Felix Stalder on Thu, 1 Jul 2010 13:31:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Autonomy and Control in the Era of Post-Privacy

[This is my contribution to the current issue (#19) of 'open. Cahier on Art 
and the Public Domain.' which focuses on 'Beyond Privacy. New Notions of 
the Private and Public Domains.' In this text, I try to analyze why the 
notion of privacy seems to be loosing its capacity to function as a 
political category, despite all the privacy commissioners and NGOs fighting 
to protext privacy. Felix]


One way to characterize Western modernity, the period we are just leaving, 
is by its particular structure of control and autonomy. It emerged as the 
result of two historic developments â one leading to large, hierarchic 
bureaucracies as the dominant form of organization, the other to the 
(bourgeois, male) citizen as the main political subject. Privacy played a 
key role in maintaining a balance between the two. Today, this arrangement 
is unraveling. In the process, privacy loses (some of) its social 
functions. Post-privacy, then, points to a transformation in how people 
create autonomy and how control permeates their lives.

Bureaucracies and Citizens, 1700-1950

The first of these developments was the expansion of large-scale 
institutions, first state bureaucracies, then, since the late nineteenth 
century, commercial corporations.1 Their attempts to organize social 
processes on a previously unimaginable scale â in terms of space, time and 
complexity â required vast amounts of information about the world, most 
importantly about the subjects in their domain. In 1686, the Marquis de 
Vauban proposed to Louis XIV a yearly census of the entire population, so 
that the king would be âable, in his own office, to review in an hourâs 
time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the 
head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his 
grandeur, his wealth, and his strengths.â2 At the time, such an endeavour 
could not be conducted for practical reasons, but the vision spawned an 
entire range of new theoretical approaches to render the world available in 
such a way. In 1749, the German political scientist Gottfried Achenwall 
(1719-1772) brought them together under the term âstatisticsâ, defined as 
the âscience dealing with data about the condition of a state or 
communityâ. Yet, handling such data became ever more difficult as the drive 
to collect intensified. In the late nineteenth century, the US census, held 
once a decade, reached a critical juncture when the processing of the data 
amassed could not be finished before the next census was to be held. The 
historian James Beniger put this âcontrol crisisâ at the beginning of the 
computer revolution and the information age enabled by it.3 Without the 
systematic gathering of standardized information and its processing into 
actionable knowledge, none of the functions of the modern state, or the 
modern economy, could have developed, beginning with centralized taxation, 
standing armies, social welfare provisions, or international trade and 
production of complex goods and services. Thus, modernity, and particularly 
high modernity, was characterized by an expansion of control by large 
bureaucracies based on massive amounts of information, conceptualizing 
people as standardized data-points to be manipulated for their own, or 
someone elseâs, good. But as long as life was lived in a largely analogue 
environment, the comprehensive gathering of data remained such an extremely 
labour-intensive affair that only massive bureaucracies were capable of 
conducting it, and even highly developed states could do it only once every 
ten years. Under such conditions of limited information processing capacity 
(as we can see now), the drive to scale up these bureaucracies created 
strategies to radically reduce complexity, rendering them rigid and 

Yet, during the same period of expanding centralized control, new spaces of 
autonomy were created. People, or, more precisely, educated townsmen, 
forged a new type of subjectivity. They began to think of themselves less 
as members of larger collectives (the guild, the church) and more as 
persons individually endowed with capacities, self-responsibility and, 
thus, a certain freedom from these collective entities. Central to this new 
sense of individuality was the secular notion of an inner life.4 It was 
characterized by the innate capacity to reflect and reason. This is, 
perhaps, the central notion of the enlightenment which celebrated the 
ability âto use oneâs understanding without guidance from anotherâ, to use 
Immanuel Kantâs famous definition (1784). While these capacities were 
located in the inner world of the individual, the enlightenment thought of 
them as universal. In principle, every man (though not necessarily women) 
should reach the same reasoned conclusion, if presented with the same 
evidence. Based on this universality of reason, the subject could 
justifiably contradict authority and tradition.

