Recent revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data have raised serious concerns about internet privacy. It would appear that we inhabit a world in which privacy is increasingly under assault—not just from leering governments, but also from panoptic corporations.
Although the right to privacy in the US is not explicitly protected by the Constitution, constitutional amendments and case law have provided some protections to what has become a foundational assumption of American citizens. The “right to privacy” (what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandis once called “the right to be left alone,”) is a widely held value, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. But why is privacy important?
In “Ten Reasons Why Privacy Matters” Danial Solove, Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, lists ten important reasons including: limiting the power of government and corporations over individuals; the need to establish important social boundaries; creating trust; and as a precondition for freedom of speech and thought. Solove also notes, “Privacy enables people to manage their reputations. How we are judged by others affects our opportunities, friendships, and overall well-being.”
Julie E. Cohen, of Georgetown argues that privacy is not just a protection, but an irreducible environment in which individuals are free to develop who they are and who they will be. “Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development. What Cohen means is that since life and contexts are always changing, privacy cannot be reductively conceived as one specific type of thing. It is better understood as an important buffer that gives us space to develop an identity that is somewhat separate from the surveillance, judgment, and values of our society and culture.” (See “Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar’s Answer” Jathan Sadowski, The Atlantic, Feb 26) In the Harvard Law Review, (“What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013) Cohen writes, “Privacy shelters dynamic, emergent subjectivity from the efforts of commercial and government actors to render individuals and communities fixed, transparent, and predictable. It protects the situated practices of boundary management through which self-definition and the capacity for self-reflection develop.”
Cohen’s argument that privacy is a pre-condition for the development of an autonomous and thriving self is a critical and often overlooked point. If individuals are to develop, individuate, and thrive, they need room to do so, without interference or unwanted surveillance. Such conditions are also necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom vs. slavery. As Orlando Patterson argued in his book, Freedom Vol.1 Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (Basic Books, 1991) freedom historically developed in the West as a long struggle against chattel slavery. Slavery, of course, entails the subjugation of the individual/person, and depends upon the thwarting of autonomy. While slavery may not fully eradicate the full and healthy development of the “self,” it may deform and distort that development. Autonomous selves are both the product of and the condition of social freedom.
Privacy, which is crucial to the development of a person’s autonomy and subjectivity, when reduced by surveillance or restrictive interference—either by governments or corporations who gather and sell our private information—may interfere not just with social and political freedom, but with the development and sustenance of the self. “Transparency” (especially when applied to personal information) may seem like an important feature to those who gather “Big Data,” but it may also represent an intrusion and an attempt to whittle away the environment of privacy that the self depends upon for its full and healthy development. As Cohen observes, “Efforts to repackage pervasive surveillance as innovation — under the moniker “Big Data” — are better understood as efforts to enshrine the methods and values of the modulated society at the heart of our system of knowledge production. In short, privacy incursions harm individuals, but not only individuals. Privacy incursions in the name of progress, innovation, and ordered liberty jeopardize the continuing vitality of the political and intellectual culture that we say we value.” (See “What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013)
Privacy is not just important to the protection of individuals from governments and commercial interests, it is also essential for the development of full, autonomous, and healthy selves.
“Ten Reasons Why Privacy Matters” Daniel Solove
“Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar’s Answer” Jathan Sadowski, The Atlantic, Feb 26, 2013
“What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013
Orlando Patterson argued in his book, Freedom Vol.1 Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (Basic Books, 1991)
“Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens” Kevin Granville, New York Times, Mar 19, 2018
“I Downloaded the Information that Facebook Has on Me. Yikes” Brian Chen, New York Times, Apr 11, 2018
“Right to Privacy: Constitutional Rights & Privacy Laws” Tim Sharp, Livescience, June 12, 2013
Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshone Zuboff
Listen to “Facebook and the Reign of Surveillance Capitalism” Radio Open Source
Read a review of Surveillance Capitalism
“How to Save Your Privacy from the Internet’s Clutches” Natasha Lomas, Romain Dillet, TC, Apr 14, 2018
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Dey St., 2017
Rationalization and Bureaucracy
In the early years of the 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber argued that modern society increasingly relies upon the “rationalization” of social organizations and institutions. He maintained that Western society is increasingly reliant upon reason, efficiency, predictability, and means/ends calculation. He further believed that modern society is highly dependent upon both public and private bureaucracies (e.g., the nation state and the modern corporation) as a way to achieve important societal goals (education, social welfare, medical care, business administration, governance, etc.) Bureaucracies are, “Highly organized networks of hierarchy and command structures (which are) necessary to run any ordered society – especially ones large in scope.” (See “Max Weber’s Theory of Rationalization: What it Can Tell Us of Modernity,” ) As one form of social organization, bureaucracy is distinguished by its: (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships. (For this and additional definitions, see the BusinessDictionary)
