10.2 From Privacy to Autonomy

We have seen above that both phylogenetic development (from animal to human) and ontogenetic development (from child to adult) can best be seen as a process of progressive emancipation from the tyranny of the environment, or, alternatively, the acquisition of autonomy. By extending our nervous systems using the various extrasomatic tools we have augmented this autonomy by escaping the constraints of time, space, and personality.

Paradoxically, however, the latest extrasomatic tool, the computer, threatens this very autonomy. The invasion of privacy is a major theme in discussions about threats posed by computers. However, there is a deeper issue, which is seldom mentioned. The principal threat is not invasion of privacy but erosion of autonomy. Thus the crucial issue is not privacy, since that is a personal choice, but autonomy, the extent to which personal choice is possible.

Privacy is a relative term. It varies from individual to individual. We vary in the amount of privacy we want. Some of us have unlisted phone numbers and some of us carry a cell phone. We vary in our definition of privacy. Some of us define it as not being seen, some as not being heard, and some as not being known. Some of us define it the other way round - not having to see (a flasher, for instance), not having to hear (a neighbor's Rolling Stone record at 3 a.m.), not having to know (a stranger's problems during a trans-Atlantic flight). It varies from culture to culture.96 In many developing countries, the ground-floor street-side apartments are most expensive, since members of that culture value conviviality over privacy.

Autonomy, on the other hand, is a universal phenomenon. Every person in every culture has some capacity for independent action. What the person chooses to do and what constraints the culture places on what the person does varies, of course, from person to person and from society to society. However, autonomy is a distinguishing feature of our species.

In a massive study of the various variables which may affect performance in school, the only variable which correlated was "destiny control" - the extent to which children felt they had control over their lives [COLEMAN].97 The locus of control has become a significant independent variable in psychological research. People with an internal locus of control are more successful - in school and out - than people with an external locus of control [LEFCOURT]. This perceived locus of control is, of course, an aspect of the phenomenal world of the person. That is, it is an aspect of the world-as-the-person-sees-it rather than of the world-as-it-is. This subjective map of the objective world is more important than the objective world in determining the behavior of the person, since the person behaves not according to the world-as-it-is but according to the world-as-it-is-seen. A tree will have no effect on behavior unless the person perceives it, whereas a mugger that the person imagines to be lurking behind the tree will have an effect on behavior. The unperceived tree is part of the objective world but not of the subjective map, whereas the imagined mugger is a part of the subjective map but not of the objective world.

The central element within the subjective map is the self-concept - that is the person as that person sees him/herself. The most important aspect of autonomy is control of one's self-concept. We tend to think that this self-concept is discovered. This assumes that there is some "true" self that one gradually discovers. The evidence however is that it is an invention. Each of us invents our self.98 We vary in the degree to which this invention is an authentic expression of our growing from the inside out or a social fabrication based on our conditioning from the outside in. Those with an internal locus of control tend to the former and those with an external locus of control tend to the latter.

In his novel, The Tomorrow File, Lawrence Sanders imagines in our future a National Databank containing vast sources of information about each of us [SANDERS]. Whereas public officials have unlimited access to this databank, citizens have only limited access and, when they exceed this limit, are confronted with the chilling phrase "you have no need to know". Such a National Databank - a bureaucrat's dream and a humanist's nightmare - is not just science fiction. Here are some signs of the coming times.

Again and again, a databank is found to have more information than is justified by its ostensible function. For example, a personnel databank will contain information about an employee's punctuality, accident proneness, grooming, and so on. There is a public protest. Officials argue for the relevance of such information but bow to public pressure. Those little victories seem, however, like waves retreating as the tide moves inevitably forward. The debate has shifted over the years as personnel records get more and more personal. The official arguments are more and more convincing since, indeed, everything is related to everything else and, thus, importance of punctuality, accident proneness, grooming in selecting and evaluating employees leads to considerations of life styles, drinking habits and sexual preferences.

