My Paper Proposal for Frontiers of New Media 2013

Here is my proposal for the 2013 Frontiers of New Media Conference, on the theme: The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia.

Publicity, Privacy, Anonymity: Futures of New Media

Proposal for The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia

Benjamin J. Robertson, English, University of Colorado, Boulder

In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, addressing in part concerns over photography, considered the question of a right to privacy in the United States. They begin, “That the individual shall have full protection in person and in property is a principle as old as the common law; but it has been found necessary from time to time to define anew the exact nature and extent of such protection. Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society.”

A century later, in the 1990s, the increasingly public availability and use of the the Internet and the World Wide Web should perhaps have engendered a new consideration about the exact nature of and right to privacy. Of course, discussions of privacy in the digital age happen nearly everyday. Civil libertarians continue debate authoritarians, law enforcement, and commercial interests about the necessity and value of privacy in the wake of warrantless wiretapping, the expectation of privacy in the cloud, and now Google Glass. When, in 2010, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg claimed that privacy is no longer that big a deal, claiming “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time,” it seemed that the largest, newest, and most powerful capitalist interests in the world would, in the future, determine the extent to which private citizens would retain their privacy. When, in late 2012, a Gawker writer (though an analysis of public information), revealed private citizen Michael Brutsch as notorious Reddit editor Violentacrenz, whatever our feelings about Brutsch and his online persona, we were forced to wonder whether, on the Internet, we ever enjoyed any privacy and whether we could ever hope to in the future.

However, our concerns and the contemporary debate about privacy in the age of networks remain, strikingly, mired in the same assumptions behind Warren and Brandeis’ arguments in the late nineteenth century. More precisely, these concerns and this debate have failed to engage with the “political, social, and economic changes”—not to mention the technological changes—of the past several decades. We must wonder if drawing upon a discourse of privacy that began in the early years of traditional photography can have anything to say about a world of Instagram and the WiFi and 4G networks that facilitate it.

This paper investigates the question of privacy, and by extension the nature of publicity (in the sense of one’s being-public) in the context of new media and network technology. It considers whether privacy—as imagined by Warren and Brandeis, dependent on Enlightenment notions of the human and traditional notions of the commons—can survive, should survive, in the contemporary world. If we are to be posthuman or create the posthumanities as a field of study, and if this posthumanism is to be something other than the mere extrapolation of the present (what Bernard Stiegler would call the calculation of the future), perhaps we must rid ourselves of those concepts that depend on and underpin the human itself. However, the end of privacy and, along with it, publicity, need not involve simply turning our data over to capitalists. If the private/public binary involves the movement of an individual from one space to another, from the home to the commons for example, anonymity involves a permanent sort of publicity, one no longer attached, however, to the private identity of the liberal human subject.


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