19.2. The Privacy of Community

There is, then or at least was on the streets of this healthy neighborhood in East Harlem a vital balance between public exposure and personal privacy, between having to do with each other in manifold ways and leaving each other respectfully alone, between building a public environment of trust and enjoying, within that secure environment, one's private circle.

Jacobs is describing only one particular sort of urban community, and certainly is not suggesting that the detailed conditions of such a community can be carried over to radically different environments. But the burden of proof, I think, is upon anyone who suggests that the virtues of privacy (or safety) can be enjoyed in a "community" of barricaded individuals who rely centrally upon nonexposure and anonymity for their protection. What one gets is not a community where privacy is honored, but rather the destruction of community altogether. Then privacy has no meaning.

Privacy, after all, is scarcely relevant to the individual living behind a chain-link fence. It can be a concern and a value only where we present ourselves to each other. The "space" we ask for when we ask for privacy, is a space fashioned within and defended by a respectful community. There is no other enduring defense.

The problem is that by the time we have reached a point where data protection has become a major issue, we have mostly abandoned the public spaces as venues for doing business. The automatic teller machine has none of the community virtues of Joe Cornacchia, and it displaces several settings where such virtues might have taken root. Where, then, can the complex values required for privacy be nurtured?

Issues of personal respect don't arise between packets of data, nor between information processing programs. Data and programs are not caught up in the kind of street life Jacobs describes, and they do not have "respect me" written all over them in the way that people do. They do not inhabit public spaces. Within the global information system every piece of data is perilously close to being globally exposed, and there is no local "community of data" to play a buffering and protecting role. Therefore privacy advocates are, with good reason, trying to write "it's none of your business" all over every data packet.

But we should realize that this technical protection, necessary though it may be, has little positive relation to any privacy truly conceived. Moreover, it readily contributes to the depersonalization of transactions, thereby further reducing the public spaces where respect for privacy can grow. This is why technologies like public key cryptography, biometric encryption, and digital pseudonyms offer us ambiguous hope at best.

The idea of the pseudonym, for example, is that online data is never traceable to anyone in particular; it is traceable only to a pseudonym. But in order for that to work, there must be no final "giveaway" of the user's identity. The recipient of a product or service must present himself pseudonymously to the teller machine or delivery box or whatever. Post offices or other depots would have to be redesigned to support this absolute anonymity. Where, in Jacobs' neighborhood, watching after each other on the street was a virtue, the near approach of someone else in this new world of anonymity is a threat. Is that person trying to read my pin number?

If privacy is to emerge as a meaningful public value, it will be in the context of community involvement. Where else can we learn what needs respecting about each other, if not from a knowledge of the other person in particular and of the requirements of a healthily functioning community in general?

It is possible although it will be a tremendous stretch for us to extend our gestures of human respect to the abstract, placeless, and timeless data representations of other people. But it isn't conceivable that we will succeed in this greater challenge while failing the lesser and more familiar one. We cannot as programmers, application users, corporate employees, consumers enlarge our respect for persons so as also to embrace data when we have forgotten what respect for persons means in the first place. The delicate balance Jacobs describes in the public life of the sidewalk cannot be lightly manufactured; it grows up in real places, among real presences.

In other words, flesh-and-blood contexts remain the primary schools from which we can try to reach out more widely with our human sympathies. Here's a simple principle to consider: if you are clearing the way for a new form of data transaction, or proposing some new mechanism for data privacy, then spend at least three times as much effort working toward a means for strengthening community outside these data contexts. Otherwise, you may well be helping to destroy the essential milieu for any privacy worth having.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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