Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Privacy

Privatizing Privacy

The show is not the show,

But they that go.

Menagerie to me

My neighbor be.

Fair play—

Both went to see.

—Emily Dickinson

Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:

Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)

In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.

Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.

House Hunters television promo (2010)

House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.

If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.

Seeing Things as They Appear (To Us)

Homeostasis. Nature has a way of correcting itself, resetting the scales and maintaining a kind of chaotic order. Tumbling, turning, Halloween, shifting, and inversion–this season is all about seeing the same old things in the cold grey light of dawn.

Or maybe it’s really just seeing things as they really are (for the first time?). To live in a post-Edgington world is to live in a world that is constantly under surveillance. We work ourselves into a frenzy over issues of privacy and security, not realizing just how hard we have bought into the system. We have, collectively, become Big Brother (something anyone from Gossip Girl could tell you if he or she just thought about it hard enough). Social paranoia is the name of the game as we look for the first thing that’ll confirm our suspicions. We see things, then, not just as they are (to us) but as they have always been–and always will be. We are deaf to protestations, because, after all, that’s exactly what a zombie would say (and we knew it all along, anyway). To live in a post-Edgington world is to live in our world.

Or maybe it’s seeing the evident truths of others long before they do? Our gaze, focused at a distance, loses perspective on who and what is in front of us. We struggle to see what we’ve already lost. Older, wiser, we see the long view and just how far away we are from where we want to go.

Or maybe it’s seeing the truths that are all too evident to us. Driven by the spirit of Mab, we fixate on revenge, redemption, absolution, forgiveness, or our maker. We cling, we claw, and we scrape by because, for us, there’s only one way out, one way forward, one way through.

Sight. Seeing. Being seen. It’s what a part of this season is all about.

In different ways, we deal with the fracture of our selves, forgetting that we, as creatures of Nature, will also be set right by the cold grey light of dawn.

The Future of Reputation

At its heart, Daniel Solove’s book The Future of Reputation is a frank discussion about the ways in which information aggregation, transmission, and expression affect online and offline social structures. While Solove recognizes that the Internet has undoubtedly conferred benefits to users, he also notes significant challenges posed by the architecture of online media and attempts to make readers aware of the slowly shifting changes within American (and, to some extent global) culture.

Although not necessarily central to Solove’s position, a basic understanding of computer-mediated communication is essential for appreciating the author’s later arguments regarding privacy and reputation. One point to consider, for example, is that a number of factors have increased the amount of information accessible to the average person (e.g., lowered barriers to participation, increasingly democratic access to the Internet with regard to both cost and tools, and the improvement of infrastructure) and, perhaps more importantly, the ability of the individual to produce content that is readily displayed on the Internet. The net result of this activity is an increase in the amount of information that is available online and the sheer mass is something not readily comprehended by individual users who do not have a strong sense of the bigger picture. To be entirely fair, this conclusion is not necessarily anomalous given that most users (1) do not have an internalized bird’s eye view of the structure of the Internet and (2) most likely do not have a valid/tangible frame of reference in real life. Nevertheless, Solove argues that the unchecked flow of information can result in incredibly damaging consequences—what we don’t see can definitely hurt us.

Take, for example, Solove’s discussion of social norms and behavior enforcement via shaming as a particularly salient case where unseen forces can present a very real threat; it is precisely because norms are hidden that they possess an enormous potential for havoc. Solove argues that social norms in real life have been fairly well established, even when they revolve around relatively recent advances in technology like cellular phones. Put another way, these are the sort of “unwritten rules” that govern social conduct in societies and may certainly differ based on group members and situational context; a norm is, quite simply, a standard of behavior that stems from mutual agreement as opposed to a sanctioned law (although laws, as Solove notes, may very well derive from social norms).[1] Conversely, however, behavioral norms in online life are still being formulated, which leads to confusion, misinformation, and unexpected consequences. Littered throughout Solove’s book are examples where an attempt to enforce social norms through online media careened out of control—although individuals anticipated a particular reaction to their outrage, intending, perhaps, to gain sympathy or commiseration, the end result was a firestorm of activity that quickly magnified into potentially treacherous proportions as audiences became vigilantes. The problem, Solove suggests, arises when we change the context for presented information without providing sufficient indicators regarding the surrounding conditions.[2] In essence, we take the information gleaned through a snapshot and attempt to build a global explanation that attempts to answer “how” or “why” a particular situation exists.

This change of context has important ramifications for discussions of the public/private continuum, which Solove notes has historically been considered a binary equation. Most notably, Solove argues that a gradation of public and private exists based on, among other things, reasonable expectation of privacy in a given situation. Connecting this back to information flow, Solove also notes that notions of privacy also exist in social networking services—indeed, who hasn’t heard about Facebook’s ongoing struggles with privacy issues?—and suggests that a closer examination of social network structures might offer some insight into considerations of privacy. For Solove, an understanding of the relationships between individuals in a network is a key component of recognizing the difference between secrecy and confidentiality (2007).

Finally, Solove weaves a discussion of reputation throughout his book, demonstrating how the concept can be construed as a social construct that is based upon an amassment of information. As such, the problems that plague information networks on the Internet greatly affect reputation construction, maintenance, systems, and management. For example, the aforementioned flood of information (both good and bad) has somewhat dire consequences for reputation as accurate statements mingle with the incorrect or defamatory in online spaces until the two become indistinguishable. Moreover, the negative pieces of information are able to propagate and linger on the Internet with relatively little concern for the resulting damage; at its worst, the relative anonymity of the online world allows people to eschew personal responsibility for their actions and occasionally promotes vicious rumor mongering that only serves to satiate our basest desires as humans.

[1]Solove, D. J. (2007). The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. For further discussion, see Ferdinand Tonnies’ discussion of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.


[2] I would also suggest that even if sufficient indicators were included, audiences might still be subject to the Fundamental Attribution Error (i.e., the preferential explanatory heuristic that serves to overemphasize personality characteristics of the subject in deference to possible environmental factors).