A single series of numbers which uniquely identifies each citizen is a useful device in the construction of such a national databank. Swedish citizens already have such a Person Number [MOSEY]. 451115-9305, 450425-4931, 461216-0038, and 500405-2444 may be more familiar to you as the rock group, ABBA. There is some pressure in Canada to use the Social Insurance Number (SIN) as such a Person Number. Once again, the argument is convincing It helps government provide social services more efficiently. SIN was introduced in 1964 for use only by the administrators of the Unemployment Insurance Commission and the Canada Pension Plan. Since then it has insidiously crept into many other areas. A space for it appeared in the 1965 Federal Income Tax form, it is used as an identifying code for members of Canada's armed forces, it is used for the same purpose in many universities, it is requested often when renting an apartment or cashing a check, and it has even been required by children signing up for the Peewee Hockey League.

This pressure continues despite evidence that it is not a good identifier but, rather, a valuable tool for fraud, since people tend to believe that there is only one per person. The Macdonald Commission on RCMP wrongdoing has been told that 50 percent of all cases of false pretenses made use of SIN cards. The storage capacity of computers is making the compilation of huge bodies of data technically feasible. The Personal Chip which not only identifies us perfectly but also locates us is already here, though so far it has been used mainly to keep track of our pets. We are familiar with being uniquely identified by our fingerprints and DNA code but, unless we stray, need not get on to that file We are already familiar with personal locators when we realize that anyone could follow our activities through the trail of credit card bills we leave in our wake but we can choose not to use such credit cards.99 However, we are not yet sensitized to a system which does this so efficiently, and with the pressure to adopt such a system in a pragmatic society, which tends to assume that what can be done should be done. Invention is the mother of necessity.

I don't know you. (Perhaps, I do - but, for the sake of this argument, let's assume I don't.) When I meet you, as indeed I hope to do, you can present yourself to me as you wish. An important manifestation of your current self-concept and an important determinant of your future self-concept is this freedom to represent your self as you wish. The invention of your own self-concept is, in turn, a central aspect of your personal autonomy. However, if I can find out a great deal about you through the internet before meeting you, you lose some control over your presentation of yourself. This is true even if you only think I can find out about you, since, as argued above, your behavior is determined by the world as you see it.

Some of us are pre-judged. That is, because they possess a certain attribute - a black skin, a woman's body, or whatever - certain people have already decided some things about them before they have even met them. A spate of formal studies and informal autobiographies have documented the debilitating effect of dealing with such prejudices. We all deal with this to some degree - someone has heard gossip about you, passes it on to you at the first meeting, and refuse to believe your disclaimers as you stand before them, in flesh and blood, telling them that the gossip was wrong.

However, the internet shifts this problem into a different dimension. When someone who knows that they are going to meet you can acquire considerable information about you at the speed of light (faster, contrary to rumor, than the speed of rumor), then this tendency is magnified from an occasional irritation to a constant concern. Remembering the importance of the subjective map, as argued above, it does not really matter whether the person does so or not. If you think that the person may have done so, then your perceived locus of control is made more external. You are pre-judged when you meet.

Some of us are famous. That is, are known - or, rather, are known of - by many people that they do not know. Famous people often have identity problems because so many people pre-judge them on the basis of their record rather than of their personality. This prejudgment could be considered as a precise prejudice. That is, the person is not pre-judged because of certain superficial attributes - black skin, woman's body - but because of his/her public image.100

The internet makes us all famous. We are all famous not so much in the manner suggested by Andy Warhol that everyone in our modern media-saturated world can be famous for fifteen minutes but in the sense that we are all potentially know-able in fifteen minutes. That is, anyone who wishes to do so and has access to the relevant web sites on the internet can know of us even though we do not know of them. Most famous people choose to establish a public record (and many of them work hard to build it) and are willing to pay the price of fame. Many of us choose obscurity but could be forced by the internet to accept the disadvantages of fame with none of the compensations.

There is some evidence that people who have earned fame can deal with it better than those who have it thrust up them. If it has "taken forty years to become an overnight success" (as one famous person put it), then you have built up such a positive self-concept that it can be little affected by the public image. The fame is an incidental by-product of doing something well. Your positive self-concept is based on this solid competence rather than ephemeral fame.

People who have unearned fame tend to find it harder to deal with. One form of this is vicarious fame. Kathy Cronkite, daughter of a famous person, describes it as being On the edge of the spotlight and Marilyn Funt, wife of another famous person, asks Are you anybody? Those compilations of accounts by the children and spouses, respectively, of celebrities suggest that such reflected fame causes many personality problems. The "fame" of ordinary people in an information society, in which much information is accessible about them is, of course, such unearned fame.

