Since the 2013 Snowden revelations, public concern over privacy issues has reached a shrill register, regularly amplified by periodic new scandals. Anxious computer owners, following the lead of Mark Zuckerberg, have taken to covering their cameras with bits of tape. Messaging services tout their end-to-end encryption. Researchers from Harvard Business School have started investigating the effectiveness of those creepy online ads that seem to know a little too much about your preferences. And behind all of these trends sits an uneasy public: according to a 2014 Pew Research Center Poll, fully 91% of Americans believe they have lost control over their personal information. Ian Bogost in The Atlantic names the enemy behind the assault on our privacy: It’s “a hazy murk, a chilling, Lovecraftian murmur that can’t be seen, let alone touched, let alone vanquished.”
But the enemy may also be a bit closer to home. If the current obsession with privacy evinces the late-modern era’s fear of being seen—of being surveilled, recorded, and watched, especially when we are unaware—then the clamor over privacy sits rather uncomfortably next to our relentless drive to expose ourselves to the sight of others. Not only has the number of people using social media continued to grow year-on-year, but the importance of such platforms to users has only deepened: the percentage of Americans reporting that it “would be hard to give up” use of social media grew 12 percentage points from 2014-2018, to 40%.
The disjunction runs deeper than our online profiles, however. The recent concern over privacy is belied by a political culture that in many ways is about visibility: about looking certain ways, identifying with certain groups, and dissolving certain barriers to public scrutiny. The vocabulary we have learned to use in order to frame our political demands is predicated on seeing and being seen. The complex set of convictions and strategies awkwardly lumped under the term “identity politics” is, at least in part, concerned with presentation—with how certain groups are represented or misrepresented in the public sphere.
What are we to make of this ambivalence? How do we make sense of the tension between increasingly strident calls for privacy, on the one hand, and a confessional culture of exposure, social recognition, and solidarity, on the other? Why do we claim to care about our privacy when our actions and our political rhetoric dispute such claims?
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the central antagonist—Sauron—is represented by an eye: the Eye of Sauron, a symbolic or spiritual representation of Sauron’s malice, which scans the land tirelessly in a sinister watchfulness. One might read the Eye as a type of global panopticon. But the language Tolkien uses encourages a different analysis. When watched by the Eye, the character Frodo reacts as though struck with violent force. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes, “The Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.”[i] In other words, it is the experience of being watched that is frightful, not merely its repercussions. It is in response to this gaze that the characters of Middle-Earth cower and flee. When faced with that “window into nothing,” they feel they are facing death.[ii]
The Eye sees us as God might see us—relentlessly, irresistibly—but instead of a beckoning call and an easy grace, what we encounter is malice. When we are seen in this way, we forfeit agency. We are left completely at the mercy of the observer, without recourse or excuse. To be seen is to encounter our powerlessness. It is to be alone.
In a rather different field, and with very different language, privacy scholars have written of the use of hiding, withdrawing, or limiting access as a means to protect valuable goods. Charles Fried, James Rachels, and Julie Inness have all put forth versions of the thesis that privacy is related not just to our traditional interests in liberty and autonomy but also to our interest in forming relationships characterized by respect, love, friendship, and trust.[iii] What these philosophers suggest is that privacy is not always about withdrawal and fear; it can also be about enabling a different type of seeing. We hide from some so that we might be better seen by others.
Indeed, an “eye”—whether perched atop a black tower or implicit in a social environment—haunts all human experience. In Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel argued that we come to know ourselves as conscious beings only through contact with—and struggle against—another consciousness.[iv] This now-famous “master-slave dialectic” was the progenitor of recognition theory: the notion that the quest for recognition lies at the root of all social conflict. To be recognizedis to be seen and affirmed in your status as a moral equal; to be misrecognized is to be degraded, to lack social respect, and to be psychologically as well as morally harmed. As Charles Taylor has summarized it, “Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the precognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.”[v] The fundamental aims of human existence—love, respect, access to social and material resources—can thus be seen as various forms of recognition from others. We must be exposed to the judgment of others in order to flourish.
Recognition theory’s intersubjective focus highlights a tension with many prevailing theories of privacy rights. Prominent accounts of privacy’s value focus on its ability to preserve autonomy and freethinking.[vi] But the supposition that there exists a Self outside of its implantation in social environments, which is therefore capable of flourishing only in retreat from the sight—and dialogic challenge—of others, is contested by recognition theorists: We require being seen in order to locate ourselves in this world. If we rely on the recognition of others for our ability to self-constitute—for our ability to situate ourselves in a larger social context and understand whether and how we are worthy of respect—then being seen can mean the creation or destruction of our ability to preserve an identity.
