Privacy by Garret Keizer
The Private I
In March 2011, the Onion News Network aired a news parody skit in which a mock panel of experts lampooned Facebook as a “massive online surveillance program run by the CIA.” Though the skit deftly sends up intrusive elements within the government, as well as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, it primarily targets the public’s willingness to volunteer personal information. The CIA, the panelists chirp, barely has to make an effort these days, seeing as we’re already telling them everything they want to know—an irony not likely to be lost on Privacy author Garret Keizer.
Keizer comes to the titular subject of his latest book armed with some well-honed barbs of his own, and he plays some of his most incisive observations for laughs. At points, Privacy even veers into knee-slap absurdity, a welcome tonic for the otherwise grave urgency of its contents.
Keizer’s comic flair notwithstanding, it becomes impossible while reading this book—a comprehensive inventory on individual privacy and privacy rights—to avoid a creeping sense of dread as a realization crystallizes: In the modern world, our lives have enmeshed in technology to such a degree that information carries ever-increasing potential to be used as a weapon against us. Advertisers, corporations, governments, law enforcement, employers, thieves, stalkers and hackers (to say nothing of airport security agents, or our own family and friends) all enjoy unprecedented access to our personal information and so does anyone with a cell phone camera who wishes to expose you on YouTube, against your will or without your knowledge. Meanwhile, as Keizer illustrates, the United States court system lags woefully behind in technological awareness and consistently tends to favor commercial interests seeking to further infiltrate what was once considered inviolable “personal” space. Keizer attempts to reverse-engineer that very concept—personal space—by measuring the present against the historical record.
Four days before Privacy‘s release, senior Wired writer Mat Honan’s “entire digital life was destroyed,” as he put it. In one fell swoop, hackers seized control of his Google, Twitter and AppleID accounts and proceeded to delete everything from his MacBook, iPad, iPhone and Gmail. Because Honan had daisy-chained those accounts, it enabled his assailants—a term Keizer would likely approve—to leapfrog from one account to the other like burglars rifling the rooms of a house. To add insult to injury, the hackers posted “racist and homophobic” messages from Honan’s Twitter. Not even the Onion staff could have scripted a more appropriately timed stroke of bad luck to befall someone: The Honan story broke on NPR the same day Privacy came out. Honan appeared on CNN two days later. His unfortunate debacle precisely illustrates the hazards that Keizer seeks to redress. It also provides the perfect backdrop for Keizer’s overarching question: How do we define privacy when the bounds of our space have become permeable in ways we may not even see?
In his 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr, author of books on information technology and Internet history such as The Shallows and The Big Switch, challenges the unrepentant desire of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to develop Google into a form of artificial intelligence capable of linking directly to the human brain.
In that light, those ads that appear on your Gmail screen mere seconds after you type an e-mail containing the same words take on a decidedly more sinister hue. If you find those ads creepy now, imagine if Brin and Page got their way … then pause to consider what it means for billions of people to be texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and web browsing all day, leaving long trails of passwords and credit card/bank account/Social Security numbers. Picture herds of glassy-eyed, overstimulated humans on a death march into the clutches of a giant Venus fly trap. Imagine the carnivorous plant burping up the remains of countless cat pictures and clever meme phrases. If only Little Shop of Horrors appeared more ridiculous by comparison …
From the outset, then, it’s tempting to dismiss Privacy as too little too late. However admirable Keizer may look galloping into the fray on his sensible horse, it practically goes without saying that the erosion of privacy has advanced to critical levels. How far gone is it? Have we truly reached a point of no return? What could we do to revive and restore the basic notion of human privacy, let alone the right to exercise it? What vocabulary would we even use to do so? And why do we risk so much for tenuous sensations of connection and security? Though the analysis that forms the crux of this book yields few concrete answers, Keizer’s ruminations amount to more than a proverbial piss in the wind. More importantly, the questions he sparks linger long after the book’s conclusion.
A one-time English teacher and Episcopal minister (Keizer never attended seminary, but was ordained by a church rule that allows for special exemptions in remote, sparsely populated areas), the author boasts a writing career spanning six previous books in addition to numerous articles for the New York Times, Harper’s and Mother Jones, among others. Each book lends itself to a one-word thumbnail that captures its main theme: anger, empathy, teaching, ministry, noise, etc. Keizer hitches his inquiries to broader considerations about social justice and economic disparity. He also addresses civility not unlike the way scientists work with physics … that is, as a vast scholastic discipline that requires its own set of discreet equations.
