Viewpoints

Life After Privacy: An important new book

Kevin Townsend, 10 September 2020

The ‘confessional culture’ created and promoted by social media has eliminated privacy

Any serious discussion on modern privacy and surveillance is subject to the unnamed but universal law that George Orwell’s novel 1984 must be referenced in some way at some point. In his new book published in September 2020, titled Life After Privacy, Firmin DeBrabander largely avoids this, mentioning Orwell’s work just once, and only briefly. DeBrabander’s purpose is to first debunk the notion that privacy can protect democracy – or that privacy can even exist – and to then pose the question, "if not with privacy, how else can we protect democracy?".

Nevertheless, an understanding of Orwell’s views on Newspeak can help us better understand DeBrabander’s arguments on what can and cannot be done.

We are in a better world today than that of 1984; although we are under far more surveillance in our daily lives than we were fifty years ago – or even twenty years ago – we don’t see the same unambiguous, soul-crushing oppressive social control of Orwellian surveillance. We are not kept ignorant and unaware of surveillance in the same way as 1984’s society; in fact, as Life After Privacy points out, many of us are acutely aware of how much information we give up; how much is taken by either the state or corporations. We just lack the wherewithal to effectively protest it.

Newspeak, one of Orwell’s misunderstood concepts, was probably the most insidious form of oppression contained within his imagined society. Stripping language down, restricting people’s ability to communicate to the bare minimum necessary to function in the world, Newspeak took away people’s words, took away people’s expression. The effect was to rob the population of the ability to effectively criticize, protest or resist the state’s control. Without words to understand how they were oppressed, or why they were oppressed, or even to describe what oppression was, the populace could never share or disseminate their understanding of what was wrong in society, or how to resist it.

Life After Privacy points out a startling parallel to this. Many people are concerned about their privacy; many people dislike their privacy being invaded and how much of their personal information is exposed to the world. But many of the same people continue to participate in a culture of voluntarily surrendering their personal information; of consensually trading their privacy for the desirable or necessary things in life. Ad tracking, posting our personal lives on social media, consenting to privacy policies without reading or fully understanding them, allowing retailers to track our purchases with loyalty cards – we dislike losing our privacy, but we willingly participate in our loss of it.

For all that we feel distaste and discomfort when our privacy is eroded, we seem unable to act on our aversions. We have no means to effectively communicate why we want to retain our privacy and our own control over our personal information. We can only say, “surveillance is double-plus-ungood”. People have been unable to provide any more specific explanation for why threats to their privacy are undesirable. Even more significantly, we lack the means to effectively protest or resist this loss of privacy; for all that we dislike it, functioning in modern society without surrendering our personal privacy seems impossible. We see no benefit from social media without engaging in what Life After Privacy calls a “confessional culture”, exposing our personal lives to the world. Corporations and marketers incentivize us to consent to have our preferences and needs tracked in order to increase sales.

This desire for, but lack of, privacy has been conflated by many thinkers into a failure of - and in - democracy itself. It is held that the degradation in privacy corresponds to a degradation in democracy. Firmin DeBrabander, however, offers an alternative way of thinking in Life After Privacy; neither defending our loss of privacy nor excusing surveillance, he provides a more nuanced, forward-thinking analysis of the meaning of privacy in a changing world.

Supporting his conclusions is a deep knowledge of the subject matter. The role that the individual’s right to privacy has played in American history and the multifaceted influences and concerns our privacy faces today are both thoroughly examined. Life After Privacy sets out to do more than just argue for the author’s position; opposing arguments are treated with respect and good faith and the reader is presented with a rich understanding of context – how our privacy, our own control of our inner mental world, is changing.

Social media and the loss of privacy

The role that social media plays in this erosion of privacy might seem obvious, but there is much more complexity than would be anticipated. The concept of “Confessional Culture” is an important underlying theme within the book, and is handled with an unusual open-mindedness. Far from what has become the ubiquitous mocking condemnations of millennials with their loss of dignity and taste on social media, we are presented with an attentive examination of all the forces fueling and produced by this confessional culture.

Life After Privacy is not only a book about surveillance and personal data. It is a book about social control, but the text shows remarkable restraint in only mentioning 1984 briefly, once, for a pertinent comparison. There are implicit and startling warnings about how the state’s surveillance and how corporate surveillance already provide a framework for each other to transition into the merging of state and private interests that hallmarks totalitarianism.

At the core of this discussion is the question of consent and self-determination. Life After Privacy shows how our sense of discomfort at losing our privacy is strongest when we feel control has been taken away from us. If we feel self-determined and are given a sense of autonomy, we are much more likely to voluntarily surrender our privacy. DeBrabander is forthright in discussing the relationship between this dichotomy and every element of society, from how we as consumers incentivize deception and manipulation from corporations, to how powerful organizations make every effort to disguise the loss of privacy as the public’s choice.

We are shown the cyclic relationship between market forces and the social media-based manipulation. We use our social media profiles in more profitable ways when we are exposed to content from other users that we agree with or which makes us feel good. This incentivizes the social media companies to manipulate its users into positivity – even at the expense of both privacy and accuracy. These assertions are reinforced with lucid reasoning and thorough sourcing of the facts.

The book’s analysis is highly contemporary, drawing on and discussing up-to-the-minute relevant social situations. Everything from the Trump administration as we come up to the 2020 elections, to China’s new social credit system and to privacy scandals and revelations from the last year. While the book is not afraid to draw from older examples when they have demonstrable relevance, care has been taken to keep the discussion as relevant as possible. This is achieved in a way that promises not to date the analysis. Even if the privacy landscape changes drastically in the next five years, such an accurate, complete snapshot of today’s situation will still be an excellent resource for discussing how privacy is treated.

