Friday, November 29, 2013

Totalized Information and liberalism

The Economist, 16 November, 2013 editorialised on the rise and rise of surveillance, drawing attention to the remorseless rush toward “ubiquitous recording” of pretty well everything. editorial Video cameras everywhere, defines the emergence of visual culture on a massive scale.
The magazine noted in “Every Step You Make,” that the “perfect digital memory” will become a commonplace, as will surveillance on grand and granular scales. It cited Google’s Glass computer, a mini smart-phone, worn on the wearer’s nose, as just one of many digital tools being developed. And so it goes, in the totalized information world. 

There are two points to reflect on:
1.       1. A fascist tendency towards the control society. If the totalization factor becomes inescapable, there is every reason to be concerned about the closure of the public interest. Without fail, every effort at totalizing control is operationalized by private corporations with privatizing intent. Interestingly, Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with creating the World Wide Web, is on the record expressing concerns about this trend, suggesting that governments should do more. Berners-Lee  Ultimately, private interests have difficulty expressing any concern for the public interest. That is often the preferred definition of private concerns as they play out. 
2.      2.  The promoters of Liberal politics are not always prepared to identify the ideology at play in their value system. However, The Economist made the case about the totalized information world in a manner that should be welcomed. In fact, the magazine made the point about the “deeper impulse” of liberty; “freedom has to include some right to privacy: if every move you make is being chronicled, liberty is curtailed.”

     This is where the discussion moves to an important register, namely the legal banning of devices. The use of dashboard cameras is forbidden in Austria, notes the magazine. Yes, and so is most texting and phone use while driving, and mobile phones in public swimming pool change rooms because of their video making capacity. Google has banned the use of face-recognition applications on Glass, while Japanese camera-makers, says The Economist, ensure their products make a sound when they take a photograph.

Governments, added The Economist, “should be granted the right to use face-recognition technology only where there is a clear public good.”  Facebook and Google “should be forced to establish high default settings for privacy.”
Then this:”…the new cameras and recognition technologies should be regulated so as to let you decide whether you remain anonymous or not.”
What is The Economist on about? Here in the late stages of neo-liberalism, in an era that has seen calls from this same magazine for free trade and the opening up of markets, is a major U-turn. Is there a sudden rethink? Has a boundary line been reached in the liberal imagination? Has the internet with its promise of the freedom of unregulated communication and media led to this? It appears that The Economist has a renewed interest in a politics that demarcates boundaries around the private and the public.
Here is the context: All of a sudden, what an individual does can be totally scrutinized. This becomes worrying, yet it is perhaps typical of  a particular brand of Liberalism, that only when the freedom of the individual is at risk, do the advocates of individual freedom speak up. The particular type of freedom that is being defended by The Economist needs critical evaluation, because it may well be that the freedom being defended is that of the previously privileged individual who is now, at last, under threat of surveillance. The King, the Man and the Woman can no longer hide securely and privately in his and her castle, planning privately to orchestrate economic and social advantage to others' disadvantage.
“Liberal politicians, says The Economist, “have been lazy about defending the idea of personal space, especially online. The fight should start now. Otherwise, in the blink of an eye, privacy should be gone.” 

With the exception of the final sentence (privacy is already over, as Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and all the files they have leaked suggest) this paragraph marks an end point in the short political history of the Internet. 
 “The fight” will not start with an editorial. It will start when the loss of privacy in the new totalized information world becomes painful, when the damage that has already been done is obvious – when good people, progressive people, sensible people, are subjected to all manner of actions by those acting according to private interests. It will be a fight unlike any other and has been given a start date in the history of liberalism by The Economist.