16 October 2011

Dot stupid

From Evgeny Morozov's 12 October 2011 TNR evisceration of Jeff Jarvis' Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live (New York: Simon & Schuster 2011) -
For Jarvis, privacy is the preserve of the selfish; keep too much to yourself, and the “Privacy Police” may pay you a visit.

Why are we so obsessed with privacy? Jarvis blames rapacious privacy advocates — “there is money to be made in privacy” — who are paid to mislead the “netizens,” that amorphous elite of cosmopolitan Internet users whom Jarvis regularly volunteers to represent in Davos. On Jarvis’s scale of evil, privacy advocates fall between Qaddafi’s African mercenaries and greedy investment bankers. All they do is “howl, cry foul, sharpen arrows, get angry, get rankled, are incredulous, are concerned, watch, and fret.” Reading Jarvis, you would think that Privacy International (full-time staff: three) is a terrifying behemoth next to Google (lobbying expenses in 2010: $5.2 million).

“Privacy should not be our only concern,” Jarvis declares. “Privacy has its advocates. So must publicness.” He compiles a long and somewhat tedious list of the many benefits of “publicness”: “builds relationships,” “disarms strangers,” “enables collaboration,” “unleashes the wisdom (and generosity) of the crowd,” “defuses the myth of perfection", "neutralizes stigmas", "grants immortality ... or at least credit", "organizes us", and even "protects us". Much of this is self-evident. Do we really need to peek inside the world of Internet commerce to grasp that anyone entering into the simplest of human relationships surrenders a modicum of privacy? But Jarvis has mastered the art of transforming the most trivial observations into empty business maxims.

In one respect — his unrivaled ability to attract attention to his diva-like self — Jarvis has outdone even the fictional Dr. Kirk. Jarvis’s public parts are truly public: his recent battle with prostate cancer has become something of an online Super Bowl, with Jarvis tweeting from the operating table and blogging about the diaper problems that followed. And like the fictional Kirk, Jarvis likes his privacy when he likes it: the evangelist for publicness does not want his credit card numbers, his passwords, his e-mails, his calendar, his salary, his browsing habits, or his iTunes playlist made public. The digital disclosure of such things is off-limits for Jarvis — but not because of a scruple about privacy. He prefers to justify such immunities by appealing to other rights, fears, and concerns: he won’t share his passwords out of a fear of crime; or his calendar, because he is a busy man and doesn’t want any more commitments; or his salary, because of “cultural conventions”; or his iTunes playlist, because, well, it’s too trivial.

Had Jarvis written his book as self-parody — as a cunning attack on the narrow-mindedness of new media academics who trade in pronouncements so pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous that even the nastiest of post-modernists appear lucid and sensible in comparison — it would have been a remarkable accomplishment. But alas, he is serious. This is a book that should have stayed a tweet. Stripped of all the inspirational buzzwords, it offers a two-fold, and insipid, argument. First, a democratic society cannot afford to have privacy as its main — let alone its only — value. Second, the acts of information disclosure — by individuals, corporations, or public institutions — can be beneficial, under certain conditions, to some or all of the parties involved. Jarvis believes that these points are new and original and heroically subversive of the conventional wisdom. Public Parts is meant to be a polemic, but Jarvis has a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with either of his premises. Forced to introduce at least some contention into the book, he has to venture very far from his main themes, opining on the Arab Spring, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the future of the car industry.

A few such diversions are entertaining, but Jarvis cannot joke his way through the banality of his book’s central argument. Here is Jarvis at his most typical: “Memo to doctors, lawyers, and manicurists: You’d better be online and public.” What an incredible insight, in 2011: an online presence can help your business! Or consider this breakthrough in marketing theory: “If you are known as the company that collaborates with customers to give them the products they want, you may end up with more loyal customers.” Better products boost customer loyalty! Such bland pronouncements make Public Parts sound less cutting edge than the 1996 edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Web. ...

As if to live up to the old joke about an expert being someone who knows more and more about less and less until eventually he knows everything about nothing, Jarvis casts his eye over a gazillion different industries — from cars to airlines and from retail stores to public institutions — but rarely ventures beyond the most obvious analysis anywhere he looks. There are only two pages on WikiLeaks — an oddity in a book on the virtues of publicness — and even those pages are filled with generalities (the WikiLeaks scandal “demonstrated the banality of secrecy” and showed that “government keeps too much secret”). According to Jarvis, Julian Assange is driven by a law that posits that “those who held secrets once held power. Now those who create transparency gain power.” What does that actually mean? Journalists, NGOs, even Google: all of them create transparency in one way or another. But is it true that they now hold more power? What does the WikiLeaks disclosure of all those diplomatic cables imply about the powers lost or gained by the likes of Human Rights Watch, which needs secrecy to work in difficult countries but also needs publicness to make the world aware of those countries’ dire human rights record? Jarvis doesn’t say. If, as a result of legislative changes triggered by WikiLeaks, whistle-blowers end up getting much weaker legal protection, would it mean that they, too, gain power?

There is not much consistency in Jarvis’s thought about technology. Whenever he needs to explain something positive, his instinct is always to credit the Internet: it is the one factor responsible for more publicness, more democracy, more freedom. And every time he turns to darker and more difficult subjects — like discrimination, or shame — he announces that they have nothing to do with the Internet and are simply the product of outdated social mores or ineffective politics. In Jarvis’s universe, all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined.

This perverse analytical framework is most pronounced when he criticizes privacy advocates for not wanting to tackle more fundamental problems — such as social stigmas — that are made less severe by invoking one’s privacy rights. Jarvis writes that “a larger fear of sharing health information is the stigma associated with illness. That stigma is most certainly society’s problem. Why should anyone be ashamed of being sick?” He applies the same logic to discrimination based on sexual orientation: “That anyone would still feel shame about being revealed as gay ... is also our failing. If we think that technology is the problem, we risk ignoring the deeper faults and more important lessons.” Yet Jarvis seems blind to ways in which the rhetoric of publicness could be mobilized to distract from finding equally “deeper faults and more important lessons” about the sprawling national security state. “Knowing that no security at all is not an option, what’s your choice: body scans, physical searches, facial recognition via surveillance cameras, more personal data attached to travel records?” he asks — and quickly informs us that he objects to none of the above. He includes this tirade in a section called “publicness protects us” — but he presents no evidence that it does protect us. And why, one might ask, is the choice so stark? Why not entertain the option of extirpating the roots of terrorism rather than investing more money in surveillance technology and embracing “publicness”? It seems that Jarvis wants to fight root causes only of problems such as shame and discrimination; for everything else, there are quick technological fixes.