Sean Cubitt on Wed, 27 Jun 2001 04:37:52 +0200 (CEST)
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[Nettime-bold] Echelon, privacy and property
Title: Echelon, privacy and property
suggests I expand a liitle on a short post I made about Echelon.
Thomas Carlyle, I think, coimed the phrase cash-nexus. He was
protesting the way in which traditional (Gemeinschaft, possibly even,
in the English context, residual feudal) relationships were being
subborned to the wage and commodity relations in the mid 19th century.
My thesis is really a minor elaboration of this idea, and of Marx's
comment that under capitalism relations between people take on the
fantastic form of relations between objects.
Money, and this will come as no surprise to anyone growing up in the
age of finance, is a mode of communication. It is communication
because it is a medium for relationships between people (and between
people, objects, animals and machines, but that's another story).
The odd thing about money, when compared to other modes of
communication like speech, gesture or even books and records, is that
it can be hoarded. In other words, this mode of communication, the
dominant medium of the early 21st century, is actually even better at
stalling and even blocking communication flows than at instigating
Privacy -- private space, private family, private property, private
thoughts -- are social realisations of this trend. It doesn't matter
to me which comes first. What matters is that the private becomes a
space for accumulation, that is for removing communication content
from local and global flows.
Take the Romantic artist. Overstating the case, the function of the
Romantic is to take all human activity and make it come to a stop in a
moment of personal experience: this is the case with Hegel, Rilke,
Delacroix, Mallarme (le monde existe pour aboutir a un livre). For
Heidegger, death plays a similar role: and Heidegger is the basis for
much post-structural thought. The unthinkable and terminally private
moment of *my* death is the end towards which human being (Dasein)
tends. Communication is a result, for Heidegger, of the
being-towards-death. A typical expression of the private self as goal,
of the removal of communication as the end, of history.
Mark Stahlman writes to me that
much, much more to be said about the "dis-appearance" of the
individual over the course of the past 150+ years . . . of which
really a very minor part.
Habermas dates the arrival of the public/private distinction to the
period of the Encyclopedie, of the coffee-houses, salons and
Tischgesellschaft in the late18th century. A study of domestic
bourgeois architecture would probably give us a detailed trajectory of
the materialisation of the concept. Giedion, for example, in
Mechanisation Takes Command, traces it through the development of the
water closet as an essentially private room, still a rarity for the
majority of the world's population. Alternatively, we could use
Foucault's panotic/disciplinary society as a model of an organisation
which follows that of the private.
Foucault, like Deleuze and many other anti-Marxist philosophers,
blames the state for this. Bad idea. The state, while still an
important sector, is of diminishing importance in globalised capital
flows (and I believe, was never entirely liberated from the economic
formations that gave rise to the modern republic as exported to Latin
America, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere with such disastrous
consequences for the indigenous peoples, and such a phenomenal payback
for global mercantilist and capitalist entrepreneurs.
The full blow by blow of this evolution would have to look also at the
movement towards consumer capital, and the compact every purchaser
enters into to become an information source -- just as Ford's factory
hands had been at River Rouge. Consumers no longer exchange only cash:
they exchange their data for a good or service. Alternative modes of
data analysis -- numerology, astrology -- are attempts to build
alternative systems for governing and especially for sharing data in
ways not determined by capital.
But to return to the first thesis, Carlyle's cash nexus. Today cash is
data. Today relations between people appear to them in the fantastic
form of information. The tendency (from cash to information) is to get
closer to a communicative community, somewhere beyond Habermas'
communicative rationality (and its implicit binary of rational and
irrational, the sophistico-mystical 'symbolic exchange' of Bataille
and Baudrillard ). To paraphrase the Communist Manifesto, Information
wants to be free -- but is everywhere in chains. Human relations are
at the brink of globalising through networks of diaspora and shared
belief. Against them are ranged 19th century concepts of
individualism, 18th century concepts of nationhood and 17th century
concepts of divinity. But most of all, 20th century conceptions of the
state and of the private sphere which defines itself in opposition to
But as the state crumbles, so privacy shrinks. Today we witness every
day the vast 'obscenity' of mass intimacy: the near-compulsive
revelation of our innermost thoughts in the liberating atmosphere of a
global anonymity, Poe's Man of the Crowd in cyberparadise.
(Baudrillard is often an excellent observer, just a lax and nihilistic
commentator in an age where nihilism is the official philosophy of
Who wants to retain privacy?. Mainly wife-beaters, child-abusers and
tax-evaders. Most of us have nothing to lose but our privacy -- the
compulsory hoarding of data in the form of private property and
private thoughts. But a private thought is no thought at all, like a
poem left in a drawer is no poem.
The ironic tone of my little post was nonetheless serious:
we *should* pursue Echelon's logic to its logical outcome -- privacy
is a previous phase of the global process, and we need not to slow
down or arrest but speed up the globalisation of data -- not least so
that no more regions have to go through the hell of the smokestack
era. There is no going back.
Richard Barbrook said: I don't mind them spying on me as long as I can
spy on them too... property is theft. And vice versa: data theft is
property. property and theft are inseparable.
People are media too. As a first step I advocate an international
agreement at WTO level to permit the free flow of people. Perhaps then
there will be an incentive to stop hoarding dataflows in the
Screen and Media Studies,
Akoranga Whakaata Pürongo
University of Waikato,
Private Bag 3105,
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