The notion of privacy protected this inner world (and by extension, the 
home and the family life) from interference by authorities and thus 
protected the ability of the person to come to reasoned opinions about the 
world. In the liberal conception, this protected inner world provided the 
foundation of the ability of each man to form his own opinions to be 
exchanged in the public sphere in a rational deliberation of public 
affairs.5 This capacity for reasoning, in turn, provided the legitimacy for 
the inclusion of these reasoned men (and later women), elevated to the 
status of citizens, in governing the state. Indeed, this claim to power was 
increasingly regarded as the only legitimate one, superseding tradition as 
the main source of authority. Much of the concerns about the loss of 
privacy today stems from a commitment to this tradition of liberal 

Starting in the late nineteenth century, however, the conception of the 
inner world changed radically. With the emergence of consumer capitalism, 
personal identity became a project and a problem with an urgency previously 
unknown. Inner life was no longer viewed as comprised of a relatively 
narrow set of coherent universals, but as an infinite expanse of 
conflicting drives and influences, forming a dynamic pattern unique to each 
person. Sigmund Freud, as the historian of psychoanalysis Eli Zaretsky 
argues, became the leading interpreter of the psychological tensions 
triggered by the consumer society.7 The inner world came now to be seen as 
the ground on which individual identity (rather than universal reason) was 
anchored. Privacy protected the complex, and potentially dangerous 
exploration conducted by the individual as he or she tried to come to terms 
with the pressures and desires at the core of individuality. If we follow 
Zaretskyâs approach of charting the transformation of subjectivities (and 
of psychoanalysis as the conceptual framework to articulate one type of it) 
alongside the transformations of capitalism, the type of subjectivity 
described by Freud started to lose its dominance in the 1960s.

New social movements began to react to the pressures and opportunities 
created by yet another transformation, towards what was then called the 
post-industrial society and is now called, more accurately, the network 
society. Rather than focusing on introspection, the new social movements 
promoted a new type of subjectivity emphasizing expressiveness, 
communication and connection. At the same time, feminists began to develop 
a sustained critique of privacy, understanding family relations not as the 
counteracting force to capitalism, but rather as its continuation. Thus, 
privacy would not shield from domination, but transfer it from the field of 
economics to that of gender relations.8 However, despite the emergence of 
these freedom-oriented social movements, hierarchical bureaucracies 
remained the dominant form of social organization, and despite the feminist 
critique of privacy, it could still function as an important concept to 
shield people against the grip of these institutions. In Germany, for 
example, popular resistance against the national census (VolkszÃhlung) 
arose in the mid 1980s, mainly on grounds of privacy protection against the 
preying eyes of the state.

Networked Individualism and Personalized Institutions

Fast forward 30 years. Many countries, including Germany, no longer conduct 
national censuses because the data has already been collected and can be 
aggregated flexibly from the various databases at the heart of government. 
An ever growing number of people is willing to actively publish vast 
amounts of information about themselves online for everyone to see and is 
happily using services that collect very fine-grained data about very 
personal affairs. While people still claim to be concerned about privacy 
when asked in surveys, their practices seem to indicate that such concerns 
have largely vanished in daily life. What happened? Here, I want to focus 
on two pieces of this puzzle. The first concerns the transformation of 
subjectivity on a mass scale. The second the changing relationships between 
individuals and institutions concerning the delivery of personalized, 
rather than standardized services.9

First, subjectivity. The values of the social movements of the 1960s, 
severed from their political roots, have spread throughout society. They 
are now dominant. Flexibility, creativity and expressiveness are regarded 
today as generally desirable personal traits, necessary for social success, 
and, increasingly, seen as corresponding to the âtrue natureâ of human 
beings. As traditional institutions are losing their ability to organize 
peopleâs lives (think of the decline of life-long employment, for example), 
people are left to find their own orientation, for better or worse. While 
this has often been seen as primarily a negative process of atomization,10 
we can now also see new forms of sociability emerge on a mass scale. These 
are based on the new infrastructures of communication and (relatively) 
cheap transportation to which vast amounts of people have gained access. 
But the sociability in this new environment is starkly different from 
earlier forms, based largely on physical co-presence. In order to create 
sociability in the space of flows people first have to make themselves 
visible, that is, they have to create their representation through 
expressive acts of communication. In order to connect within such a 
network, a person has to be, at the same time, suitably different, that is 
creative in some recognizable fashion, and abide by the social conventions 
that hold a particular network together. There are both negative and 
positive drivers to making oneself visible in such a way: there is the 
threat of being invisible, ignored and bypassed, on the one hand, and the 
promise of creating a social network really expressing oneâs own 
individuality, on the other. This creates a particular type of subjectivity 
that sociologists have come to call networked individualism. âIndividuals,â 
Manuel Castells notes, âdo not withdraw into the isolation of virtual 
reality. On the contrary, they expand their sociability by using the wealth 
of communication networks at their disposal, but they do so selectively, 
constructing their cultural worlds in terms of their preferences and 
projects, and modifying it according to their personal interests and 
values.â11 Since these networks of sociability are horizontal forms of 
organization, based on self-selected, voluntary associations, they require 
some degree of trust among the people involved. While trust deepens over 
the course of interaction, as it always does, there needs to be a minimum 
of trust in order to start interacting in the first place. What could be a 
chicken-and-egg problem is in practice solved by the availability of the 
track record of interests and projects that each person creates by 
publishing â as an individual and voluntarily â information about 
him/herself, what he or she is interest in, passionate about, and investing 
time in. In other words, being expressive â about anything â is the 
precondition of creating sociability over communication networks, which, in 
turn, come to define people and their ability to create or participate in 
projects that reflect their personality.12 This need to express oneâs 
desires and passions in order to enter into a sociability that creates 
oneâs identity slowly but surely erodes the distinction between the inner 
and outer world, so central to the modern subjectivity, forged in the 
Gutenberg Galaxy. Subjectivity is being based on interaction, rather than 
introspection. Privacy in the networked context entails less the 
possibility to retreat to the core of oneâs personality, to the true self, 
but more the danger of disconnection from a world in which sociability is 
tenuous and needs to be actively maintained all of the time. Otherwise, the 
network simply reconfigures itself, depriving one of the ability to develop 
oneâs personality and life.

