Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Public and Private, Once Again

Three surveillance cameras, Wikimedia Commons

Three surveillance cameras, Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a political fire that has been burning for a long time is turning into a firestorm. Recently, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for tech companies to provide government security services with encryption keys to ensure that government authorities may legally access an individual’s data when warranted. The concern, now publicly shared by President Obama, is that terrorists are using the new encryption technologies being developed by companies like Apple, Google, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, especially “end-to-end” encryption, which “makes it nearly impossible for anyone to read users’ messages—even the company itself.”

And so, as The Economist has recently stated in an editorial about the matter, we are confronted again with the age-old dilemma “liberty vs. security, once again,” or more precisely “privacy vs. security.”

There are a host of legal, technological, political, and, perhaps above all, economic issues at play here. I do not claim to know precisely how one balances liberty with security, let alone balancing liberty with the tech companies’ push for profit maximization or governments’ desire to save face in the wake of acts of terror. But I do think that the scales are already set to fall off—that is, that these debates are taking place against a background of assumptions about privacy that are themselves problematic.

In calling privacy a right, we tend to do more than assert the necessity for its legal protection. We tend to carry with our idea of the right to privacy the metaphor of private space, even private property. Privacy as that which is bounded, set off from that which is public. Hence we have our private life and our public life, our private opinion and our public statements, our private information and our public profile, etc. In this very common way of thinking about things, the private and the public are two distinct realms, and the right to privacy is the guarantee of a wall around our private realm.

The privacy vs. security dilemma is imbedded in this way of thinking: It has to do with when it is legitimately permissible for the government to break down the wall of privacy for the sake of security. It is a version of the broader dilemma of liberty within the quasi-utilitarian liberalism that underlies our assumptions about privacy. We are to be free, so long as we do not interfere with the freedom of others; but when we do so interfere, the state has the right to encroach on our freedom, indeed even on our privacy, in the name of preserving maximum freedom for the greatest number.

Indeed, in recent rebuttals by libertarians, some liberals, and the tech industry to the call by Cameron and Obama for preserving a “back door” option by which to access user data, we see the greatest good for the greatest number argument used on behalf of super-encryption: Back doors, Cameron’s critics argue, can and will be used by the bad guys (criminals, hackers, the Russians, the Chinese) as well as the good guys, and the damage done by the bad guys could well be catastrophic. As Harvard’s Margo Seltzer recently said in The Financial Times,

If bad guys who are breaking laws cannot use encryption, they will find another way. It is an arms race and if governments say you cannot do this, that means the good guys can’t and the bad guys can. End-to-end encryption is the way to go.

Protecting privacy as an inviolable right, more sophisticated arguments go, is not only consistent with liberal societies, but also the most effective means of security—even if it means terrorists can communicate with little fear of being detected. It’s often assumed here that an absolute right to privacy will neatly reconcile itself with, even produce, the greatest good for the greatest number (albeit, the privacy of one’s data from tech companies themselves is more penetrable).

I think the super-encryption efforts of tech companies are socially and politically problematic. I think they are the wrong solution addressing the wrong problem. But in arguing so I am not interested in hypothetical calculations of the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather, I simply want to start with the manifest relationship of the private to the public. How do things work with respect to the private and the public?

Rather than starting with the regnant bugaboo, terrorism, let’s think about political corruption. Do politicians have an absolute right to the privacy of their deliberations and communications about public matters? Does the Speaker of the House, or the President, have an absolute right to the full and permanent protection of behind-the-scenes communications about matters of public consequence? If Legislator A and Donor K used WhatsApp to work out a deal for campaign donations in exchange for sponsoring legislation in the House of Representatives, would we, as citizens, accept the records of those conversations as being forever and irredeemably private, such that we simply could not ever access them?

I suspect that most of us, once we stop to think about it, would not be too comfortable with this already real-life scenario. What if the messages concerned bribes, threats, or other forms of back room dealings? What if the President told the Speaker things that the latter was not authorized to know? What if the CEO of Company X was privy to the messages, too? Or what if the Speaker sent the President the CEO’s messages without the CEO’s knowledge? This is the stuff of scandal and corruption, and these are each instances where communications, though “private,” indeed have public importance. The public would have a right to know about them.

