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
Andreas Broeckman 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 them.

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
there is
much, much more to be said about the "dis-appearance" of the private
individual over the course of the past 150+ years . . . of which ECHELON is
really a very minor part.
So true! 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 the state.

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 transnational capital)

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 metroplis.
Sean Cubitt
Screen and Media Studies,
Akoranga Whakaata Pürongo
University of Waikato,
Private Bag 3105,
New Zealand
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