Privacy in the context of modern culture

The discussion of privacy is strengthened by an insightful social analysis of the digital age and its effects on individuals and groups. We look at the ways marketing surveillance can tie into social control and political influence. This applies to obvious issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also down to the very core of economics: how marginalized groups can be affected by business using customer information to ‘value’ shoppers; how those with less buying power are treated; how inviting people to give up their privacy while maintaining their sense of control can enforce conformity on a population.

The holistic, contextual approach this book takes provides us with a broad-ranging and largely balanced discussion. Our social attitudes, current pop culture, the influence of corporatism, digital economics and politics all play their part in dictating privacy’s role today. All these factors are examined with the same rigor the book affords to the rest of its subject matter, with well-sourced research and references where appropriate. DeBrabander manages to strike a rare balance here; his academic and rational acumen are on display and used to great effect, but the reader is never patronized. The writing shows that the intention is not simply to showcase the author’s intelligence, but to elevate the understanding of the reader.

While the thorough and detailed analysis will be elucidating for anyone reading Life After Privacy, the text will occasionally re-tread old ground and repeat parts of the discussion from earlier chapters. To some extent, this is inevitable with any work that seeks to provide a useful critique to its readers, rather than a sensational and digestible book of spectacle. This may be to the benefit of some readers’ understanding, while others might find it slightly frustrating.

Towards the later chapters, Life After Privacy’s assiduously analytical tone begins to slowly give way to a more rhetorical style. This is at least in part a natural and necessary product of laying the groundwork to make sure the reader can thoroughly understand the author’s argument before it is made. After the enriching and illuminating first half of the book, the shift into a more personal tone is less satisfying than the analytical writing of earlier chapters.

Aside from this shift in tone and a slight sense of fatigue as the book reaches its closing chapter, the writing is consistently lucid, thorough and edifying. A rather dense and onerous subject matter is offset by DeBrabander’s clear and breezy prose. Too many works of socio-political commentary are bogged down by overly dry, dense writing, and though Life After Privacy is far from frivolous, DeBrabander’s writing keeps it more accessible than many of its peers.

Life After Privacy deserves to be regarded as one of 2020’s more important works. Anyone seeking to enrich their personal understanding of political theory in a contemporary context would be doing themselves a disservice to pass over this book. DeBrabander doesn’t offer all the answers to the intractable problems of privacy, personal autonomy and security in the online age, but even readers who find themselves disagreeing with his outlook on the future of privacy will have a great deal to gain from the insight presented here. Not only those concerned with privacy and data protection, but anyone interested in political theory, sociology, and the interplay of cultural and economic structures would do well to read this book.

Perhaps most importantly, Life After Privacy can provide something that any reader is sure to need, and likely to be lacking: the language and knowledge to understand, protest, and maybe even resist our loss of self-determination regarding our personal information. This is not a book to read to feel comfortable in the modern world. However, it is a book that should be read by anyone who wants to understand more of how society operates and their place in it - not just concerning privacy, but with a political, sociological and economic considerations in a data-oriented world.

How does the future of democracy affect privacy?

The title of the book, however, is ‘Life After Privacy – Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance World’. DeBrabander effectively debunks the idea that privacy is even possible in the confessional culture – but with the conflation of privacy and democracy this begs the question of how democracy can be ensured in the absence of privacy. This is the emphasis of the latter stages of his book – and where his arguments are weakest and potentially most questionable.

The reality is that DeBrabander ultimately fails to make his case in this area. He compellingly dismantles what he calls the privacy apologists’ view that privacy is necessary to secure democracy. Fundamentally, the people don’t want – or at least, will not insist upon – their privacy. We willingly if not enthusiastically sell privacy to commerce for online services and to governments for greater physical security.

Democracy, he suggests, will not be ensured by chasing unachievable privacy, but by public and active engagement in politics. This is where his arguments are weakest. On the one hand he explains that people aren’t interested in politics and that democracies have generally been designed to exclude the public from the democratic process, while on the other he suggests that potential mechanisms exist in the very online services that are stealing or buying privacy.

The key, he says (perhaps displaying a hint of political bias) is the removal of the liberal democratic ideal. “The liberal democratic model,” he writes, “which features and elevates privacy, is problematic. According to this model, the public realm is supposed to be transactional and orderly.” In other words, liberal democracies are incapable of injecting sufficient energy into the people to make them fight for democracy, let alone privacy.

This dismissal of liberal democracies’ role in protecting privacy ignores the reality that two of the strongest privacy regulations in the world emanate from just such governments – Europe’s GDPR from the EU, and California’s CCPA in the U.S. GDPR is largely dismissed as a tool to encourage users to protect their own privacy (which DeBrabander has already shown to be unlikely), but makes little of the numerous privacy protections that are simply imposed on businesses – such as limitations on what data can be collected and how it can be used, and the validity of consent (which must have a balance between the parties concerned so that consent cannot be forced). CCPA, incidentally, gets no mention at all.

Nevertheless, DeBrabander holds that liberal democracy “is no preparation for life in the real world, the sometimes-unpleasant world outside our four walls. And it is no preparation for life in a real democracy, which bears rude surprises from time to time – like the resurgence of white nationalism.”

There is something contradictory in suggesting that the price of democracy is the acceptance of undemocratic movements. The weakness in DeBrabander’s book is that he does not critically analyze the alternative to liberal democracy in the same way he analyzes privacy and liberal democracy itself.