The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 2)


“All that is solid melts into air” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

The most fundamental revolution and radical transformation of human nature and society may already be under way. The last vestiges of organic society are being eroded from human experience as we move towards becoming a totally virtual society. The organic ties that have bound us together have been loosening since the Industrial Revolution, but they have never been superseded to the extent that that are being now. This is just the beginning of the process. It is not just jobs that are disappearing, but a way of life that brings people into daily contact with each other; just as the earlier technological revolutions reduced the need for manual labour, so digital technology is eliminating the need for human expertise of all types and also eliminating the need for human relationships as they have been experienced hitherto.

In the past, and still in organic society1, social bonds are built on trust and the basis of trust and of identity itself is personal knowledge of people. Identity is established in a mind-network of the people one knows, whether intimately, as family or friend, or more passingly, as neighbour, acquaintance or colleague. As populations have grown, people have become more uprooted and cities more impersonal, people more opaque to each other; the term ‘community’ has been redefined from its organic sense into a socio-political concept and, subsequently, subject to dubious claims of ownership and representation. Moreover, many of our interactions are now with people that we communicate with on a single occasion in order to, for example, purchase goods and services, and whom we never meet face-to-face. This process only looks to accelerate.

These changes have been and are being driven by the relentless logic of economics, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency and profit with little consideration of the human cost. Within this fundamental shift there are, it is true, the seeds of a new economy. It is one, though, that necessitates a transformation in our conception of what it is to be a social being, including all our fundamental values, our moral codes and even our idea of truth. In part I of this essay, I considered the meaning of privacy in organic society. In the digital age privacy is inverted and is commoditised like everything else, which requires that the elements of the self are fragmented and digitised. Without a fundamental re-evaluation. the existential dilemma this raises will ultimately only be solved by a totalitarian digital state.

The Commodification of Privacy

The great hope has been that the digital era will create the potential for the monetisation of personal information and, in fact, this could become one of the principal sources of income. This can only become a reality, though, if individuals retain (and increase) power over their own information. The alternative and, unfortunately at present – unless the threat can be faced down – more likely scenario, is that powerful emerging interests will usurp for themselves the economic value of the individual in the name of a purported collective good.

The basis of privacy lies in mythic narratives of the self, and manifests itself as the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression and the nurturing of identity. Our sense of self and concepts of privacy are nurtured by deep cultural traditions, which is a perspective that would probably be congenial to both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts. Although the arrival of the digital age is transforming many aspects of culture, its mythic basis remains fundamental; indeed, it is, I would argue, the only basis upon which we can meaningfully talk about privacy as the psychic space of individuality. That said, the full-blown information age that has arrived with digital technology, allows us to consider privacy from a different perspective, as a commodity.

What transformations have taken place that enable the commodification of privacy and thence its monetisation? The first transformation must be the vertiginous growth in the amount of information, which is not increasing arithmetically but geometrically. Information, unlike natural resources it seems, is increasing in value as it becomes more plentiful. The reason for this is that demand is growing faster than supply. Every area of life, and particularly the economy, is driven by information and the more information there is the faster growth accelerates. Closely related to that is the digitisation of information. In the pre-digital age information could be separated into various types (verbally communicated information, written information, visual information), but now almost all information is, or soon will be, reduced to binary code. Money is, or is well on the way to being, similarly transferred totally into a digital format. Therefore, the barrier to transition between these different formats is becoming invisible.

Beyond these technological parameters, though, a social transformation is taking place. The digital revolution is democratising mass communication. In the organic society communication was close and personal. Basic technologies allow communication at a distance, but it remained overwhelmingly personal. The advent of newspapers, radio and television allowed really for the first time the possibility of mass communication; however, it was limited to a communicative elite. Through digital technology everyone with some digital literacy has the possibility to communicate with millions of people. This has its obvious downsides, as the ubiquity of trolling and online abuse and bullying confirms, but it is also opening up new areas of economic, political and humanitarian activity facilitated by mass communication.

But these changes externally in technology are not enough to explain the path towards the commodification and monetisation of privacy. I think two things have happened regarding thinking about the self and individuality: the first is that people in the west (but other cultures are on the same trajectory) are gradually losing their ability to mythologise their interiority, through the decline of sacred discourse and through the decline of the mythic imagination; the second is through the changing complexion of the transgressive. Popular culture, encouraged by new communication technologies, is increasing privileging externality over interiority.

The Culture of Externalisation.