Like non-fiction’s answer to filmmaker John Sayles, Keizer typically follows a structure that aggregates individual essays into a continuous thread. In his last book, 2010’s The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, for example, he approaches the subject of disruptive noise from an array of angles. Each chapter represents a spoke on a wheel radiating off the central topic, while together the chapters interlock.
Keizer’s logic often leads into unforeseen channels that sparkle with the promise of fresh perspective. He possesses a knack for illustrating how issues relate to other issues in hidden ways. From Unwanted Sound, the reader emerges with a dynamic, inter-disciplinary framework to apply to the sonic realities of our world—sound as health issue, sound as marginalization, sound as torture, sound as ecological damage, sound as an unaccounted-for consequence of, say, air travel and magazine printing, sound as an agent of social cohesion on the one hand and catalyst for violence on the other, and even sound as a device for high-brow academics and low-brow bloggers to project their parallel strands of elitism onto punk and rap music.
Keizer adheres to the same core format in Privacy, but instead of the deliberate precision he demonstrates in Unwanted Sound, here he assumes a rambling tone. If Unwanted Sound reads like a full semester’s worth of elegantly composed essays all serving the same organized train of thought, Privacy unfolds like a scattershot conversation at a bar. While considerably more compact than its predecessor, the book still breezes by, even when the author takes sudden, jarring leaps rather than patiently setting up ideas. According to Shock Doctrine/No Logo author, globalization critic, and fellow Harper’s contributor Naomi Klein, “… very few writers combine thoughtfulness and rage as satisfyingly” as Keizer. In truth, rage rarely shows its face. Instead, Keizer proceeds from one idea to the next in a constant state of baffled indignation.
Keizer closely resembles a stubbornly inquisitive child whose relentless questioning eventually exposes the folly of his adult proctors … or maybe a wizened elder whose prickly exterior thinly disguises a deep compassion for others. He introduces Unwanted Sound with the somewhat foreboding line “You may not be interested in noise, but noise is interested in you”—his own riff on a statement about war often attributed to Leon Trotsky. Likewise, in Privacy, he inverts Jean-Paul Sartre’s iconic saying, “hell is other people.” by asserting that “heaven is other people [too].” So he betrays himself as a romantic who enjoys good company. Klein may have meant well with her endorsement, but Keizer comes off as neither polemical nor didactic. To his credit, he also never indulges in alarmism.
In fact, Keizer’s charming, measured delivery, if slightly bumpy this time around, nonetheless proves indispensible as he muses, say, on the privacy rights of a female hostage whose breast is visible in a photograph taken during a rescue attempt. He challenges a news industry that, in its brazen drive for profit, doesn’t even consider that the woman might be entitled to such privacy rights, packaging its utter disregard for them as the public’s “right to know.”
Keizer also takes on the Chicago Police Department’s longstanding policy of strip-searching every female brought into custody. He similarly challenges the female Chicago police officers who “essentially fist and rape with a nightstick” two women who protest the procedure, all while threatening to invite male officers to watch. He also confronts the City of Chicago’s refusal (until 1984) to change its policy for more than 30 years, leaving a trail of horrific (and under-reported) human rights abuses in its wake. And Keizer questions why the public isn’t being granted the legal right to know what foods have been genetically engineered. The book brims with these and other examples.
With Keizer shining a flashlight at that tangle of values distinct to American culture, the reader will better understand why, in the United States, it remains easier to this day to win a privacy lawsuit if you can prove financial damages. If your life is destroyed? Tough luck, as Keizer demonstrates via the example of Oliver Sipple, an out gay man who in 1975 saved then-president Gerald Ford’s life.
Sipple may have already come out prior to his heroic deed, Keizer notes, “but not so out as he was soon going to be.” Predictably, his reward came in the form of the news media descending on his story like wild dogs, his gay identity no longer his property to reveal to whom he chose, at a time he chose. Members of Sipple’s family, alas, had not known. The honor of breaking the news fell on the none-too-gracious San Francisco Chronicle.
“Today,” the author quips, “the revelation [of Sipple’s homosexuality] would be as instantaneous as the gunshot that almost killed Ford.”
