We usually think about privacy as the ability to restrict the circulation of personal information. Non-public information stays non-public. In the era of the Network, the personal exhaust we leave as traces on various systems, even if it’s meant to be anonymous, identifies us publicly. Given enough pieces of the puzzle, the full picture of a person can be put together.
Our identity and the identifiers are linked as indexical signs. The foot leaves a footprint in the sand. The last few footprints point to where the next few footsteps will land. Collect enough footprints and the future can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Implied in this formula is something about both the character and durability of the link between the signifier and the signified.
This idea implies a particular relationship between the acts and the actor—the actor is nothing more than his acts in a positive and un-ironic sense. Past is prolog. And this is where we turn to the question of redemption. The first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” tell us something about the meaning of time present and time past.
By T.S. Eliot
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
“If time future is contained in time past, all time is eternally present, and therefore unredeemable.” As we try to come to terms with the Network, this becomes the crux of the privacy issue. One half of privacy is the ability to keep a set of facts about one’s self hidden. The other side of privacy is the ability to selectively reveal oneself, and that also means to not be, to not choose, to not do what one’s past has predicted. Not as “abstract speculation,” but as a non-linear act in the real world. In any given moment, the character of the facts could change through the exercise of free will.
The predictive and persuasive power of the big data platforms depends on the idea that the system generates the current and future actions of the individual based on recordings of previous actions. All time becomes unredeemable. The bad restaurant will always be a bad restaurant. The drunkard will aways be a drunkard. The successful businessman will always be a successful businessman. The sinner will always be a sinner. The cogs in the machine will always be cogs in a machine.
The moment of redemption, of radical change, is unpredictable, yet perfectly possible for each and every one of us at any time. For no reason. Somewhere.