Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Update: I wrote a more in-depth analysis and critique of Byung-Chul Han’s work in a later post Digital Humanism.
I’ve been reading a lot about Byung-Chul Han’s new book Transparency Society recently, in which the German philosopher critiques what he takes to be the unexamined rhetoric of transparency, perhaps exemplified by the Pirate Party, the marginal but boisterous political party founded on the platform of open information exchange.
I take it that the gist of his analysis is that the pro-transparency discourse of European and American society supposes a fundamental link between transparency, disclosure and security, and thereby posits transparency as an intrinsic moral good. But, he warns, transparency whets an insatiable appetite for uncovering and disclosure, promoting a society of nakedness or shamelessness that verges on pornographic. The sense of life becomes inflected with performance and display, and this devalues intimacy.
Even worse, the dialectic of transparency, which presumes disclosure, excludes the possibility of trust. Trust can only occur in a society that allows for the possibility of concealment.
Han views the rhetoric of transparency as a conceptual tool of Capitalism and a corollary of Neoliberalism, suggesting to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that it is intrinsically tied to increased productivity.
I am won over by the need to subject the concept of transparency to ideology critique, but I’m suspicious that Han has not sufficiently differentiated between different modes of transparency, which carry radically different implications.
First, there is the transparency that has been vaguely asserted by Facebook to be a social good, and I think Han’s aesthetic critique of the devaluation of intimacy into episodes of performance is relevant to this regime. We might also include reality television and the prurient interest the public seems to take in the personal lives of celebrities and politicians under this mode.
Second, there is the desire for transparency in businesses and government, which is driven by the legitimate and compelling public interest to monitor powerful organizations for serious abuses. Is there room in Han’s critique for whistleblowers or investigative journalism?
Third, there is the insistence by governments and industries that they be allowed ever-increasing access to the public’s personal information. Under this regime, we have the TSA maintaining that air travelers in the US must submit to body imaging scans, for example – only one of countless examples of the post-9/11 erosion of the privacy protections in the US.
As soon as we start differentiating between different transparency regimes, we find that most parties favor some forms of transparency and oppose others, and these asymmetries are instructive.
The US government, for example, increasingly supports the creation of a massive surveillance infrastructure with ever-greater access to private communications, while simultaneously making ever-increasing demands that it be allowed to conduct its own affairs in secrecy. Examples of the latter include Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers and the recurring use of state secrecy claims to circumvent lawsuits. State secrecy provisions have even been asserted to prevent disclosing the DOJ’s legal rationale for matters of urgent public interest.
We cannot simply lump all of these together as an amorphous rhetoric of transparency.
A couple of months ago I posted about the website GetMyFBIFile.com. They provide a handy form for generating requests to see whatever non-classified files various intelligence and policing agencies may have on you. I submitted requests to a number of agencies and have now gotten responses back. As promised, here are the results.
The most interesting thing that happened was that I sent six outgoing letters at once – five to different agencies, and my rent check. My rent check, for the first and only time in my rental history, arrived at the agency office more than a week late, without a postmark, and with a pen-drawn circle around the postage stamp.
Other than that, the responses are not terribly interesting – most agencies reported that they have no information on me, but if they did have information pertaining to an ongoing investigation, they would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such information. The NSA blew me off entirely, citing exemption from the disclosure rules I appealed to in my request.
I wasn’t just going to take their word for it, so I gave the various replies to my crack legal analyst for further evaluation. You may remember him from a previous post.
Two pending pieces of legislation, the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in the House, and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate, would, without exaggeration, destroy the Internet as we know it. These laws would require domain hosts to take down websites on the sole basis of an allegation that the website in question hosts material that infringes on copyright.
The history of copyright disputes is, of course, littered with cases in which copyright holders, through malice, ignorance, or intolerance of criticism, have issued threats and even launched legal action against perfectly legal uses of material.
Consider Stephen Joyce alleging that even memorizing portions of Finnegans Wake may constitute infringement, or take the case of the law firm Righthaven, which apparently exists solely in order to capitalize on suing on behalf of rights it does not even own.
Now imagine that litigious parties of this character are empowered by law to force takedowns, armed with nothing more than their assertion that material is infringing.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has provided a useful action page that gives quick access to contact information for your congressional representatives. Please take a minute to register your opposition to these odious pieces of legislation, and if you’re up for it, don’t forget to explain why removing the DNS provisions is not enough.
Picture of the original “Hear no Evil, see no evil, speak no evil motif” from the funerary complex of Tokugawa Ieyasu, copyright Barnaby Thieme.