In perhaps his most power-packed passage, Keizer steps back from the trees to assess the forest:
Late-stage capitalism seems to thrive on this double-edged strategy of marketing both the disease and the cure. The same economy (and sometimes the same corporation) generates carcinogenic chemicals and chemotherapy, literacy-stunting software and software to address literacy, fatty snacks and diet pills, processed food and vitamin tablets, labor-saving devices and exercise machines, deafening audio speakers and noise-reducing headphones – as well as computer spyware and security systems, infrared cameras and lightproof shades, guns for home invasion and guns for home defense. We are sold the bit for drilling the peephole, and we are sold the plugger to stop it up. We are sold the notion that this amounts to meaningful choice.
Keizer also places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Much of Privacy actually draws the reader’s attention to this realm of “meaningful choice.” (If this were not the case, the book would simply induce the same helplessness as the various privacy-threatening mechanisms it identifies.) Amusingly, Keizer includes among those threats writers who mine the lives of their loved ones for source material. Even more amusingly, he confesses to being one of them. And though he ignores music fans who turn to magazines to pore obsessively over the lives of their favorite artists, he does question the maxim that says public figures are fair game for prying … that if you achieve recognition, you’re basically asking for it. (It being the oppression of being on constant display.)
A line from art critic and Ways of Seeing author Jon Berger’s 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals?,” instructs that “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” Expounding on the subject of the radically diminished animal presence in industrial societies, Berger describes the hollow ruse that zoos represent.
“Even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you,” he writes, “all the concentration you muster will never be enough to [see it clearly].” Berger’s image works as a double-sided analogy for Privacy‘s investigations. Firstly, organisms forced to live in enclosures lose their life essence, and keeping them in constant view of gawking crowds carries with it a measure of cruelty, perversion, and sickness. We may not live in physical cages, but the accelerating transparency of our actions puts bars around us all the same. We’ve also placed ourselves on display and, strangely, continue to perform under the illusion that we’re the keepers of our cages.
Secondly: Does privacy itself somehow compare to the lethargic, marginalized zoo animal that Berger conjures? By gathering to contemplate it, do we resemble the zoo visitors who fool themselves into forgetting that they’re gazing on a shell of a life form? Has privacy eroded into a shell of itself?
That certainly appears to be the case when people use Facebook as a platform to bemoan Facebook’s murky, ever-shifting privacy policies. Yet without explicitly stating so, Keizer suggests that we may not have arrived there just yet. For all the injustices he catalogs, Keizer doesn’t actually present his case as a two-dimensional graph pitting rabid capitalism and repressive government force against the fragile integrity of the individual. Instead, he leaves open-ended his questions about how we engage relationships—relationships with our own bodies and habits, with each other, with institutions.
Corporations and governments, after all, arise in our own image. In a concrete sense, we invented them. In an abstract sense, we continue to invent them. If by reading Privacy the reader is able to re-configure internal definitions of external conditions, then Keizer has been successful. History may yet prove that this book has indeed arrived too late. Still, what better time than now to question the bounds of privacy when the bounds of our very humanity appear to be at stake? With morally suspect companies like Google having already achieved global omnipresence, finding ways to unhook from them before Larry Page and Sergey Brin can realize their fantasy should constitute a moral imperative.
At one point in Privacy, Keizer cites an experiment at Newcastle University where experimenters placed a poster depicting a pair of human eyes over an “honesty box” at an unsupervised hot drink counter in a common room frequented by university staff. The experimenters alternated between the eye poster and a poster of flowers. The experimenters found almost three times as much money in the box during the times they used the eye poster. Their findings back what common sense would already predict: That people will act more scrupulously when they feel someone’s watching. “It goes without saying,” Keizer contends, “that people who’d had their fingers chopped off were five times as unlikely to pilfer the loose change.” He goes on to say that “what [one proponent of the experiment] fails to appreciate is that once a society ceases to trust its people, it exempts them from any obligation to be trustworthy.”
Keizer’s response echoes a key point that NPR correspondent Eric Weiner makes in his travelogue, The Geography of Bliss: Without a sense of pervading mutual trust, societies fall apart.
For the time being, then … until the day comes when we can digitize and upload ourselves to servers and enter the trans-humanist kingdom of heaven, where Google’s Almighty A.I. God lords over the Googleplex from atop an ethernet cloud … until that day, resources like trust and dignity continue to survive, however precariously, within our grip.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a writer and musician based in Rochester, NY. He writes, podcasts, and posts interviews and short films at www.intersectionz.com.