Friday, January 1, 2016

Hyperobjects and Privacy: Shit on the Sidewalk

This year, I celebrated the Christmas holidays in St. Petersburg, Florida. My sister-in-law lives near Crescent Lake, and I've been walking the park (about 1.2 miles) each morning and evening while I've continued my readings in object oriented ontology, mostly in two books: HyperObjects (2013) by Timothy Morton and The Democracy of Objects (2011) by Levi Bryant. I'm wondering what object oriented ontology has to do with our ideas about public and private. I have to deliver a paper at the end of January to the Southern Humanities Conference about Public Bodies, Private Spaces: Private Bodies, Public Spaces. It seems a timely theme, and I'm hoping that Crescent Lake and object oriented ontology can help me. The people, dogs, and birds keep my mind calm enough to think my way through some difficult passages, and they help explain thorny concepts to me. For instance, one evening I took a photo of a paddling of ducks and then noticed the fellow sleeping in the grass along the bank of the lake. I uncritically think of sleeping as rather private—at least, it is something that I do most usually in the privacy of my bedroom. I have dozed on the beach or in a hammock on vacation, but those are exceptions. Usually, my sleep is not a public matter.

Yet, here was this fellow asleep in a public park, slipping into my photograph along with the ducks, the trees, and the lake.

And now he is here on my blog, asleep near the white trunk of a tree, a dark mass unconscious in the sunset of a warm, post-Christmas evening, arms and legs barely visible in the twilight. He appears to be as self-possessed as the tree behind him and the ducks before him or the sunset beyond. Is he private or public? If he is private, have I violated his privacy with this photograph? I cannot identify him. I don't know his name. Is his privacy protected then? When he chose to sleep in a public park, did he give up any right to privacy? Do these questions make sense?

I'm not sure. I know that I am not as concerned with privacy as are most people—or so I tell myself. I do not worry about people seeing my photos online or learning my name. I tend to have a very close personal space when talking to people. I like to be close enough to touch. If you ask about my age, how much I make a year, or my religious convictions, I will tell you. But if you ask me to disrobe in a public space, I probably won't, at least not alone.

Still, I recognize that privacy appears to be a central tenet of modern human rights and a core issue for those who want to safeguards those rights. For instance, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has dedicated itself to defending privacy against all attacks—foreign and domestic, real and virtual. According to its 2015 brochure, EPIC "is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. … established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging human rights issues and to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values in the information age." EPIC points to Article 12 of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

Correspondence, I'm sure, is broad enough to include emails, tweets, and cell phone conversations, but therein seems to be the rub. Our correspondence no longer seems private, and thus, privacy is a heightened concern at a time when more and more people are being enticed, encouraged, tricked, or even coerced into the public domain with promises of friends and status, wealth and health, endless information and entertainment, and all for the price of a bit of data—much of it data that people weren't using anyway and may not have known that they even had. It seems such an easy exchange: some GPS data for all these Facebook likes. And what is privacy anyway?

What a great Wikipedia question, and of course, Wikipedia provides a wonderful, totally non-authoritative definition that no self-respecting scholar would use. According to Wikipedia, privacy is:
the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share common themes. When something is private to a person, it usually means that something is inherently special or sensitive to them. The domain of privacy partially overlaps security (confidentiality), which can include the concepts of appropriate use, as well as protection of information. Privacy may also take the form of bodily integrity.
After this general introduction, Wikipedia goes on to explore a dozen various concepts of privacy:
  1. Privacy is the right to be let alone. This legally vague phrase from the 1890 article The Right to Privacy by American jurists Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis seems to mean something like the right to remove oneself from the scrutiny of society.
  2. Privacy means limited access, or the right to participate in society without society collecting information about oneself.
  3. Privacy means control over information, which goes beyond the mere absence of information to suggest that one has the right to determine when, how, and to what extent one's personal information is shared with others.
  4. Privacy implies a range of different states of privacy: theorists such as Alan Westin and Kirsty Hughes define various states of privacy, including solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve constructed via physical, behavioral, and normative barriers.
  5. Privacy implies secrecy, or one's right to conceal sensitive or potentially damaging information about oneself.
  6. Privacy is important for personhood and autonomy. In other words, privacy is a "necessary precondition for the development and preservation of personhood."
  7. Privacy is also important for self-identity and personal growth.
  8. Privacy is necessary for intimacy, as a "part of the process by … which humans establish relationships with each other."
  9. Personal privacy seeks to prevent "intrusions into one's physical space or solitude."
  10. Informational privacy refers to the "evolving relationship between technology and the legal right to, or public expectation of, privacy in the collection and sharing of data about one's self."
  11. Organizational privacy considers the rights of governments and businesses to conceal sensitive information.
  12. Spiritual and intellectual privacy says that one has the right to keep one's beliefs to oneself.
While the above concepts overlap and likely omit some other views of privacy, they are sufficient to demonstrate what a far-reaching, entangled concept privacy has become to all of us, but especially to me and the fellow sleeping by the lake, so I want to disentangle a bit.

