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Why We Trade Privacy for Facebook Likes

A legal theorist’s new book explains how our desires are woven into the surveillance state.

Patrick Kovarik / Getty Images

Can a life—or even a moment—be represented by data? A single moment can contain an infinite amount of information. And when we think about these moments, it’s not necessarily information that characterizes our experience. Often the futility of our attempts to create the fullest possible record of a life is a source of comedy: In Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy spends a year writing down the events of a single day. When the data actually misrepresent reality, it is a source of tragedy. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father, a murder he maintains he did not commit—even though all the facts line up against him. Still the possibility of capturing a life in words, images, numbers, remains tantalizing to consumers as well as to the government. While the NSA collects metadata on our phone calls and emails, we sign up for Fitbit and Nest—the smart thermostat with a security camera add-on—in pursuit of self-improvement.

In Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard Harcourt recognizes this desire to know and perfect ourselves, and posits the rather animalistic idea that we forget our broader freedoms for the sake of small doses of social interaction, which give us pleasure. We want to expose ourselves and to see others exposed, to see and be seen, to reinvent ourselves in online personae—and this state of desire, of wanting, is deeply distracting to our political selves. We live in what Harcourt calls an expository society: where privacy is no longer a core value and “all the formerly coercive surveillance technology is now woven into the very fabric of our pleasure and fantasies.” An obvious example is Facebook’s announcement in 2014 that the social network would track user web activity in order to tailor ads. The change was largely unopposed, because it was intended to improve experience, providing users with ads that were perfectly matched to them.

Harcourt, a legal and political theorist, is in the business of dispelling our beliefs about  supposedly innocuous ideologies. His previous book, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order (2011), fought the conception of the free market as a natural, efficient, and freestanding entity. The force of his new book lies in his synthesis of a huge amount of history and theory, ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the twentieth century, into a persuasive picture of how and why we have stopped valuing privacy. Harcourt starts his book with what will be familiar for most people—the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA—and snowballs into of the political motivations and implications of this shift. We no longer have the opportunity for privacy—the ability to live as both a free and private person. In fact, we use privacy like private property that can be traded for goods. We give up tidbits of information in order to get coupons, to read articles, or to input in pointless quizzes. And our very identities have begun to shift as a result.

There is an abundance of narratives we use to talk about the loss of privacy, and Harcourt tries to show how many of these are flawed. After Snowden’s revelations about the NSA in 2013, there were endless comparisons to George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, and the idea of a “surveillance state.” From President Obama to Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, many of us rely on these ideas to convey the magnitude and the dangers of a government that is able to track our every move. But the paradigms we use to comprehend the extent and omnipresence of surveillance are outdated and incomplete. As Harcourt points out, the surveillance we live with today is not quite like anything predicted in dystopian literature. Harcourt writes:

It almost feels as if whoever designed our new surveillance age—as if there were such a person—learned from the error of 1984. For in contrast to today, everything O’Brien and Big Brother did in Orwell’s novel worked by quashing, destroying, liquidating desire and passion.

That is, in Orwell’s novel, Big Brother worked to eliminate human pleasure, whereas today, Harcourt argues, our desires are part and parcel of an infrastructure of control. Facebook, for instance, works by encouraging pleasurable social interactions. Meanwhile, the company sells the information we post using it. Facebook is not alone; Many corporations use the information we share to create targeted advertising and match us to products. Essentially, Harcourt writes, they try to match us to our “doppelganger”: What would someone exactly like us buy? Amazon, for instance, provides suggested products based on the products we have just bought. Target collects our address, and paired with the knowledge that we are new parents, it can send us mail corresponding offers, as if it were surreptitious. Data brokers sell lists of people suffering from specific afflictions, including Alzheimer’s, bladder cancer, etc. Before this practice was revealed, MedBase200 was selling a database of “rape sufferers” for $79 per 1,000 names.

In reality, calling our society a “surveillance state” obscures the deep association between corporations and the state. Snowden, after all, worked for Booz Allen (a consulting firm), not for the NSA. And America’s major telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, were cooperating in NSA data collection, helping them develop and implement Internet surveillance infrastructure. Harcourt calls it a “tenticular oligarchy”—an enmeshment of the government and the private sector that may necessitate that we reconceive our very notion of the state.

Harcourt points out that being under constant electronic monitoring resembles imprisonment, even though it doesn’t feel like punishment. Think about the Apple Watch, which to most people is an attractive, wearable product that can collect information about their health and help them stay organized. But when you consider about the fact that Apple now knows its wearers’ heartbeats as well as their location, the Apple Watch begins to look more like a tracking device on a parolee. Harcourt also compares our current society to the the panopticon, a prison conceptualized by Bentham and used by Michel Foucault in order to show how citizens could begin to internalize the laws of the state, effectively punishing themselves before the state got the chance to. In the panopticon, men are imprisoned in cells arranged in a circle, such that a watchman in the center of the prison can see all of them at once, but the prisoners never know when they are being watched. The difference between the panopticon and our current situation is that the panopticon was simply disciplinary, and furthermore, we are now not made aware of all the ways in which we are watched.

The final section of the book is the slimmest, and its goal is “to explore how to resist and to disobey.” Harcourt points out a few relatively simple ways for a person to reduce drastically their susceptibility to surveillance: choosing a Facebook alternative like Diaspora, using Firefox with the no-ad and no-script add-ons. There are also apps like Disconnect that make visible the trackers on the Web.

The rest, however, he leaves to the courage of the public. The extent of the cooperation between government and the private sectors is too great to encourage effective new government policy—and it will be incredibly difficult to build a mass movement, since the entire system of surveillance is built around our desires, he writes.  It is practically impossible to live freely in the world without disseminating information about ourselves. Every move we make can be tracked through a combination of smartphones and debit transactions, metro cards and cameras. Even the words we type can be tracked with malware. The price of protecting our privacy is ultimate too high: it would mean effectively resigning from everyday life, avoiding phone calls and carrying only cash. Indeed, the best-known crusader against government surveillance, Edward Snowden, gave up his life in America. Sidestepping surveillance remains a dangerous and exceptional practice.

 So why don’t people care more about their privacy? Harcourt’s book is forceful and passionate, theoretically advanced, and persuasive about the dangers of an alliance between the government and the for-profit sector. The rigorous reader will be very satisfied by his precise use of terminology, and by the fact that he does not set up an absolute dichotomy between freedom and technology. But he also acknowledges that knowledge of these practices doesn’t seem to be enough to move people to action: “it is one thing to know, and quite another to remember long enough to care.”

I finished Harcourt’s book wondering if the issue at hand is that we don’t feel the threat of surveillance and loss of privacy as an assault on our physical beings, our actual bodies. The creation of the digital self protects us from harm, but prevents us from truly feeling a need to resist. When Harcourt points out that wearing the Apple Watch essentially turns consumers into parolees, he gives us a very powerful way to think about our present state, one that we need more of. Because we won’t care about privacy until we feel its absence as a loss, a physical limitation, an affront.