Weber and subsequent social theorists saw the process of rationalization and bureaucratization as replacing traditional modes of life, traditional values, and religious orientations with a society characterized by growing calculability, pursuit of individuals’ self-interest, efficiency, and ordered control. (Weber termed the loss of tradition that accompanied the increasing rationalization of Western society as the “disenchantment” of society.) As modernity transforms traditional social forms and social values, rationality and bureaucracy come to dominate the various spheres of contemporary society. Moreover, as society becomes ever more rationalized, it increasingly depends upon bureaucratic regimes of governance and management by impersonal rules and the exercise of technical knowledge by experts. Today, various social arenas—ranging from government to corporate organizations, from healthcare to public education—have become suffused with the ethos of bureaucracy and rationality. “…rationalization means a historical drive towards a world in which ‘one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.’” (See, Max Weber, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Advantages and Disadvantages of Bureaucracy
Although “bureaucracy’ is often thought of as a pejorative term, bureaucracy has some advantages over other forms of social organization. Bureaucracy creates and utilizes rules and laws (vs. fiat decisions by a powerful notable, such as a king), mobilizes the knowledge of educated experts, promotes meritocracy, delineates and sets boundaries for the exercise of social power, establishes a formal chain of command and specifies organizational authority, and provides a technically efficient form of organization for dealing with routine matters that concern large numbers of persons. These advantages however, are accompanied by what are thought by many to be substantial disadvantages, including, compelling officials to conform to fixed rules and detailed procedures, sponsoring bureaucrats’ focus on narrow objectives, and supporting bureaucrats to become defensive, rigid, and unresponsive to the urgent individual needs and concerns of private citizens. “…individual officials working under bureaucratic incentive systems frequently find it to be in their own best interests to adhere rigidly to internal rules and formalities in a ritualistic fashion, behaving as if “proper procedure” were more important than the larger goals for serving their clients or the general public that they are supposedly designed to accomplish (i.e., the “red tape” phenomenon).” (See Bureaucracy)
Education and Bureaucracy
If we look at public education in contemporary society, we see many features associated with bureaucracy. State education agencies, districts, and schools: 1) are run by trained experts (e.g., credentialed teachers and administrators), 2) feature rigid hierarchies of authority, 3) have a strict division of labor, 4) depend upon and are run by formal and impersonal rules of administration and control, and 5) credential students by relying on impersonal and standardized methods for assessing student achievement. Additionally, students are routinely segregated into age-specified categories (classes) and are subjected not to individually tailored curricula, but to routine and standardized curricula that attempt to teach students en masse.
Does Standardized Testing Support Educational Bureaucracy?
Standardized testing of student achievement is one of the bureaucratic characteristics of modern public education. Although assessment is thought to be a necessary means for measuring student learning, it is also a means by which educational organizations categorize students, assign them social statues, and allocate them to various social trajectories (“life chances” to use Weber’s terminology). Standardized testing regimes also assist the educational bureaucracy by creating different categories of clientele (i.e., students) who can then be served en masse by large-scale routinized educational programs and mass-produced textbooks. Some would even argue that students are made to fit school as much as schools are made to fit the student. (For a summary of the problems associated with standardized testing, see “What’s Wrong with Standardized Tests.”)
While students are subject to the rule of bureaucracy, so too are faculty and administrators. Like the students they teach and oversee, faculty and administrators are subject to formal structures of authority, adhere to a strict division of labor, follow formal rules and regulations, and must be credentialed and certified. Like their students, teachers are also subject to assessment and review. (See our previous blog post “Too Much Assessment in Higher Education,” for an example of the effects of assessment on higher education.) Schools are also reviewed and rated by State Departments of Education.
While some feel that the stultifying aspects of bureaucracy may be ameliorated, the original theorist of rationalization and bureaucracy, Max Weber, was pessimistic about the reform of bureaucracy. As he surveyed the early 20th century and considered the likely developmental direction of Western society, he said that citizens of society were likely to find themselves increasingly entrapped in what he termed the “iron cage of bondage,” which continued to be cemented by the growth of rationalization and bureaucracy. Whether this dark prognosis is generally true for Western society is still very much debatable. That said, it is difficult to imagine large-scale public education without many of the features of bureaucracy that Weber first described —including standardized student testing. (For examples of reform efforts as they apply to standardized tests, see The National Center for Fair & Open Testing)
“What’s Wrong with Standardized Tests,” The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
In an important article, “The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’”, New York Times, Feb 23, 2018, Molly Worthen argues that the growth of, and seeming obsession with, the assessment of learning outcomes in higher education has profoundly shaped curricula and instruction, undercut the unique capacities of colleges and universities to foster genuine critical thinking, and proven to be both bureaucracy bloating and extremely expensive. Worthen shows that, driven largely by the interests of accrediting agencies and for-profit tech and consulting companies, higher education’s rush to demonstrate student learning and skill-acquisition disproportionately affects non-elite schools, and often compels these under-resourced institutions to devote scarce dollars to obtaining evidence of instructional impact, “…more and more university administrators want campus-wide, quantifiable data that reveal what skills students are learning. Their desire has fed a bureaucratic behemoth known as learning outcomes assessment.”