In his book HyperObjects, Timothy Morton considers hyperscale objects such as global warming in hopes that such considerations will reveal characteristics of all objects at all scales. The first characteristic that he discusses is viscosity, which I've already written about, but I want to explore the viscosity of objects in terms of privacy. Privacy suggests to me the ability to manage boundaries between one object and another—for instance, between me and the geese who live about Crescent Lake or me and the people who sleep on its banks. Viscosity, on the other hand, suggests that objects stick to one another despite boundaries. Do the Crescent Lake geese stick to me even when I walk to the other side of the lake or leave the lake and return to my sister-in-law's home? What about when I return to my own home in Georgia, 400 miles away? Do I carry the geese with me, or can I relegate them to a pleasant Christmas interlude, distant and removed from me?

My movie suggests that the geese and the sleeping fellow are viscous on several layers.

First, I am physically marked by the geese. I hear them, I smell them, I move about them. I leave the park trailing feathers, goose scent, and goose shit. The park has rules about picking up after dogs, but no one, it seems, picks up after the geese, and some parts of the park sidewalk are covered in goose shit, making walking and jogging viscous. I have no doubt that I have breathed the spores of goose shit, goose feathers, goose breath. I have been among the geese, and they are among me, as close as my breath. The geese are smudged, spread across the park and into the community beyond, and I walk through them. I am stained, marked as their own, almost as if I had eaten one of them. (While I have eaten goose, I have not eaten one of the Crescent Lake geese.) Yes, I bathe regularly, but the imprint is there anyway.

Then, I am socially marked by the geese, who are part of the social system of Crescent Lake Park. We have rituals. As long as I stay on the sidewalk, I can pass near them, close enough to touch them, but if I get off my path and into the grass, they honk, flap their wings aggressively, and flee. If I have food, then the rules of engagement change somewhat. They usually avoid direct physical contact, but if I hold food in my hand, they will sometimes touch me to take it. When certain cars such as the blue pickup in the movie arrive at certain times of day, then the geese and other birds congregate noisily in anticipation of food. A social agreement exists between the geese and the fellow who brings the bread. The social boundaries and rituals bind us together.

I am informationally marked by the geese. The geese are here in my blog post, in my memories. The geese have deterritorialized and reterritorialized as movies and words in my post, as shit on the sidewalk. I have been visiting St. Pete for 20 years, and I've seen the geese each time. I have blogged about these visits in my family blog, so I have a long record with these geese and with Crescent Lake. 20 years is a old age for geese, so likely I don't see today the same geese I saw then, but the flock has kept a surprising consistency and identity—about the same size and with much the same behavior. For all I know, it's the same geese. These geese and I go back to the Clinton era, and we can both tell stories. We have tattoos to show: decalcomania.

I am philosophically marked by the geese. When I encounter the geese, they are always already there. This seems trivial in a sense, self evident: of course the geese are already there or else I wouldn't have encountered them. But it is also profound. Because the geese are already there, they are objects in their own right, regardless of whether or not I am there to perceive them. They did not appear the moment I turned my gaze their way. The geese are not a matter of my knowing about them (epistemology); rather, they are a matter of their being (ontology) whether I know about them or not. They have ontological status independent of my knowledge of them. Morton says it this way:
Objects are what they are, in the sense that no matter what we are aware of, or how, there they are, impossible to shake off. In the midst of irony, there you are, being ironic. Even mirrors are what they are, no matter what they reflect. In its sincerity, reality envelops us like a film of oil. The mirror becomes a substance, an object. Hyperobjects push the reset button on sincerity, just as Neo discovers that the mirror no longer distances his image from him in a nice, aesthetically manageable way, but sticks to him. (Kindle Locations 667-670)
I am immersed, then, in Crescent Lake, and I trail it when I leave. I never really leave, so why do I think I do? In HyperObjects, Morton says we do it out of self-defense:
Not only do I fail to access hyperobjects at a distance, but it also becomes clearer with every passing day that “distance” is only a psychic and ideological construct designed to protect me from the nearness of things. There is a reason why they call it “the schizophrenic defense” when someone has a psychotic break. Could it be that the very attempt to distance is not a product of some true assessment of things, but is and was always a defense mechanism against a threatening proximity? (Kindle Locations 536-540)
Morton seems to be appealing to the idea that the separation of privacy is a "necessary precondition for the development and preservation of personhood" (Wikipedia), a fiction we use to support our sense of self. My point though is that the information is always already here, and we choose not to look at it. The shit is on the sidewalk, but we step around it, and we do not mention it to each other. Our dogs sniff and lick each other's privates, but we look away. Our own privates are right here with us, but we act as if they are not. As Morton adds, hyperobjects "are already here. I come across them later, I find myself poisoned with them, I find my hair falling out. Like an evil character in a David Lynch production, or a ghost in M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, hyperobjects haunt my social and psychic space with an always-already" (Kindle Locations 560-563).

