Thomas Y. Levin: "surveillent narcissism" and other digital doubts

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Thomas Y. Levin (32 min, 19 mb mp3)

Advertising confirms Thomas Levin‘s observation that, strange to tell, we have come to embrace Orwell’s worst nightmare in 1984, universal electronic surveillance. A Kenneth Cole billboard in Manhattan makes the unembarrassed point that “On an average day you will be captured on closed-circuit television camers at least a dozen times. Are you dressed for it?” Another print ad proclaims: “Only one out of every 10 New Yorkers who owns a telescope is interested in Astronomy.”

Bob Herbert in the New York Times revealed last week (“Watching Certain People”) that the New York Police Department has stopped, frisked and catalogued just under 3-million people in the city over five recent years — the vast majority of them black or Hispanic and innocent of the slightest offense. “It’s a gruesome, racist practice that should offend all New Yorkers, and it should cease,” the columnist avers, but the people’s outrage seems slow in building.

With Tom Levin, a media theorist at Princeton, we are catching up with not just the everyday “fabulousness” of “surveillent narcissism,” but a wider wave of misgivings about the digital information revoluton — questions, complaints and reassessments being raised by, for example, Jaron Lanier, Daniel Gelernter and Jonathan Zittrain, among others. “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view,” Lanier writes, “is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.”

So we are getting a broad-brush review here in James Der Derian’s Watson Institute classroom at Brown of the “data shadows” — the electronic profiles of all of us that can now be bought and sold; of the “surveil me, please” mentality that builds our Facebook files; of the outsourcing of knowledge and memory to Google — and Nicholas Carr‘s question whether Google is making us stupid.

Tom Levin is an intrepid activist who refuses to give up an electronic signature at any cash register and who likes to give phony email addresses when the wrong people ask for his. And still he deplores most of the “technodystopic whining” in the air. His mission is bringing up the abysmal level of digital literacy, recalling Walter Benjamin’s line in the Thirties that people who cannot “read” a photograph are “the new illiterates.” The people Tom Levin worries about today are those of us who forget that the data we’re giving up these days will be in somebody else’s hands forever.

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  • Crossing borders is going to get increasingly difficult. In the United States, we’re already working on databases of people who don’t even live within our own borders that can be accessed from any airport or border crossing point. To prevent violence perhaps, but this won’t be the case in all countries. In some countries, I have to keep critical opinions to myself until I leave the country. It isn’t going to be all that long until in these same countries I will have to not only watch what I say during my stay, but consider everything I’ve ever written in a public internet forum. Or maybe even who I have followed or friended on a social networking site.

  • Glen S

    Brilliant discussion, though it’s appalling that even such a broad overview of these topics stands out so drastically against the backdrop of our general discourse. I wholeheartedly agree that media literacy desperately needs to be emphasized in educational settings, though it probably should begin in preschool. The implicit education that we receive every day through these very media only reinforces the “herd” (or beehive, or anthill, whatever you like) mentality so prominent in the digital realm. If we’re to use new media as tools of empowerment, we need to parse out the tools that enhance our participation in power, not those that require us to surrender power (ie data, information, intellectual property) for some technological baubles. The sheer economic power of companies like Facebook and Google should arouse suspicion, especially since state and law enforcement agencies are so far behind that even our government and intelligence agencies are regularly attacked and raided for their data. When Facebook makes a trivial change to its user agreement it’s on the nightly news, its omnipresence is almost comical. Internet companies may promise to protect your data, but the truth is that they are nowhere near capable of living up to that promise, and most of them are perfectly happy to give access to your data to any third party “developer” who is detached enough to avert any legal troubles. We should not be so ready to sell ourselves as commodities just to participate in a shiny new website, especially ones that are intended to integrate so deeply into our personal lives while taking away our ability to control them. I’m just glad to hear that I’m not the only one who causes a stir every time I go to Radio Shack.

  • Oguz Yetkin

    Great discussion, but I must take issue with the suggestion to give a fictitious e-mail to introduce noise. Introducing noise into the system is fine, but make sure that the “fictitious” e-mail or phone number you give is not someone else’s e-mail.

    I have recently been dealing with someone whose name is similar to mine giving MY e-mail to every gaming, auction, etc. site out there. Unfortunately, most of these companies do not have a direct way “unsubscribing” without having that person’s data…

  • Emily Corwith

    I have my privacy settings set to prompt me each time a website tries to put a cookie on my computer. I recently went on a website which prompted me for at least 20 separate cookies for what appeared to be advertising and marketing data collection efforts. It was time consuming to reject each one, but instructive as to what is happening invisibly as we are cyber-travelling.