Book reviews: In the depths of the digital age, Financial Review, Nov 17 2016
The most socially alarming effect of the digital revolution is the state of continuous surveillance endured, with varying levels of complaisance, by everyone who uses a smartphone. Bernard Harcourt’s intellectually energetic book Exposed surveys the damage inflicted on privacy by spy agencies and private corporations, encouraged by citizens who post constant online updates about themselves. “We are not being surveilled today,” he writes, “so much as we are exposing ourselves knowingly, for many of us with all our love, for others anxiously and hesitantly.” In place of the medieval idea of the king’s two bodies – the king’s royal powers derived from heaven and his natural self – Harcourt proposes the two bodies of “the liberal democratic citizen … the now permanent digital self, which we are etching into the virtual cloud with every click and tap, and our mortal analog selves, which seem by contrast to be fading like the colour on a Polaroid instant photo.” (This seems accurate about common feelings, but overestimates the likelihood of digital immortality; in fact vast web-based communities, with all their history, have been swept away with a click.)
Harcourt draws heavily on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) in his account of today’s “expository society”. Unlike Jeremy Bentham’s never-built 19th-century panopticon analysed by Foucault, where all-knowing, all-powerful jailers observed unknowing, unwilling prisoners, everyone in Harcourt’s expository society of Twitter posts and Instagram feeds can spy on everyone else and with few exceptions everyone wants to be spied on. A new kind of celebrity, perceived both as enviable and appalling, comes to those whose only talent is for insistent self-exposure. Worst of all, for Harcourt, is the knowing compliance of today’s consumers with forms of censorship and control once in government hands but now, for better or worse, practised by corporations. The Apple Store, gateway for all software accessible to iPhone users, blocks apps designed specifically to display politically sensitive matter like pictures of drone strikes. “Apple, it seems, has taken on [the] state function of censorship, though its only motive seems to be profit.”
After Harcourt’s book appeared, Apple and the state came into conflict when the FBI tried to force Apple to make it possible to decrypt a terrorist’s iPhone. Apple holds to the largely admirable view that it should provide no means to invade anyone’s privacy, while its software is designed to intrude on everyone’s privacy with messages, ads, alerts, and notifications, and to record and sell everything spoken to the phone’s built-in “digital assistant,” all in the name of convenience and profit. The knowledgeable and elite can reduce these intrusions to the extent that Apple permits, and the strong-willed can turn off their phones, but Apple relies on everyone else’s passive acceptance of interruption and eavesdropping in order to keep its profitable data moving.
Harcourt describes a new kind of psyche that seeks, through its exposed virtual self, satisfactions of approval and notoriety that it can never truly find. It exists in order to be observed; it must continually create itself by updating its declared “status,” by revealing itself in Facebook narratives and Instagram images, while our “conscientious ethical selves” need to be reminded – by ourselves and others – to exist at all. Harcourt apparently does not expect such reminders to have much effect and concludes despairingly: “It is precisely our desires and passions that have enslaved us, exposed us, and ensnared us in this digital shell as hard as steel.”