Second, large institutions. One of the progressive promises of the modern 
liberal state, and modern bureaucratic institutions in general, was to do 
away with privilege and treat everyone equally, based on the premise that 
no one is above (or below) the law and that all decisions are taken in 
accordance to the law (or, more generally, written procedure). Rigidity and 
impersonality have long been defined as core features of bureaucracies. Max 
Weber, at the beginning of the twentieth century when bureaucracies grew to 
an unprecedented scale, famously feared that their superior rationality 
would force society into an iron cage. Today, such impersonality is seen 
neither as a liberation from the injustices of privilege nor as rational, 
but as the dead hand of bureaucracy. Because, neoliberal ideology holds, we 
are not equal, but each unique. This creates both a push and a pull 
profoundly transforming the relationships between institutions and 
individuals. Even very large institutions are faced with demands to treat 
everyone individually. This is best visible in new institutions that have 
had to contend with these demands since their inception. The corporations 
that make up Web 2.0 are all about personalization, recommendations and 
individualized results. For that, they demand vast amounts of personal 
data, either directly provided by the user (by filling out registration 
forms, uploading personal contact lists and calendars, designating 
favourites and exchange partners) or indirectly collected (through log-
analysis, processing of user histories, etcetera). Google, of course, is 
the most ambitious in this area, but in principle, itâs not different from 
other Internet companies.13 But this is not an isolated development in one 
sector, but symptomatic for the uneven transformation of the economy as a 
whole. On the level of manufacturing, this is expressed in the shift from 
the Fordist model of standardized mass production to a networked model of 
highly flexible production for precisely defined niches, all the way down 
to the size of one. On the level of services, this is expressed in the 
shift towards the delivery of personalized services. Virtually all 
consumer-oriented industries and services are today employing customer-
relationship management (CRM) vastly increasing the amounts of personal 
data collected across the board, allowing the delivery of highly targeted 
products and services. Of course, there is also a very strong pull by the 
corporations themselves to learn as much as possible about their 
customers/users, in order to fine-tune each relationship to maximize 
profit. There seems to be an implicit deal, accepted by the vast majority 
of consumers/users: in exchange for personal data, one receives personal 
service, assuming that personalized is better than standardized. In order 
to succeed in such an environment, bureaucracies, even large-scale ones, 
strive to become less hierarchical, more flexible and highly personal, 
entering into intimate relationships with the people they deal with.

Autonomy and Control

The old balance between autonomy and control, represented by the figures of 
the citizen and the large bureaucracy, sustained by privacy, is in the 
process of disappearing. Autonomy is increasingly created within 
(semi)public networks, held together by mass self-communication and more or 
less frequent physical encounters.14 New projects to increase autonomy â 
that is the ability for people to lead their own lives according to their 
own plans â are being created on all scales and with the greatest variety 
of definitions of what autonomy actually looks like. What is characteristic 
to all of them is that the condition for autonomy is no longer understood 
as being rooted in the inner world, withdrawn from the social world, but in 
networked projects deeply engaged in the social world. Such projects range 
from the global justice campaigns, to the resurgence of local identities, 
from loosely coordinated political pressure campaigns to support groups 
that help people cope with personal traumas. They can be left-wing or 
right-wing, destructive or nurturing. Engagement in such projects is 
voluntary and they are held together by common protocols of communication 
and based on trust among their participants. Trust, in turn, is enabled by 
the horizontal availability of personal information about each other. In 
some ways, the dynamics of traditional offline communities â where everyone 
knows everyone â are being transported, transformed and scaled-up to new 
communities based on online communication. Of course, what âknowing a 
personâ means is rather different, and often distributed communities are 
too large to even superficially âknowâ or count as a âfriendâ everyone 
involved. Yet, if need be, everyone can be looked up and become suitably 
known very quickly, because everyone, voluntarily or involuntarily, leaves 
personal traces than can be accessed in real time or after the fact with 
great ease. While this, in itself, is not an entirely unproblematic 
condition â what about the freedom to have certain acts fade from memory?15 
â it provides the basis for the rise of new voluntary associations. This 
can help to increase real autonomy of people, because it is focused on 
creating inter-personal worlds in which autonomy can be lived on a daily 
basis, even if its extends only to some fraction of oneâs life.