Privacy requires a strong sense of self and of an interior space, which is created reflectively, sustained through mythologised narratives of the sacred and its protective barriers. For the emerging homo digitalis interiority is something to be feared, avoided, suspect even. Increasingly, the technological infrastructure of the digital age, rather than being the midwife of a revolution, is becoming its prevailing obsession. Into this existential vacuum pours the anxieties of the age, augmented by the interconnectedness of the digitised world. This generation is the first without an identity in the sense that it would have been understood in a previous age and must, therefore, seek to assert selfhood and the vanquishing of emptiness through extreme physical transformations and through assuming extreme identities, abetted by social media contagion. Shared experience, the fundamental mode of social being and the basis of our social values, has become weaponised. Without the dialectic of experience and reflection, mere experience overwhelms individuality.2

For the fundamental values of the near future look to celebrity culture. The celebrity is the avatar of the digital age. The celebrity represents the evaporation of character into image, that which can be pixelated and reproduced infinitely, becoming a potential commodity. The celebrity ‘famous for being famous’ is no longer the butt of ridicule, but the exemplar. The fact that the virtual celebrity offers nothing but the possibility to be celebrated is their virtue, not their limitation or their failing. It is not even about beauty, because the icon can be endlessly manipulated, endlessly creating desire and feeding it. Pornography raises this idolisation of form to a higher level still, to the perfect geometry of ecstasy, that will culminate in its total mechanisation, with the advent of robotic sex. The deceptiveness, the tromp l’oeil of celebrity beauty converge on the monotony of the infinitely repetitive, the uniform, and the detestation of difference, of divergence from the formulaic ideals, which will lead eventually to the clone culture.

It seems at first glance that the concept of privacy is redundant in the culture of externality, as potentially every part of life has been digitised and commodified. There is no intimacy that is not available to the public (for a price); there is no transgression to be hidden, as the transgressive has become the new normal3. Privacy, which was ultimately the realm of the mind, has become meaningless when we are continually bombarded with information that absorbs all our attention – the most private realm is dominated by public theatre. Privacy becomes inverted under such conditions: it becomes the insulation of the individual from the physical presence of others. We come to occupy the same physical space without occupying the same social space, while we occupy the same virtual social space without occupying the same physical space.

Wittgenstein considered the status of private language, which was reviewed in part 1 of this essay. I had occasion to critique this idea from a philosophical perspective, but the culture of externality forbids the existence of such a notion as dangerous. Our thoughts and desires increasingly converge on what is deemed acceptable by those with their hands on the levers on taste. But it becomes more insidious than that, which, after all, is hardly a new phenomenon. The moral keepers of the new culture accuse us, knowing us and our interiority better than we know ourselves, of ‘unconscious bias’. Even the ramparts of our very self, that interior monologue, which is even only half-formed even to our own conscious mind, is treated and stained by ‘awareness’ advocates, thin-sectioned by the scalpel of ideological rigidity, and magnified to utter transparency by the preening self-righteousness of moral certainty.

The New Digital Powers

As the digital revolution has proceeded, questions have arisen about the ownership of information, such as how much information we are obligated to share with others who are providing a service and how we can protect our privacy and information from those who would abuse them, but the awareness of personal information as a commodity is only – belatedly – growing as we become aware of the growing value it has in the economy to governments and businesses, who have been using it as an open resource. Private companies now hold a great deal of our personal information, which they have accessed for free. This is enormously beneficial for them, with no reciprocal benefits to us, at least no equivalent benefit. Finally, we are beginning to ask the right question: do the benefits we get from a largely free internet equate to the benefits that accrue to companies’ use of our personal information? As the recent inquiry into Facebook shows, there is a growing awareness of the issues of ownership of information that has too long been taken for granted by the internet giants.

Whereas we are uncomfortable with businesses possessing our information, most would accept that the state does have a right, at least to basic information about our identity and history, as a quid pro quo for the goods and services that it provides, in terms of protection against external enemies, public order, health, education and welfare. Since the delivery of these good is not increasing exponentially – in some cases is falling – yet the amount of information about each one of us is growing exponentially, the question arises when the state may go too far in its acquisition of information. Moreover, we can legitimately ask at what point the data on identity becomes information of an intimate nature, that we have a right to protect or to profit from, if we so choose. The only basis on which the state might legitimately strip us of this right to our own information is when we have transgressed the laws of society. The spectre haunting society in the digital age is that of a state which can demand total transparency of information by treating citizens as potential – if not actual – transgressors. This could be accomplished by expanding the realm of the transgressive and the state of heightened dependency. These are issues that I will deal with in the third part of this essay.

For the wealthy and the powerful, the nomenklatura of the digital age, there is the option to retreat behind physical and digital walls, where the reach of prying eyes and of the ubiquity of the digital world. I am reminded of the high Party member O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, who is able to turn off the ubiquitous screens. Today, these are the elite who create and control the infrastructure and products of the digital age. They are the ones who forbid their children to interact with digital technology or severely control access to it. They read books rather than text messages and emails, they visit museums, parks, concerts, mountains and the sea, rather than look at them online and they join clubs rather than online communities and play sports or music rather than play video games.

