[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Sat Sep 26 17:41:56 UTC 2009

Sean Cubitt wrote:

 > Private property stands to the public good as identity stands
 > to anonymity. We cannot achieve public good without sacrificing
 > both private property and identity.

Hello Sean -

This is a great post, a useful one, thank you. The first key 
point you make is that the individual sense and performance of a 
private self is now deliberately (if rather chaotically) produced 
to fit the needs of global corporate oligopolies. In its more 
primitive phases, the psychic technology for this production of 
the desiring and possessing self was called advertising (cf. the 
nephew of Freud and inventor of PR, Edward Bernays). Now it 
clearly involves the deployment of computerized "control 
environments" in real or virtual spaces, where every expressive 
or behavioral act is captured and integrated as feedback to 
reinforce the seductive and channeling capacities of the 
surround. You draw an important conclusion: the focus on the 
performative self and its "properties" is repressive. The direct 
antithesis of this dominant social relation between performing 
selves is anonymity, and the opportunistic use of a collective 
pseudonym -- as in the Luther Blissett project -- is a tactical 
swerve toward anonymity, a way of fighting the normalized "self" 
on what looks like its own terrain (but is really the parcellized 
terrain of capital, of private property).

That schema corresponds very closely to the most promising 
tactics of the networked counter-globalization movements in the 
late 90s-early 2000s. Basically, your theses and antitheses are 
the same ones I used in Unleashing the Collective Phantoms, where 
the longer essays all deal with variants on the collective-name 
tactic, conceived there as a response to the 
hyper-individualization of the flexible personality. They're the 
same because they go beyond all of us, they are part of the 
times. You mentioned crowds as another de-individualizing force, 
and curiously, those in Europe who worked with the 
collective-name movements tended also to be very attracted to 
crowds, because the collective phantoms -- the collectivity that 
returns after the death of the possessive individual -- develop 
most impressively at the moments when virtual pseudonymity 
becomes embodied in urban subversion and outright opposition to 
the private property relations of corporate state.

So far, so good. What seems debatable today is the synthesis: "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." That too was widely discussed in the early 
years of this decade -- see the whole thematization of "the 
common" in the circles around Toni Negri -- and the root idea 
still seems good. One finds even clearer formulations of it in 
the Tiqqun group's proposal of the "human strike" and in The 
Coming Insurrection. But the difficult question is, how exactly 
does a self become a post-individual?

Doesn't this de-individualization require an effort at least as 
deliberate as that undertaken by the corporations -- and doesn't 
it therefore entail sites, toolkits and processes of 
experimentation, in opposition to the statistically configured, 
profit-driven targeting procedures that characterize control 
environments? These places, toolkits and experimental processes 
form a kind of expanded artistic practice, against the background 
of the society of control. The conundrum is that the shedding of 
the self does not seem to occur through the simple revelation of 
a recognizable and pre-existing commonality, but instead it 
happens as a singularizing event, offering a specific experience 
of intentionality in and through multiplicity. Simply put, you 
transform into a collective singularity. Is it possible to 
recognize a common transformative capacity operating in other 
singular processes -- and to develop broad and effective 
solidarities on the basis of egalitarian struggles for the 
material and cultural conditions that would allow us all to shed 
the capitalist self through singular experiments?

That's a real question.

best, Brian


> 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
> Sean
> 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
> resistance.
> 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
> Director
> Media and Communications Program
> Faculty of Arts
> Room 127 John Medley East
> The University of Melbourne
> Parkville VIC 3010
> Australia
> Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
> Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
> M: 0448 304 004
> Skype: seancubitt
> http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/media-communications/
> http://www.digital-light.net.au/
> http://homepage.mac.com/waikatoscreen/
> http://seancubitt.blogspot.com/
> http://del.icio.us/seancubitt
> Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series
> http://leonardo.info
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