tactical
response to the available resources. On the other, it is conducted on
grounds established not by the self, but by neo-liberal capital and the
biopolitical governmentality with which it is now intimately associated.
This is the form of pseudonymous behaviour developed negatively with
victimisation (race hatred, cyber-bullying) and positively by the collective
identity Luther Blissett.

Such opportunistic tactics ­ where tactics are the political means available
to the weak, as opposed to the strategies of the strong (de Certeau) ­ are
not necessarily to be dismissed as unethical or valueless. de Carolis
observes that opportunism  can be seen as the continuous adaptation of one's
identity to rapidly changing circumstances. On the one hand, this is an
accommodation to conditions of precarity, while on the other it is also a
skill, the ability to outmanoeuvre the imposed situation. It is then both a
technique of continuous reskilling and re-identification developed in the
interests of post-Fordist production, and at the same time escapes the
merely tactical sense of opportunism (petty crime, petty acts of sabotage or
time-wasting) to provide the basis for major acts of autonomy, such as the
pre-2001 world wide web.

Opportunistic anonymity arises then from consideration of the imposed
situation and from a resolution to work exclusively in it or with it but
against it or in excess of it. This is the moment when the imposed identity,
which is the place prepared fro the person in the imposed situation, and s
there structural position within it, has to be abandoned if the situation is
to be changed radically, rather than merely survived. Any post-surveillant
condition requires that the object of surveillance ­ identities ­ must be
abandoned. Both political and personal identities must be left behind, since
both are functions of the same situation.

In the same way, public good requires abandoning private property. This is
the lesson of the credit crisis of 2008-9, which was caused by the actual
ownership of mney by a handful of people, and the illusion of private
property for a vast number of others. And it is the lesson of private
transport and the personal computer: neither of which are ecologically
sustainable models. Privacy is of one kind with privation: property is
definitionally what you may not have if I possess it: my private property is
your de-privation. Our private property is the despoliation of the planet.

Anonymity is the condition of the crowd. Psychology and sociology have
abandoned the fascination they once had with crowds and masses (Freud,
Reich, Ortega y Gassett) in favour of identity politics and individual
psychology. Pluralising the self (the schiz) is one aspect of the potential
change; reducing the boundaries between self and crowd is the other, the
route so far untaken. It is time to recover the crowd from both
hyper-individuation and from the tribalism, from user-generated capitalism
and from the style-based subcultures which use consumption as a means of

Synthesis: It is on such a basis that a new sociology of solidarity might be
built as a political platform no longer based on produsers and prosumers but
on post-individuals who recognise their commonality first and their
personality second. This is not an austerity program, though it implies an
end to endless consumption and waste. It is instead a move from the
valuation of the individual by what and how they consume and prosume to the
values of sharing, and a remaking of shared values.

Prof Sean Cubitt
scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Media and Communications Program
Faculty of Arts
Room 127 John Medley East
The University of Melbourne
Parkville VIC 3010

Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
M: 0448 304 004
Skype: seancubitt

Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series

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