For the proletarian masses their occupation is increasingly only an interaction with digital technology. We see it already in every place of work: the serried ranks in open plan offices chained to their computers nine-to-five, managers who are never out of office, even at home, evenings, weekends and holidays. The digital age does not bring release from work or greater efficiency; it creates its own work, to which we are indentured; the broader the bandwidth, the more sluggish the response, such is the detritus of mediocrity it fosters. It promises freedom of choice but binds us with ever greater regulation of our lives. For the proletarian, privacy is the retreat into social silos that can be personally curated. However, this privacy is largely illusory, firstly because it is externalised and shared with the world and, secondly, because the commodification of data means that the personal space is constantly monitored. This is the first generation for whom there is no inside; there is nowhere to retreat to. Moreover, there is no desire to retreat, because as knowledge of interiority has been lost, so has desire for it also vanished; we cannot desire what we do not even know we have lost.

The prophets of doom warn us of the dangers when artificial intelligence achieves the ‘singularity’ of surpassing human intelligence, but few are warning of the almost certainly greater danger when we abdicate our own interior life and our sociality for the unutterably vapid world and empty promises of the digital age. A computer, in its many forms and together with all its paraphernalia, is a tool, and not a particularly good one. However, at present it is being treated as if it is the panacea of human problems. This is infecting us with a type of solipsistic nihilism which is eroding social ties and the idea of a shared culture. Short of us being able to contextualise this technology within a perspective of human interiority and sociality4, the inevitable descent of society into anarchy will only be solved by the state assuming totalitarian control of the means of digital production and dissemination.


1.By organic society I mean the forms of society in which relations between people are largely direct and unmediated by technology, by which I mean specifically the technology of the digital age, that is mediation through screens and the deconstruction of individuality into online content. Of course, every technology, including writing, the telephone and television, has introduced an element of mediation and subtly altered the nature of human discourse and community. However, in order to explore the nature of privacy in the digital age, it is necessary to first establish the meaning of privacy in forms of society as near as possible to the organic within the living experience of most of those living today. This was explored in part 1 of this essay.

2.What is the distinction between the self, individuality, identity and privacy? The self is a neutral term that denotes the fact that we are constituted individual physically and experientially. Individuality is more of an evaluative term, that is, the self has a value as an individual, because of its uniqueness, its non-replicability. Identity is the most ideological of the four, in that it is asserting a category (or a set of categories) onto innumerable individuals, for philosophical, administrative or political reasons. As categorisation is an infinite exercise, it is the most dangerous of the concepts, as it is the most open to systems of ideological manipulation and the institution of bureaucratic control. Privacy is the sphere of individuality, its space and the protection of that space.

3.The only thing that could potentially, usefully be hidden is breaches of the law, but within a few years, such is the acceleration of data mining, even this will become virtually impossible. That is not to say that such breaches will be punished; the descent into lawlessness is already under way; in many cases the police have abdicated responsibility for solving crime. Crime and punishment will be decided by the online mob, driven by ideological extremism. In some cases, the police are already more alert to breaches of cultural sensitivity than they are to actual crimes, such as theft and assault.

4.Based on the theories of George Herbert Mead, Habermas (1984) developed a theory of intersubjectivity based on language. According to Habermas (ibid, p.390), ‘Mead elevated symbolically mediated interaction to the new paradigm of reason and based reason on the communicative relation between subjects, which is rooted in the mimetic act of role-taking, that is, in ego’s making his own the expectations that alter directs to him’, which is to say that reason (hence subjectivity) emerges from the sharing of and response to signs and sign acts. There have been a number of critiques of Habermas’ idea of intersubjectivity. Frie (1997) delivers what I think must be a fatal blow when he claims that recognition of the signs others make presupposes subjectivity; it is not the basis of subjectivity.

In my view intersubjectivity is probably a philosophical cul-de-sac. Yet I think that Habermas is partly right. Signs conveying meanings between us are the only basis on which we share our experience (which, after all, is the essence of our subjectivity – indeed the case can be made that it is our subjectivity). While it is incorrect to say that our subjectivity emerges from such interactive sharing, it is certainly true that knowledge, and hence functional rationality (if not essential rationality, such as proposed by Descartes et al), do. Intersubjectivity is conceptually incoherent. Subjectivity is individual, a property of the self; it cannot be shared. However, experience can be shared, that is the properties of my subjective experience can be shared with another, to the degree that the other can experience an empathetic identification with my experience. This is not experiential identity, as this is impossible, but understanding to the degree that is likely to result in strengthened social bonding. A case can be made, therefore, that increased dissemination of knowledge, which is what culture, particularly forms of education, undertakes, increases social bonding overall.

A more rational account of ‘intersubjectivity’ would be Popper’s concept of World 3 culture, the shared world of ideas, theories and cultural artefacts. What I find missing in Popper’s account, though, is the basis of societal interaction in which such a world of culture is embedded. Paradoxically, knowledge can only exist where there is a foundation of social bonding.

Selected Bibliography

Jurgen Habermas (1984), Theory of communicative action, volume one: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Karl Popper (1972), Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Betancourt (2015), The Critique of Digital Capitalism: An Analysis of the Political Economy of Digital Culture and Technology. New York: Punctum Books.

Roger Frie (1997), Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in modern philosophy: A study of Sartre, Binswanger, Lacan and Habermas. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ellis Cashmore (2006), Celebrity Culture. Oxford: Routledge.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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