Tag Archives: tracking

“The Loss of Privacy” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Microsoft

Image Source: Microsoft

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and deals with an issue that has been getting a lot of attention lately: privacy.

Eco begins by discussing boundaries and their importance. He points out that the concept of boundaries applies to humans and animals, and that when someone or something crosses these boundaries and invades our space, or natural inclination is to feel threatened.

Ethology teaches us that every animal recognizes around itself, and its fellows, a bubble of respect, a territorial area within which it feels safe, and that it will see as an adversary whoever steps over that boundary.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 77)

To define and secure our boundaries, we often erect walls, either physical or emotional. Eco cites examples of walls constructed by governments to create a sort of communal privacy and states that “people have always paid for the communal privacy by accepting the loss of individual privacy.” (ibid: p. 78) I am reminded of the walled and gated communities that were dominant in Miami when I lived there, where people subjected themselves to the scrutiny of the all-mighty Homeowners’ Association for the false sense of security gain by living within the enclosed walls.

It seems as if every week there is news about a computer hacker accessing a system and stealing personal information. This is blown up in the media as a major threat to our privacy. But Eco claims that this is not the biggest threat to our privacy, that online tracking used by corporations is much more insidious and dangerous.

The big problem facing a citizen’s private life is not hackers, which are no more frequent and dangerous than the highwaymen who beset travelling merchants, but cookies and all those other technical marvels that make it possible to collect information about every one of us.

(ibid: p. 79)

So then the million-dollar question is: How did we allow ourselves and our society to get to this point? Eco claims it is because we have become an exhibitionist society.

It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of mass society, of the press, television, and Internet, is the voluntary renunciation of privacy. The extreme expression of this renunciation is, at its pathological limit, exhibitionism. It strikes me as paradoxical that someone has to struggle for the defense of privacy in a society of exhibitionists.

(ibid: p. 82)

It is kind of ironic when you consider this. We love to put ourselves out there for the world, sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram. Even blogging is a form of exhibitionism. I accept this about myself. I put my thoughts, my ideas, and my reading preferences out there for the world to see. When I was younger, this would have been part of my private world. I would hide in my room and read under the covers. Questionable books my friends and I read were discussed in closed rooms, away from the prying eyes of those who want to market to my tastes or track any subversive books I read. I remember there was a time when the government wanted to collect records from libraries regarding the books that people checked out and the public outcry against this. Now, your reading habits are tracked online. All you have to do is look at a book on Amazon, you don’t even have to purchase it, and immediately ads begin popping up based upon the fact the you just clicked on that one link.

Eco concludes by stating that most of us have come to accept the loss of our privacy and have taken it to the next step. We now believe that the best way to keep our secrets is to just put everything out there. If everyone’s secrets are made public, then ours will not seem that interesting anymore when compared with those of everyone else.

But it’s a vicious cycle. The assault on privacy accustoms everyone to the disappearance of privacy. Already many of us have decided that the best way to keep a secret is to make it public, so people write e-mails or make phone calls in which they say everything openly, certain that no one listening in will find interesting any statement made with no attempt at concealment. Little by little we become exhibitionists, having learned that nothing can be kept confidential anymore and that no behavior is considered scandalous. Those who are attacking our privacy, seeing that the victims themselves consent, will no longer stop at any violation.

(ibid: p. 87)

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“All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan

BrautiganI decided read and write about something a little different today, or, at least different from what I usually read and write about.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where I read a lot of Richard Brautigan. During that time, I found a couple books of poems that he wrote while perusing the shelves of a used bookstore. Anyway, I pulled the books off my shelf today and opened to the first poem in The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, which is “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.”

Click here to read the entire poem online.

This is a pretty unusual poem, particularly because it deals with cyber issues that seem more relevant today than they would have been when the book was published back in 1968. The poem describes a utopia, or dystopia depending upon how you interpret it, where nature exists in balance and harmony with technology:

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

On one hand, it evokes images of nature being protected and nurtured by technology, existing in balance. But at the same time, there is a sense that something is not quite right. The imagery feels juxtaposed, like nature and technology don’t really belong together, yet somehow, they have come to accept each other and co-exist in spite of their inherent differences.

The closing stanza of this poem really gives me the chills.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

So we have this idealistic vision here, where technology frees us from our labors and provides us with the opportunity to return to our natural state, allowing computers to handle our mundane affairs. But as we all know, this is not the case. We are watched over by the machines of loving grace, but not in a beneficent manner. Our actions are tracked and the information is used, at best, by corporations trying to influence how we spend our time and money. Our smart phones, instead of allowing us freedom to walk in the woods, end up being digital shackles that keep us ever at the beck and call of employers who demand more and more from us.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love technology as much as the next geek. But let’s take a step back and look at our “cybernetic forest” and think about it. Do we really have more freedom as a result of computers? Have our lives really become easier and simpler over the past 20 or 30 years? Is the cyber-world we’ve created a utopia or a dystopia? There are no easy answers to these questions, but this poem challenges us to think carefully about those questions, which is something we all should do.

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Filed under Literature