In order to show that students graduate with job-ready skills and attitudes, Worthen argues that higher education institutions’ focus on assessment obscures the “real crisis” in higher education: “the system’s deepening divide into a narrow tier of elite institutions primarily serving the rich and a vast landscape of glorified trade schools for everyone else.” She notes the cruel irony in the mania for assessment is that there is little evidence beyond occasional anecdotes, that regimes of assessment actually improve student learning. Moreover, more selective (i.e., elite) institutions, themselves, don’t utilize assessment of learning outcomes at the same rate as less prestigious institutions. “Research indicates that the more selective a university, the less likely it is to embrace assessment.”
Perhaps the greatest irony, Worthen writes, is that assessment regimes subvert the unique purposes and capacities of higher education. “The value of universities to a capitalist society depends on their ability to resist capitalism, to carve out space for intellectual endeavors that don’t have obvious metrics or market value.” She further observes, “Producing thoughtful, talented graduates is not a matter of focusing on market-ready skills. It’s about giving students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.”
“The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’”, Molly Worthen, New York Times, 23 February 2018
The development and deployment of robotics and artificial intelligence continues to affect the world of work. As we’ve discussed in previous blogposts
“Humans Need Not Apply: What Happens When There’s No More Work?”, “Will President Trump’s Wall Keep Out the Robots?” and “Dark Factories” , AI and robotics are transforming both blue-collar jobs and professional occupations. New technologies promise to change not just how we work and are employed, but also to alter the traditional meanings of work and employment that have been central to peoples’ self-conceptions and identities.
In “How Automation Will Change Work, Purpose, and Meaning,” by Robert C. Wolcott, Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2018, Wolcott says that new technologies not only raise the question, “How are the spoils of technology to be distributed?” but equally baffling, “When technology can do nearly anything, what should I do, and why?” He cites Hannah Arendt’s writings in The Human Condition about the importance of moving from a self-conception that identifies work as purpose, to one that encompasses the idea of the Vita Activa, the active life, in which humans, when freed from much of the drudgery of labor, will need to aspire to integrate non-labor activity in the world with contemplation about the world. Wolcott asks, “When our machines release us from ever more tasks, to what will we turn our attentions? This will be the defining question of our coming century.”
In “The Meaning of Life in a World Without Work” by Yuval Noah Harari, The Guardian, May 8, 2017, Harari writes that as new technologies increasingly displace humans from work, the real problem will be to keep occupied the masses of people (i.e., members of “the useless class” as Harari defines them) who are no longer involved in work. Harari says that one possible scenario might be the deployment of virtual reality computer games. “Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside.” He likens such virtual reality to the world’s religions, which Harari says, are filled with practices and beliefs that give meaning to adherents’ lives, but are not themselves necessary or ‘real’ in any objective way. Harari asserts that it doesn’t much matter whether one finds stimulation from the ‘real’ world or from computer-simulated reality, because ultimately, both rely on what’s happening inside our brains. Further, he observes, “Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class (created by) the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep play will engage us in 2050.”
Although Harari’s sketch of possible futures seems shockingly Huxleyan, it does attempt to imagine a future in which large swaths of the population will be unnecessary to the functioning of the productive economy. Anticipating criticism of the brave new world that he’s sketched, Harari, referring to the world’s religions, writes, “But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.”
The challenges, and some might say the catastrophies, associated with the new technologies are not merely technological. They are political, and will be shaped by the kinds of political institutions and social policies that nations use to deal with them. In the December 27 2017, New York Times article, “The Robots are Coming and Sweden is Fine,” Peter S. Goodman notes that Swedish workers appear less threatened by the introduction of robotics and AI because Sweden’s history of social democracy and the relatively strong influence of unions temper the effects of new technologies on Swedish workers. Goodman argues that, unlike much of the rest of the world, the fear that robots will steal jobs “… has little currency in Sweden or its Scandinavian neighbors, where unions are powerful, government support is abundant, and trust between employers and employees runs deep. Here, robots are just another way to make companies more efficient. As employers prosper, workers have consistently gained a proportionate slice of the spoils — a stark contrast to the United States and Britain, where wages have stagnated even while corporate profits have soared.”
How AI and robotics will affect the U.S. is still uncertain, although as we’ve discussed in “Humans Need Not Apply…” some researchers believe that within two decades, half of U.S. jobs could be handled by machines (For example, check out the video “Why Amazon Go Is Being Called the Next Big Job Killer” below). The character of work, and the consequent effects on the population will be determined, in part, by the strength of institutions that have mediated the relationship between employers and employees. In the U.S. sadly, those institutions and social agreements have largely been weakened or eliminated in the last 35-40 years. The introduction of robotics and AI in America is likely to follow a far different path than in Sweden.