The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Privacy and Personalization

(Credit: The Denver Post)
Privacy is a major concern for many in the Facebook age—a sort of bogeyman of the modern age. The accessibility of personal information and the vague prospect of “identity theft” makes many fearful. The Internet has increased an individual’s visibility, while the perpetrators, by the same channel, have extended their sight. Everyone is visible and vulnerable to everyone else.

The issue of privacy came to mind this weekend when I was listening to The Killer Angels audiobook. The historical novel recounts the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The author, after 7 years of research, wrote the book through the eyes of the generals who fought the battle. In so doing, Michael Shaara paints a picture of the Civil War that is about more than slavery. It’s an issue of privacy.

In the novel, an argument unfolds between a Confederate officer and an English officer in Her Majesty’s army who is observing the war. Like most today, he “still thinks it’s about slavery.” To the Confederate generals, this is absurd. The conversation continues:

“Actually . . . I think my analogy of the club was best. I mean, it’s as if we all joined a gentlemen’s club, and then the members of the club started sticking their noses into our private lives, and then we up and resigned, and then they tell us we don’t have the right to resign.”

. . . After a while [the generals] were . . . still chatting about what a shame it was that so many people seemed to think it was slavery that brought on the war, when all it was really was a question of the Constitution.
The question doesn’t seem to have changed much, even if the particular problems have. Slavery was considered a matter of privacy, which made it a Constitutional matter. The Civil War was a philosophical battle as much as anything else.

It was also a technological and an economic war, all of which tied together. The cotton gin had created a demand for higher cotton output from plantations—i.e., efficiency—and had increased the economic necessities for cheap labor—i.e., slaves. Slavery was an economic decision, and a technological one.

Today, privacy and technology continue to grate against one another. With the recent shootings in Aurora, Colorado, questions are going back and forth about what could have been done to prevent it. The accused shooter, James Holmes, was seeing a university psychiatrist prior to the shootings, and she raised a red flag about his behavior to the university’s “Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment” team. But her concerns languished because, by the time they saw them, Holmes had withdrawn from the university. After that, he allegedly walked into a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Holmes’ case is what we call “falling through the cracks.” An individual gets overlooked by the “system.” Or in Holmes’ case, he’s no longer “on-the-grid,” so he cannot be managed by the university—or cared for. By withdrawing from the system, Holmes evaded the university’s procedures and protocols for intervention. He was no longer subject to oversight. The system failed him, and failed all those who were shot.

The general response has been to look at the system, to look for new procedures and protocols to fill in the gaps. Privacy is inherently threatened by these new procedures. Developing new technical methods for sealing up the cracks means increasing the invasion of privacy. Any organization that must interface with the individual, whether it’s a government, a corporation, or a university, must, by nature, use systems that are invasive. “Invasive” because the transparency is not mutual, nor can it be—a corporate entity is not a person—even if the state has granted it the rights of one (ironically established by the same 14th Amendment that gave blacks personhood in the eyes of the United States).

Not only that, but organizations must categorize individuals in ways that deface their personhood. In creating these categories, the system leaves larger and smaller procedural gaps, like the one that said if Holmes was not a student at the University of Colorado, he was no longer the responsibility of the “Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment” team. To the system, Holmes is no longer a person. He’s a vestige of data.

This depersonalization is the problem, but to fix it, the university will create a new system, not to personalize the individual, but to obtain more data that can be tracked and analyzed. It’s the equivalent of using a form letter to auto-insert a person’s name so that it reads, “Dear Adam.” But it is no more personal, only more invasive.

Technical methods will always invade privacy, all the while becoming less personal, even as technology appears more personal. It’s why I laugh when the tv screens at the gas pump welcome me to Shell and tell me they hope to see me again real soon. It’s why I cringe when my bank’s 800 number verifies my identity by automatically recognizing my cell phone number. In an increasingly depersonalized world of high-tech, we need the personalization of “high-touch.” We want personalization with privacy. Access with anonymity. Not community, but the sense of community.

The failure was not in how the psychiatrist treated Holmes or in her turning his information over to the authorities. Holmes likely did not need a “Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment” team. He likely needed real relationships. He didn’t need to fill out more forms or psychological assessments. He likely needed people who would hear him out. He needed a voice—and he decided that maybe guns would express what he wanted to say. A voice needs to be heard; unfortunately a system can’t listen to you.

Technological problems seek technological solutions. New procedures to prevent people from falling through the cracks.

What we really need are new imaginations beyond the borders of technology. We need to stop plowing the fallow the fields of efficiency. We need to rest. And we need to dream of ways to be real and present in each others’ lives. We need to live so close that the shouting we do with our guns is drowned by the whispers of our friends. We need to live so close that privacy is something we share with our social circles, not our social networks.

We have used technology to extend our reach, but it has only pushed us away from what we need most. Each other.