Book Review: Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society by Firmin DeBrabander
In Life after Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society, Firmin De Brabander argues that rather than seeking to protect and revive privacy in the digital age, we should instead focus on becoming engaged citizens who contribute to a democratic public sphere. This lucid book is public philosophy at its finest, written Paul Showlerthough he wonders if there might be ways to envision new and better forms of privacy for our current times.
Life after Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society. Firmin De Brabander. Cambridge University Press. 2020.
Find this book (affiliate link):
There is something paradoxical in our concern for privacy. Most of us chafe at the thought of our data being collected, analyzed and sold. No one is celebrating the rise of government and corporate surveillance. And yet, the outrage we feel over the latest data breach or bizarre use of machine learning is usually short-lived. We continue to give up our smartphone data – sometimes in exchange for something as insignificant as a coupon – and happily divulge our most intimate details on social media.
We say we care about privacy. But our actions suggest otherwise.
by Firmin De Brabander Life after privacy poses a bold challenge to theorists and reformers seeking to resurrect privacy in the digital age. At best, these hopes are practically implausible. It’s not just that we’ve become too dependent on information technology (we have), or that Big Tech has become too powerful (it is); is that the advantages of using big data to solve our problems have become undeniable. At worst, however, an overly short-sighted focus on privacy can be politically self-defeating and stand in the way of rescuing our imperiled democratic institutions. Instead of advising individuals to “reject, resist, or evade surveillance, or slack off their devotion to digital technology,” DeBrabander calls on us to “empower people politically in the face of their many spies” (74). Rather than protecting privacy, we should focus on becoming (and raising) engaged citizens capable of contributing to the public sphere.
One of the central assertions of the book is that privacy is much less integral to democracy than is generally thought. For many of its proponents, privacy is a “universal aspiration and enduring and consistent value or institution” (76), without which political freedom or human flourishing would be impossible. DeBbander disputes this assumption on historical grounds. Privacy is far from monolithic and has meant different things across time and space. In the United States, the current paradigm of privacy—the sought-after suburban seclusion in a detached single-family home—is a recent invention that for most of human history would have been unfathomable.
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Privacy, as we know it now, is the result of a complicated history whose roots DeBrabander trace back to ancient Stoic practices of introspection (and their associated virtues of emotional self-mastery) and early Christian ideas of purification. spiritual. It was not until the early modern period that privacy became a specifically political concern. Its connection to democracy emerged gradually as a result of legal struggles for property, the ascendancy of a centralized bureaucratic state, and high prosperity. But this suggests that there is no reason to regard privacy as “inherent and essential to democracy” (75). Moreover, if privacy prevailed (at least in some form) long before our current legal systems and suburban infrastructures, then any benefits it is supposed to confer – for example, autonomy or freedom of expression – may be guaranteed by other means.
Someone might grant these historic assertions while considering privacy an indispensable feature of our current political landscape. Because it provides individuals with the space necessary for self-determination, the argument goes, privacy is a prerequisite for political autonomy. For DeBrabander, this is just “wishful thinking” (113). Why should we think that, left to their own devices, people will develop the capacities necessary to make valid political contributions? Who’s to say that privacy won’t breed sadism, docility or apathy? This argument rests on one of the most implausible ideas of classical liberalism: that we are isolated subjects who are unaffected by and through our social relationships with others. Life after privacy devotes considerable space to demystifying this atomistic view, which has shaped much of our public discourse on the value of privacy.
These illuminating discussions of the history of privacy and its connection to liberal political theory set up DeBrabander’s own positive proposition: forget privacy. Or, at the very least, stop rallying to a heavy individualistic conception of it. The power imbalances between Big Tech and individual consumers are too great, and the potential abuses by governments have become too insidious. Preserving and strengthening democratic institutions in a world where privacy is irreparably threatened requires a vigorous and concerted revival of the public sphere. And this requires a renewal of the virtues, capacities and values instilled by democratic association in its various forms.
Drawing inspiration from American philosopher John Dewey, DeBbander believes that people are politically empowered when they have the skills and dispositions necessary for active participation in public life. Democracy is not something the existence of which can be imposed by law, but must be “practiced, nurtured and taught in the family, school, church, social clubs or professional advocacy groups or policies” (125). Notably, DeBrabander is skeptical that online associations will instill democratic habits. Social media presents too many anti-social temptations with its promise of anonymity.
There’s a lot to admire Life after privacy. One of the virtues of the book is its political realism. It takes seriously the possibility that even the best theoretical arguments for privacy may not leave our digital habits unchanged, or that regulation (however valuable) may fall short of authoritarianism. Moreover, DeBrabander is remarkably charitable toward theoretical perspectives with which he disagrees, and his lucid treatment of a wide range of historical and contemporary political philosophers is nothing short of awe-inspiring. This is public philosophy at its best.
While sympathetic to the book’s historical arguments and calls for a renewed public sphere, I sometimes struggled to discern the author’s thoughtful stance toward privacy. Some passages seem to lament its erosion in a world of mass surveillance, while directing our efforts elsewhere on pragmatic grounds. It would be pleasant if we could save our privacy – but good luck convincing people to give up the convenience of a smartphone! As the book progresses, however, one gets the impression that privacy – at least as it is currently conceived – does more harm than good, and is best left without. . Although these positions are not necessarily contradictory, the tension between them remains unresolved. Moreover, whatever its shortcomings, one wonders whether privacy would still play a significant role in a world – as DeBrabander would have it – where the democratic ethos has been renewed and the public sphere refortified. Perhaps some forms of privacy are (or should be) dead. But should that stop us from considering new (and better) ones to replace them?
Please read our comment policy before commenting..
Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Shortened URL for this post: https://bit.ly/3LcYw1l
About the Examiner
Paul Showler – University of Oregon
Paul Showler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on questions of ethics, philosophical methodology and pragmatism.