The Eye of Sauron is therefore terrifying not just because it sees us the way we long to be seen and yet withholds the affirmation that could potentially follow, but also because it denies us the basis for understanding ourselves as morally worthy subjects. We cannot live and belong without being seen by others; yet, similarly, we cannot be rejected and destroyed without being seen by others. Whether we flourish or wither, it starts with an outside eye. Sauron says “I see you,” and this phrase, so laden with emancipatory promise, becomes a paralyzing threat
Our moral and political vocabularies have absorbed these intuitions. Modern identity politics—the tendency of political coalitions to form around markers of identity such as race, class, gender, and sexuality—trades on the notion of recognition. Whatever the merits of this change, the result is that we have come to demand a new type of visibility. It is no longer enough to be simply one human among many, subject to the same standards and expectations; now, one has to be seen as a distinct member of a particular group. To participate in politics in this form is to make oneself visible before others in a myriad of ways: by self-aligning with certain identity groups for political organizing, by abolishing (or at least questioning) the traditional public-private divisions, by explicitly acknowledging one’s social position or identity, by subjecting oneself to exhaustive scrutiny of one’s private life in seeking political office, by defining oneself. Areas of our lives that were once seen as private are now considered politically relevant, even morally weighty.
We thus seem faced with an impossible choice: Do we fundamentally rethink our terms of engagement with one another—both politically and socially—in favor of a deeper retreat into the private sphere? Or do we give up on the notion of privacy altogether, embracing our need to “be seen” in order to function?
One way forward is to identify what both impulses share: the desire to tell a story. We fear being seen because we fear being unable to give an account of ourselves, to contextualize who we are. Yet our desire to belong and to be recognized is a desire to tell precisely this story, and to have someone listen when we tell it. This desire is about more than control: It’s about completeness, authenticity, and whether the representation we see of ourselves in the world matches the stories we tell ourselves. It’s about resonance. Our embrace of social media, the use of identity in framing our political demands, the introduction of personal narrative into scholarly research: These are all admissions, in one form or another, that a story needs to be told.[vii] Our concerns with privacy are an admission that we are afraid the wrong story might be told, or that the wrong people might be in control of the narrative. Seen in this light, Facebook oversharing and confessional critiques may even be acts of defiance, relentlessly injecting one’s subjectivity into a world of “5,000 data points.”[viii]
Attention to the story might then help us to make sense of the dual meanings of seeing and being seen. Concerns about privacy are ways of controlling the narrative, making sure that the incomplete picture of ourselves that is contained in our personal data is not used to form a “story” (whether this is a security profile or a libelous rumor) without our input. We fear this intrusion both because of its potentially pernicious effects and because of its capacity to corrupt something we are seeking anyway: the chance to tell this story to another, to be seen and affirmed in it. What seem like contradictory impulses are perhaps merely incomplete outworkings of the same impulse, motivated in equal measure by fear and longing.
So how do we translate our ambivalence over seeing and being seen into a productive political conversation? How do we enable people to tell their stories? If we start here, perhaps the legacy of late modernity will be that we confronted the challenges of identity and privacy not by retreating into paranoia and isolation but by learning to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.
This essay was published in a slightly different form in The Hedgehog Review, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2019; www.hedgehogreview.com
[i] “There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dûr, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.” From J.R.R. Tolkien, “Akallabêth,” in The Silmarillion (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2013 ): 336.
[ii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, bk. 2, chap. 7 (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2007 ): 364.
[iii] Charles Fried, “Privacy,” Yale Law Journal 77.3 (1968); James Rachels, “Why Privacy Is Important,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 4.4 (1975); Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996).
[iv] George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, trans. Terry Pincard and Michael Bauer (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2018). I locate the genesis of recognition theory with Hegel, but others have argued that St. Augustine’s Confessions, which constitutes a dialogue of the inner self with God, can be seen as a much earlier version of the thesis that subjectivity can only be constructed through dialogic interaction with an Other. See, e.g., Raymond Geuss, Public Goods, Private Goods (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. 62–63.
[v] Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,”in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1994): 21.
[vi] See, e.g., Stanley Benn, “Privacy, Freedom, and Respect for Persons,” in NOMOS XIII: Privacy, ed. J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York, NY: Atherton, 1971): 1–26; Joseph Kupfer, “Privacy, Autonomy and Self-Concept,” American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987): 81–89; and Beate Rössler. The Value of Privacy (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2005).
[vii] For an example of personal narrative in academic publication, see Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
[viii] This is in reference to Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, who claimed in a Financial Times interview that he had a “massive database of 4–5,000 data points on every adult in America.” Gillian Tett, “Donald Trump’s Campaign Shifted Odds by Making Big Data Personal,” The Financial Times, January 26, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/bee3298c-e304-11e6-9645-c9357a75844a?segmentId=7d033110-c776-45bf-e9f2-7c3a03d2dd26.