[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Mon Sep 28 22:25:48 UTC 2009

This thread confuses me.

On the one hand I find in it many interesting ideas, quite  
brilliantly described, and many useful and fresh insights into our  
world. And I understand that these insights are designed to yield  
results; that they are in the service of justice and some form of  
revolutionary authenticity, or are intended to be, and I very much  
respect that. But the conclusions that are drawn seem to me so  
curious that i struggle to make sense of the disconnect. For example:

> Sean Cubitt wrote:
>> We cannot achieve public good without sacrificing
>> both private property and identity.


> Brian Holmes wrote:

> 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...(snip)... You  
> draw an important conclusion: the focus on the
> performative self and its "properties" is repressive.


>> Sean Cubitt wrote:

>> 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.


> Brian Holmes wrote:

> under semiotic capitalism, your ultimate and perhaps your only
> property is your personal name, your electronic signature. I am what I
> sign.... And what's more, since the flux is globally shared, the  
> signature
> becomes the only really identifiable difference.

What I find most problematic in each of these statements is the  
willingness to make bold statements about how other people live that  
are so at odds with the way real people really appear to live.

Because the people I know do not have to sacrifice private property  
and identity to achieve public good. I will give you that sacrificing  
private property is often - though by no means always - part of the  
equation, but identity is rarely disavowed where i find people  
achieving valuable public good. Surely I need not give examples.

And the people I know do not seem to believe that the way they dress  
or think or talk or play music or have sex or eat or walk or run for  
mayor or play soccer or participate in listserv discussions – all of  
which involve the very intentional performance of identity – is  
inevitably experienced as repressive, as manipulative, as  
exploitation. Now, do many of them understand that our experiences as  
consumers, as workers, as lovers and all the rest play out in  
relation to the visible and invisible architectures of 'global  
corporate oligarchies'. Yes, to varying degrees, they do. But are  
those architectures not ambiguously negotiated by thinking, feeling  

Well, it depends on your perspective I guess. Obviously I think they  
are. Whereas, to my mind, the stance that you celebrate in the Tiqqun  
writings, Brian, while entirely suitable for a self-centred teenager,  
is not really a mature perspective that recognizes life's  
complexities or the more subtle forms of human agency. And I don't  
mean that as an insult because we need those youthful rants and  
ravings, the Jim Morrisons and the Brothers Karamazovs and the Sex  
Pistols etc., all of which one grows out of somewhat but which serve  
a very useful purpose. Like this quote from the Tiqqun text: How Is  
It To Be Done? (http://tarnac9.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/how-is-it- 

"In a squat. In an orgy. In a riot. In an occupied train or village.  
We get
together again.
We get together again
as whatever singularities. That is to say
not on the basis of a common affiliation,
but of a common presence.
This is our
need for communism. The need for nocturnal spaces, where we can
get together
our predicates.
Beyond the tyranny of recognition Which imposes recognition as a
final distance between bodies.
As an ineluctable separation.
Everything through which ONE - my boyfriend, my family, my
environment, my company, the state, the opinion – recognizes me is
just that through which ONE takes me to be constrained.
By constantly reminding me of what I am, of my qualities, ONE
wants to extract me from each situation. ONE wants to extort from
me, in every circumstance, a fidelity to myself which is but a fidelity
to my predicates."

But do you still feel this way as an adult? Really? And if I don't  
feel this way anymore is it because I have willingly sold out my  
youthful ideals, or because I am deluded about my supposed maturity  
which is really cowardice and conformity to the global oligarchy? Or  
is it because while I still respect the transcendent spiritual,  
sexual and social orgy, I also now (at my occasional best) understand  
better its power and how to use it judiciously, not as an egotistical  
imposition on others but as an enabler of transformative connections  
that are attuned to individual and collective needs, strengths,  
dreams and scars? That to me is the rightful maturation of this  
youthful freak-out-and-fuck-off energy. Because in my experience not  
everybody should take acid or be in an orgy, not every community  
needs a revolution. But we all need to grow and find our deeper selves.

And the people I know do not think that privacy is passe or  
pointless. Has the Internet and surveillance culture radically  
restructured the practices of privacy? For many of us absolutely  
(though for many people in this wide world not), and clearly this is  
a vital trend and issue. But to actually argue that privacy is  
extinct and unimportant to anyone is just so bizarre. Sean, do you  
yourself no longer have a private water closet? You really pee in  

And the people I know do not think that their names or electronic  
signatures are the only difference between their identities. Let  
alone all the people in the world who have do not have electronic  
signatures at all. Does that mean they have no identities?

OK, I understand that some of these positions may have been meant as  
speculative exploratory ideas. But if I have taken them at face value  
it is because they were all presented that way as well-considered  
critical positions by very smart people.

And again, to preempt at least some of the criticism that is coming  
my way, should anyone care to take these points up, I am (really,  
really) not an anti-intellectual or antagonistic to revolutions of  
the body or the spirit. On the contrary. But I do think that we need  
our ideas about how to achieve such ends to be grounded in our lived  
experiences in order to have any hope of their gaining popular  
traction and to not remain perpetually (and often gleefully) marginal.

Brian, from all of your posts I get the feeling that you must have  
had some really interesting experiences in various alternative  
movements in Europe over the years. And you are obviously highly  
passionate about both that past and its future. I wish you'd share  
more of that on this list. I'm sure it would be both fascinating and  
totally educational. In fact there are so many intensely smart and  
interesting people on this list I wish everyone would spend more time  
talking about themselves – their important experiences, their  
mentors, their mistakes, their dreams, their challenges, their gifts.  
And for that matter about the places they live, the people they meet,  
the things they do, art they see and make. All the important everyday  
stuff that feeds the ideas. I feel like I'm almost the only one left  
here who is more interested in life than theory, which I don't recall  
being the case in the earlier years of this list. If I really am  
alone here in thinking that distributed creativity means more than  
distributed theorizing I will likely quietly depart one of these days  
and stop bugging everyone, but I hope I'm not, because this listserv  
has generally been a fascinating place and has the potential to be  
much more so...

Anyway, once again, from the tumbrel,
John Sobol


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