This is not because we are willing to “sacrifice” privacy for the integrity of our political system; it is not a version of “liberty vs. security, once again.” Rather this is because, even with the high premium we put on the right to privacy, we understand that the private stands in a flexible, dialectical, and dependent relationship with the public: When private acts have direct public consequences, they are not strictly private—they can be called to public account.

This is the case whether we are talking about political corruption or communication among persons who would commit acts of terror. More important, in calling private acts to public account, we are not breaking down the wall of privacy; rather, we are simply walking through the door from the private to the public the reverse way, so to speak. An exchange between the private and the public has already taken place. We are but re-tracing it.

What I find particularly troubling about the unbreachable encryption efforts of Apple, Google, and others is that they technologically (or, more properly, mathematically) prevent this kind of reverse traffic in the name of the public good. Rather in the name of “privacy”—and, let’s be honest, in the name of corporate profits—tech companies are creating, in effect, not so much inviolable walls around privacy but something more like trap doors from the private to the public that can be gone through only one way. In such a scenario, it is only the public that will suffer.

The genuine political worry articulated by super-encryption is that about Big Brother. As Wired writes of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum,

Growing up in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum learned to distrust the government and detest its surveillance. After he emigrated to the U.S. and created his ultra-popular messaging system decades later, he vowed that WhatsApp would never make eavesdropping easy for anyone. Now, WhatsApp is following through on that anti-snooping promise at an unprecedented scale.

But the United States and the United Kingdom are not the Soviet Union, and while both governments have participated aggressively in very troubling illegal, large-scale dragnet-like surveillance in the last decade, we have not seen a corresponding development of a police state working in tandem with the data collection agencies. To the contrary, the greatest problem faced by American and British citizens is that of government secrecy, which has provided cover for illegal and otherwise questionable state surveillance programs, together with the cultural problem seen in repeated demands from politicians that intelligence agencies unfailingly connect the dots prior to a terrorist attack, or be held culpable when they do not. This cultivates a culture of self-preservation in intelligence communities, encourages them to lean always to more aggressive actions rather than less aggressive ones, and opens the door to all sorts of government contractors promising infallible technological fixes for what are, in the end, inherently political and social crises.

Encryption processes that simply block government surveillance outright, in keeping with Silicon Valley’s longstanding delusion, are also but a supposed technological fix for what are political and cultural problems—be it the NSA or al-Qaeda and their affiliates. End-to-end encryption and its equivalents in no way address the real problems we face from a civil liberties perspective—government secrecy and the unrealistic expectations before counter-terrorism agencies. Worse, encryption offers a false substitute for real solutions—something that is the moral equivalent of vigilante force when what we need is better government and law.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.

Editor’s Note: Ned O’Gorman is also a contributor to The Hedgehog Review‘s Spring 2015 issue.  Reserve your copy today here.

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The Thin Reed of Humanism

Dürer, "Melancolia I" Städel Museum

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514), Städel Museum

Leon Wieseltier is at his cantankerous best in his latest essay “Among the Disrupted.” After two opening paragraphs that are difficult to read as anything but a commentary on the recent demise of the New Republic, Wieseltier returns to his own well-trod turf:

[A]s technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy.

Wieseltier is reprising many of the themes of his public feud with Steven Pinker in the pages of the New Republic (here, here, and here). More than anything else, this earlier spat and Wieseltier’s latest essay are cultural barometers of our impoverished cultural imagination concerning the relationship of science, the humanities, and technology.

When Wieseltier invokes “scientism,” he’s gesturing toward real concerns about the reductive materialism or naturalism that tends to underlie the work of popular polemicists like Dawkins, Dennet, and Pinker. He is not denying that our world and our selves can, in part, be explained through material mechanisms. I assume he enjoys the benefits of modern medicine like the rest of us.