More problematic is the shift towards personalized institutions. With the 
rising complexity of the services delivered, personalization does have its 
benefits and the dead hand of bureaucratic formalism often can be, indeed, 
rather deadly. Yet, personalization also increases the power and control 
that such institutions can exercise, rather than the opposite. All the 
knowledge that goes into framing the character of the personalization 
resides at the end of the corporation that gets an ever increasing range of 
tools to fine-tune each relationship to optimize the pursuit of its own 
interests (usually profit maximization). As long as the actions of the 
user/customer are aligned with those of the corporation, they are supported 
and amplified through the granting of privileges, such as discounts, extra 
features and opportunities, faster delivery, and so on. However, as soon as 
the actions are no longer aligned (because they are hostile or not 
profitable), personalization turns into discrimination, based on whatever 
mechanisms are programmed into the underlying algorithms.16 For the user, 
confronted with subtle, entirely opaque and unaccountable decision-making 
mechanisms, it is nearly impossible to tell if one is being privileged or 
discriminated. There is no more standard against which this can be 

Thus, the possibilities to create meaningful autonomy are being expanded 
through voluntary, horizontal associations that directly express their 
membersâ interests and desires. At the same time and through the same 
infrastructure, the return of privileges and discrimination expands the 
ability of institutions to subtly or overtly shape other peopleâs lives 
according to their agendas. Thus, we can observe a structural 
transformation of the conditions for autonomy as well as the practices of 
control. Privacy no longer serves to mediate between them. What should 
replace it are two things. New strategies for connective opacity extending 
both horizontally â modulating what those outside a particular network can 
see of what is going on inside â and vertically â modulating what the 
providers of the infrastructure can see of the sociability they enable. In 
a way, this can be seen as privacy 2.0, but it takes as its unit not the 
individual, but an entire social network. But that is not enough. We also 
need mandatory transparency of the protocols, algorithms and procedures 
that personalize the behaviour of these newly flexible bureaucracies, so 
that the conditions of discrimination can be contested.

1. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in 
American Business (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1977).

2. Quoted in: James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to 
Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale: Yale University Press, 
1998), 11.

3. James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic 
Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 
Press, 1986).

4. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity 
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

5. JÃrgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An 
Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, translated by Thomas Burger 
with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989 

6. See, for example, Wolfgang Sofsky, Privacy: A Manifesto, translated by 
Steven Rendall (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 
or, if you read German, Beate RÃssler, Der Wert des Privaten (Frankfurt am 
Main: Suhrkamp, 2002).

7. Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of 
Psychoanalysis (New York: Vintage, 2005).

8. Catherine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, 
MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

9. I have addressed the role of the preventive security regimes elsewhere. 
Felix Stalder, âBourgeois Anarchism and Authoritarian Democraciesâ, First 
Monday, vol. 13 (2008) no. 7 (July).

10. The classic here is: Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and 
Revival of American Community (New York: Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, 
2000). A recent addition to this perspective: Jacqueline Olds and Richard 
S. Schwartz, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first 
Century (New York: Beacon Press, 2009).

11. Manuel Castells, Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
2009), 121.

12. Christophe Aguiton and Dominique Cardon, âThe Strength of Weak 
Cooperation: An Attempt to Understand the Meaning of Web 2.0â, 
Communications & Strategies, no. 65 (2007).

13. For an analysis of Googleâs comprehensive data-gathering strategy, see 
Felix Stalder and Christine Mayer, âThe Second Index: Search Engines, 
Personalization and Surveillanceâ, in: Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder 
(eds.), Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google (Innsbruck/New 
Jersey: Studienverlag/Transaction Publishers, 2009), 98-116.

14. For the relationship between communication and travel, see Jonas 
Larsen, John Urry and Kay Axhausen, Mobilities, Networks, Geographies 
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

15. Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the 
Digital Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

16. David Lyon (ed.), Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and 
Automated Discrimination (London/New York: Routledge, 2003).

-> http://felix.openflows.com/node/143

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------- books out now:
*|Deep Search.The Politics of Search Beyond Google.Studienverlag 2009
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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