The always already nature of objects seems obvious in hyperobjects such as global warming and nuclear waste, but at the human scale, the thin veneer of privacy and the persona it enwombs/entombs is most often revealed by excrement and waste, when what we thought was private is made explicit. Morton says it this way:
A baby vomits curdled milk. She learns to distinguish between the vomit and the not-vomit, and comes to know the not-vomit as self. Every subject is formed at the expense of some viscous, slightly poisoned substance, possibly teeming with bacteria, rank with stomach acid. The parent scoops up the mucky milk in a tissue and flushes the wadded package down the toilet. Now we know where it goes. For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility. Knowledge of the hyperobject Earth, and of the hyperobject biosphere, presents us with viscous surfaces from which nothing can be forcibly peeled. There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. In effect, the entire Earth is a wadded tissue of vomited milk. (Kindle Locations 607-614)
There is no away. The information about everything is always already here. I carry with me, in my body, the information about my diseases, my failures, my desires and dreams, my successes, my relationships. It is only the flimsiest of custom and courtesy and an undeveloped sixth sense that keeps me from being rendered totally explicit. Exposed.

And this is part of the issue, for we are devising ever better tools and techniques to render more data explicit. Mind you, the data has always been there, but we have either looked away or, more often, been too blind to see. New tools are helping us to see the light in different spectra.

For instance, National Public Radio recently discussed a study by University of Oregon microbial ecologist James Meadows and a cloud of fellow researchers that demonstrates that "humans emit upwards of 106 biological particles per hour, and have long been known to transmit pathogens to other individuals and to indoor surfaces." They add that they could clearly detect and identify occupants in a room "by their airborne bacterial emissions, as well as their contribution to settled particles, within 1.5–4 h. Bacterial clouds from the occupants were statistically distinct, allowing the identification of some individual occupants. Our results confirm that an occupied space is microbially distinct from an unoccupied one, and demonstrate for the first time that individuals release their own personalized microbial cloud." NPR wonders if we will not be able to identify and track people by the cloud of microbes they train behind them. We will. The main point here, though, is that the information has always already been here, we just needed a way to see it. It's doable now in the lab. Soon, it will be doable everywhere.

If we need it. We may not. Big data is capturing data that was always already there and analyzing it to show us things about ourselves that we have had trouble seeing in the past. For instance, a recent article on the MIT Technology Review website reports that researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico are using data from Wikipedia to track the spread of influenza. Other researchers have used data from Google to do the same. The data was always already there, we just needed ways to see it, collect it, and analyze it. We are developing those ways rapidly.

Of course, we can still avoid the large, monolithic Net entities such as Wikipedia, Google, or Facebook, but the Internet is about to become very, very granular, insinuating itself into every aspect of our lives. We are putting on smart watches that track our heart beats, steps, and correspondence. We are hooking up washing machines and coffee makers to the Net. You simply cannot imagine the cloud of information we are generating about ourselves. In his post MICROSERVICES: THE POLYGLOT OF TECHNICAL ARCHITECTURE, Ankesh Anupam writes, "According to Gartner, there are 4.9 billion connected devices in the world today, and that number is expected to reach 25 billion by 2025." This number of devices is significant. In his post A trillion tiny robots in the cloud, Kelly Stirman says:
The future of AI isn't about one giant super-intelligence. Instead, it's about many small, dedicated agents that know you intimately and work on your behalf to improve your everyday life. That could be helping you shop, get to work or, even, find a partner. Each is focused on a discrete task, and each gets better over time and adapts to your needs as they evolve.
Of course, as these agents help you with truly important tasks that add great value to your life, they are also collecting data—intimate data, private data. They are collecting the data that was always there, but that is now explicit.

It is now New Years in the States. Happy New Years to all my network friends. I am so blessed by all of you. Thanks.


  1. This might fit?
    Symbolic Interactionism
    Core Assumptions and Statements
    The theory consists of three core principles: meaning, language and thought. These core principles lead to conclusions about the creation of a person’s self and socialization into a larger community (Griffin, 1997).

    Meaning states that humans act toward people and things according to the meanings that give to those people or things. Symbolic Interactionism holds the principal of meaning to be the central aspect of human behavior.

    Language gives humans a means by which to negotiate meaning through symbols. Humans identify meaning in speech acts with others.

    Thought modifies each individual’s interpretation of symbols. Thought is a mental conversation that requires different points of view.

  2. Thanks so much for the link, Scott. This seems to be in line with the next post I had planned for this train of thought. I'll read it soon before I post again.