But terms like “scientism” and “technologism,” however well-intentioned, can obscure more than they clarify. Those who bandy them about presume, as the historian James Schmidt lays out, a number of things. First, they presume that there are different ways of knowing the world. There are limits to a uniquely scientific knowledge. There are some things that cannot be fully explained by modern science. Second, they presume that they can discern what those boundaries are. And, finally, they presume that they can diagnose the deleterious consequences of these illicit boundary crossings.

I’m sympathetic to all three of these premises. But I’m much less confident in our ability to identify where science begins and ends than those who so diligently guard the borders of knowledge exclaiming “scientism!” when they suspect interlopers. Those who invoke “scientism”—and there is a long tradition of its use and occasional abuse as Schmidt has wonderfully documented—put themselves in the position not only of policing the borders of knowledge but also of distinguishing real science, a science that knows its place, from a false science, a science that engages in constant and illicit “border crossing.”

My point is that these ominous sounding terms are all too often used as polemical cudgels. They refer to an illicit encroachment of one sort of knowledge into what is perceived as the proper sphere of another. Thus, “scientism” ultimately refers to the use of uniquely scientific knowledge within a distinctly non-scientific domain. Any appeal to the biological basis of love would be “scientism.” And very bad. These big, ugly worlds are, in short, the searchlights of our epistemic border guards.

But if “technologism” and “scientism” refer to types of knowledge that don’t know their place, then what type of knowledge or disposition adjudicates where these boundaries begin and end? For Wieseltier and many others today, it’s humanism. Humanism is the positive correlate of all those other “–isms,” those forms of knowledge that blithely stray beyond their boundaries.

But what is humanism? “For a start,” writes Wieseltier, “humanism is not the antithesis of religion, as Pope Francis is exquisitely demonstrating. The most common understanding of humanism is that it denotes a pedagogy and a worldview:

The pedagogy consists in the traditional Western curriculum of literary and philosophical classics, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and — after an unfortunate banishment of medieval culture from any pertinence to our own — erupting in the rediscovery of that antiquity in Europe in the early modern centuries, and in the ideals of personal cultivation by means of textual study and aesthetic experience that it bequeathed, or that were developed under its inspiration, in the “enlightened” 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually culminated in programs of education in the humanities in modern universities. The worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion. It is all a little inchoate — ­human, humane, humanities, humanism, humanitarianism; but there is nothing shameful or demeaning about any of it.

Yes, it is all rather “inchoate.” And therein lies the problem.

Wieseltier is correct about the long and admirable lineage of a humanist classical pedagogy, less so about the worldview claim. “Humanism” as a human-centered worldview is a neologism invented not in the Renaissance but in the early nineteenth century as another polemical cudgel, one used to fight the same types of cultural battles that Pinker and Wieseltier have long been waging.

As far as I can tell, humanism, or rather its German cognate Humanismus, was first used in 1808 by the German pedagogue and philosopher F.I. Niethammer (1766–1848). In The Conflict of Philanthropinism and Humanism in Contemporary Theories of Education and Pedagogy, he juxtaposed humanism with philanthropinism, an Enlightenment-era educational theory that regarded the human as a natural being who needed to develop his or her natural capacities. What distinguished “humanism” from more modern forms of education was an underlying concern for, as Niethammer put it, “the humanity [over] the animality” of the human. As a worldview, humanism subordinated the body to reason and defended the autonomy of human nature from the material world. As first used by Niethammer, it was a boundary term; it marked what Niethammer thought was the clear line between the mental from the material, the human from the animal.

When critics invoke “humanism” against “scientism” or “technologism,” they presume to know the proper boundaries of science and technology; they presume that they can readily and forcefully articulate where scientific knowledge ends and humanistic knowledge begins. They assume the role of guardians of our intellectual and ethical world. That’s a heavy burden.

But it’s also a presumption that ignores how much of our knowledge comes from these border crossings. It’s at the margins of our established ways of engaging our world and ourselves that new ways of seeing and imagining what it is to be human so often emerge. We may well need knowledge police and concepts like “scientism” and “humanism” to warn us of charlatans and interlopers but we should hope that they do so with a little less alacrity and a bit more humility.

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