Some of us have police records. The disadvantage of having such a record is recognized in the practice of erasing the records of juvenile offenders. However, the adult criminal is assumed to have "hardened" and the record remains. Convicted criminals return to society trailing their records which mitigate against re-entry and often forces them back again into the only society in which they are welcome - the crime school inside prison and the old-boys network outside prison.

Personal databanks gives us all "records". If it is a good record, then it does not have the debilitating effect of a criminal record. However, good and bad records alike have an influence on what could be considered "recividism" outside of prison - that is, the tendency within all of us to return again and again to what we did in the past. Any record of our past makes it more and more difficult for us to escape the tyranny of the past. The record also makes it more difficult to live our lives as an experiment. When so much of one's life is recorded, one is apprehensive about making mistakes (i.e. those things by which children learn and adults are supposed to learn). A youthful escapade or an uncharacteristic blunder while temporarily upset could haunt a person for the rest of a life.

Some of us live in total institutions. Many of us are critical of the donning of masks and the playing of roles off stage. However, Erving Goffman, who uses the metaphor of the theater to describe how we present ourselves in everyday society, argues for impression management [GOFFMAN 1959]. In contrast, Sidney Jourard argues for self-disclosure, the open and honest presentation of one's self [JOURARD]. Being a therapist, Jourard aspired to encourage self-disclosure in his clients and found that he could indeed help create a climate for self-disclosure by practicing self-disclosure himself. However, he found that, even in the therapeutic situation which is explicitly designed for self-disclosure, there was a great deal of impression management. The important thing is that we are each able to chose, in different situations, between self-disclosure and impression management. Goffman argues that the de-humanization in total institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc.) is partly due to the fact that our "props" are taken away and, with them, the very human right of representing ourselves as we wish [GOFFMAN 1961].

Personal databanks could have a similar effect. They would not take away our masks and our costumes but they could make them transparent. If another person could meet us on paper (so to speak), by consulting the internet about us, before meeting us in person, then our capacity to manage our impression is very much limited. In a classic study on impression formation, a guest lecturer was presented to half the class as a "rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined" and to the other half as "a rather warm person, industrious, critical, practical and determined" [KELLEY]. The "warm" subjects liked the lecturer better and volunteered more in the class discussion than the "cold" subjects. If the simple substitution of "warm" for "cold" can have a significant impact on the subsequent impression, then the increasingly more extensive information on the internet could result in a prejudgment which a person would find difficult to change.

96   The difficulty in translating the word "privacy", even within what linguists derisively called Standard Average European, suggests that it may just be an Anglo-Saxon aberration. There is no exact equivalent in French. Anyway, in those enlightened times, who can even talk of "private parts" without smiling?

97   Actually "social class" also correlated. However, this is probably because "social class" is also correlated with "destiny control". Lower-class children tend to perceive themselves as having less control over their lives (partly, at least, because this is true - they do indeed have less control over their lives).

98   A theme which runs through this book is that what we think of as inventions are really discoveries - we invent nothing - we merely plagiarize nature (Baudrillard). On the other hand, what we tend to think of as a discovery (our self) is really an invention. In the "mind movie", we create our own character and write our own script.

99   In a recent night out on the town, I noticed that my signature got progressively more and more messy, as the pub "scrawl" proceeded. It occurred to me then that someone interested in reconstructing my life would know not only where I had dined and wined on that night but could retrace my zig-zag path through downtown Montreal. The fact that this thought would even occur to a respectable member of the establishment like myself suggests how far paranoia has gone.

100   A big fellow in the corner called my date over as we left after dinner at the Hog's Breath Inn in Carmel, California. I found myself being introduced to Clint Eastwood. What do you say to someone you know of but don't know? I didn't know. So I spent my time talking to his wife Maggie, while Pam talked to Clint. I knew what to say to a stranger I'm meeting for the first time. It occurred to me later that Clint Eastwood (and other famous people) have to deal with this awkwardness all the time. It can't be easy.
Norman Mailer made one of the most articulate statements in the identity problems of famous people. He said that, after becoming too famous too soon on publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, every relationship became a triangle - the other person, his self and his image. People who only knew of him tended to interact with the image, and thus pushed him to merge with his image. The long time between his first and second novel was spent disentangling the self from the image. Knowing what we know now about self-fulfilling prophecies, we can clearly see how difficult such a disentanglement is.