When novelist Jonathan Franzen delivered his privacy manifesto to The New Yorker in 1998, “online” was stylized as “on-line”. He had not yet published “The Corrections,” publicly offended Oprah, or become the archenemy of, you know, the burgeoning literature-loving Internet. The media was not reporting about which members of Trump’s White House squad were being fired, investigated, arrested, pardoned, etc. Instead, Americans got “Lewinskygate.” The 1998 Starr Report potentially broke records for using “Clinton,” “vagina,” and “cigar” in one concise sentence.
In the aftermath of the President’s sexcapades being discussed on the national stage, privacy became an American obsession. As Kenneth Starr noted, for American citizens, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal marked the complete overtaking of the public sphere. The scandal was a call to action for many, who began screaming, “Privacy!” from their rooftops. To Franzen, the public hysteria was merely the result of a media-induced privacy panic; commentators were completely missing the point.
The real problem, he argued, was a collapse of the distinction between public and private. He lamented the day when it became appropriate to disclose typically private information in a public space.
“The real reason that Americans are passive about privacy is so big as to be almost invisible: we’re flat-out drowning in privacy,” Franzen wrote.
So it’s not that Franzen didn’t want to hear the gory details that resulted in semen on an intern’s dark dress. He just didn’t want to hear about the president’s semen on that dress. It was not privacy that Franzen craved but publicity, defined as “a place where every citizen is welcome to be present, and where the purely private is excluded or restricted.”
In the article, he references a New York Times editorial written by novelist Richard Powers, also in 1998, that Franzen suggested was tainted by the clear influence of privacy panic. In Powers’ piece, he compared private life to the soul—both, he explained, were fated to become extinct.
“[Privacy] will seem at best a nostalgic artifact, collateral damage in the Code War, the price of securing a universally recorded, reproducible, remotely retrievable world,” Powers wrote.
Franzen scoffed at Powers’ notion of “data collection.”
“Where, after all, is it ‘registered’ what Powers or anybody else is thinking, seeing, saying, wishing, planning, dreaming, or feeling ashamed of?” he questioned frustratedly.
The answer to that question is rather abstract and perpetually evolving. Our data is constantly being packaged and repackaged, bought and sold. For Franzen, writing 20 years ago, “Our respective privacies remain intact as long as neither of us feels seen.”
But the Internet totally falsifies this paradigm. We know we’re being seen. We’re reminded of it every time we look at a pair of shoes on a website, and they appear on our Facebook timeline in the form of an ad no more than 30 seconds later. It’s no longer a secret that companies like Facebook make their money on a simple formula: the acquisition and sale of our personal data to other companies.
It’s interesting to read Franzen 20 years later and marvel at the rate at which our understanding of privacy has transformed. The tech world moves so quickly and in a language so difficult for the public to translate it seems issues do not arise until after they’ve burned us in large ways. Perhaps Franzen was right to decry private matters leaking into public spaces. Perhaps we should blame that phenomenon for our evident complacency in our digital lives, the complacency that leads us to check the terms and conditions box without even glancing at the small print. Perhaps there is nothing private we wouldn’t make public in exchange for convenience. But that trade-off seems less appealing today in a world where we know our data can be used against us.
Surely these days the American public’s preferred privacy terms are conditional. We will give away our data if we know exactly where that data is being stored and how it is being used. This proves more challenging than expected in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data breach. Cambridge Analytica is a political data firm that was hired by the Trump campaign to collect data from over 50 million Facebook users. This data was then used to create profiles of individuals so as to better target and influence their voting behaviors. Facebook insisted that the Cambridge incident was not a data breach, as Facebook gives user data over to academia all the time, something users actually consent to upon creating an account.
The company does, however, prohibit this kind of data from being sold to any commercial service. Federal investigators as well as state prosecutors opened investigations into Facebook after the breach. The moral, philosophical, and logistical complexities of the case boil down to a simple question: To what extent can companies like Facebook control our personal data? And to what extent can we, the users, control our data?
Ben Stagoff-Belfort ’21 is trying to work through some of these questions in a meaningful and collaborative way. His new club, Students for a Democratic Internet (SDI), aims to raise the bar of discourse about issues of data and privacy both in and out of the Wesleyan community. And it may sound like an easily digestible marketing slogan, but Stagoff-Belfort is not making a sales pitch. He’s merely putting out a request for genuine and meaningful discourse. When asked questions about his new club, he doesn’t lawyer up and become dinner-time-formal. He answers matter-of-factly, his delivery confident but not all-knowing, his demeanor approachable.
“What privacy entails is the scooping up of your personal information and the commodification of that information to make a profit through marketing, or through content delivery on social media,” he said. “The only way these companies support themselves is really by commodifying your data so as to diminish your privacy.”
With Stagoff-Belfort’s keen interest in economics, it’s no wonder that his vision of the relationship between big technology companies and individual privacy looks like a supply and demand curve: As big tech companies gain power and money in data accumulation, individuals lose their privacy.
Knowing and caring about issues of data privacy can prove difficult. Transparency is not the tech world’s strong suit, and the monotony and legalese required of even the most fervent privacy-seeker can be daunting. The third parties involved in data brokerage (the buying and selling of your personal information) are often opaque institutions. Stagoff-Belfort mentioned names like Oracle and Axiom.
“It’s actually very hard to find out what exactly these companies know about you,” he said.
I’d dare to make the claim that even a 1998 Jonathan Franzen would pause to listen to Stagoff-Belfort speak. He’s not infected by the privacy panic. He’s not boasting that the sky is falling. In fact, he’s a rare breed in the world of technology commentators: an optimist.
“If we are committed to not just fixing the issue, but broadcasting the issue, I think we can accomplish a lot,” he said. “At the end of the day, the most direct way that third parties can affect individuals is by using their own personal information against them. The economic inequalities that have resulted from the dissemination of the internet and the discriminatory qualities of targeted advertisements are all really important. But the overarching issue here is that the privacy of individual citizens is being taken advantage of. Our privacy is on the line.”
It’s a cautionary message novelists have been warning since before the Industrial Revolution: Be wary of progress. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” comes to mind. The end of the novel sees Robert Walton trapped in the ocean surrounded by ice, at the edge of death. His internal conflict bursts from within him: When the ice melts, should he continue on his quest, or should he turn around to save the lives of his men? While Victor Frankenstein begins telling his story as a sort of cautionary tale, in the end he makes a hortatory call to Walton, “Be men or be more than men!” Even after Frankenstein witnessed his desire for progress harm both himself and everyone in his life, Frankenstein still demands that Walton push forward. In this peculiar moment we’re in, we look eerily similar to Walton trapped in a boat in the middle of the ocean. How far are we willing to go in the name of progress, and what are we willing to leave behind?
Jodie Kahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.