The new knowledge environments of the digital age are often described as places where we are all closely read, with our buying habits, location, and identities available to advertisers, online merchants, the government, and others through our use of the Internet. This is represented as a loss of privacy in which these entities learn about our activities and desires, using means that were unavailable in the pre-digital era. This article argues that the reciprocal nature of digital networks means 1) that the privacy issues that we face online are not radically different from those of the pre-Internet era, and 2) that we need to reconceive of close reading as an activity of which both humans and computer algorithms are capable.Hunter argues that
The new knowledge environments of the digital age are often described as places where we are all closely read, with our buying habits, our location, and intimate details of our identities available to advertisers, online merchants, the government, and others through our use of the Internet. This is often represented as an imminent or achieved destruction of privacy in which governments and businesses learn about our activities and desires using means that were unavailable in the pre-digital era (e.g., Andrews, 2012; Lanier, 2012; Mayer-Schönberger, 2011). As Jaron Lanier (2012) puts it (rather apocalyptically) in You Are Not A Gadget: “The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by the illusions of bits. Since people will inexorably be connecting to one another through computers from here on out, we must find an alternative,” adding that we should try “to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others” (p. 21). Lanier’s contrast between “deep” pre-digital selfhood and the supposedly diminished subjectivity manifested on digital networks is common to many articulations of this loss of control. One legal scholar refers to our off-line subjective state as “people’s pre-existing autonomy,” and the Enlightenment discourse of individual rights that such language evokes is the basis for the privacy rights that are being threatened (Pagallo, 2011; Griffin, 2008). Another, by contrast, refers to our online manifestations as “second selves” or “digital doppelgängers” (Andrews, 2012, p. 45), again insisting on the belatedness and inferiority of our online presence when compared to our “real” material selves. The response to this perceived crisis is to call for more privacy safeguards to be built into search engines, online financial transactions, and the uses of data about individuals by the entities with which we interact (e.g., Pentland, 2009; Froomkin, 2000). More “privacy by design” is needed because “[p]rivacy is not something that appear[s] naturally online, it must be deliberately architected” (Castelluccia, 2012, p. 31; see also Lessig, 2013; Witte, 2013). Theis is the Internet as a new world, one that resembles a 19th century “Darkest Africa” in that it is both magical and in obvious need of the European Enlightenment model of civilization.
Like nearly all forms of digital exceptionalism, the claim that the crisis of online privacy is totally unprecedented overlooks a dense, complex history that conditions the various responses to our online readability – in this case, a history of making people “readable” via their clothes, behaviour, bodily characteristics, physical locations, language, et cetera – which has coexisted very easily with Modernity’s construction of the “private individual” and individual rights. It will be the work of this paper to recall this history of close reading and to analyze how its tropes are being replicated in digital environments.
Whether legally or culturally enforced, attempts to regulate people’s behaviour and appearance have always been a feature of Western culture. From ancient Roman restrictions on conspicuous consumption (Dari-Mattiacci & Plisecka, 2012) to early modern sumptuary laws (Hunt, 1996; Killerby, 2002; Raffield, 2002) and from gendered clothing norms to racial profiling (Meehan & Ponder, 2002), people have always been read and/or judged by their appearance, and have always been conscious of these omnipresent interpretations of their identity. The extensive historicist body of scholarship on performativity has shown how consciously and publicly we perform our gendered, national, sexual, and professional identities (e.g., Butler, 2006; Dent & Whitehead, 2002; Ehlers, 2012; Negra, 2006). And, as Marjorie Garber (among many others) has pointed out, it makes many ordinary people (not just governments and other elites) nervous when the people around them cannot be read and normatively categorized via visual clues (Garber, 1997). However privacy is construed or justified, the idea that we could not be anonymously scrutinized, interpreted, and/or unfairly judged by others prior to the advent of the Internet is risible. The binary opposition between our “real” selves and our online identities outlined above is thus just a lazy unexamined assumption. The question is why theorists of the digital world (like Lanier and Andrews) so often think that they need it – what is driving the urge to bracket our online lives from our “private” lives when life in the West has always been a balance between external forces (seeking to know, circumscribe, and control how we behave) and individual or communitarian responses to these forces?
This article argues that the anxiety about being closely read in networked environments is not a response to a new technological threat, but the articulation of a heretofore impossible desire: the desire to read the world around us without leaving traces or being read in return. As N. Katherine Hayles (among others) has argued, digital technology has radically extended and transformed the concept of what it means to read (Hayles, 2012). The desire to read anonymously, as it were, is a result of a failure to accept the full consequences of this change. It is fostered by our bodily experience of traversing the Internet – because we do not directly experience ourselves being read and interpolated in the ways that occur in any material public setting, we wrongly assume that we are not (and should not) be “seen” online. It is also encouraged by the marketing materials for our networked digital devices, which dwell on our capacity to access data and not on the extent to which we necessarily become nodes in other people’s networks by doing so (Rainie & Wellman, 2012). As strong as this desire may be, however, it is also impossible: it is oblivious of the ways in which being read is a fundamental price for living in communities (as discussed above); it is fundamentally inconsistent with the reciprocal character of networked data environments (Manovich, 2001); and it is an important reason why the online privacy debate has been unable to establish itself properly. Reading (whether one interprets texts, passersby in a street, or social practices) has always been a socially embedded and reciprocal act – this is why one can buy Harry Potter novels with “adult” covers and Fifty Shades of Grey novels with anodyne covers; someone may be watching and judging, even as we while away the bus ride to work. The acts of reading that we most resent when they are applied to us in digital knowledge environments (i.e., interpretations of our spending or communication habits) are the products of our participation in networked environments. We need to relearn how the legal presumption of privacy in no way arrests or displaces the kinds of sumptuary, performative, and/or judgmental readings that have always marked social life – even when that life is online.