Privacy and Knowledge: Fundamental Fields of Study for Twenty-first-Century Democracies

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Citizenship plays an essential part in a functioning modern democratic polity. The consolidation of mass democracy and the nation state, mass consumption and capitalism, as well as the development of rational knowledge are the main elements that built this modern polity. Part of the nation state’s function has been to develop a welfare state with the aim to make its citizens thrive. After all, to make citizens thrive was the old Aristotelian ideal of the polis, often translated as ‘city-state’, as the sole space for human beings, political animals, to achieve their potential. In order to build this social and political system, public institutions evolved into complex bureaucracies, which gathered more and more information about its citizens. Sociologists have referred to this as ‘information society’ or ‘knowledge society’.

The early modern period gave Europe the foundations of its modern vocabulary. Theologians, and legal and political thinkers established the basis for our modern concepts such as citizen, the state, law, freedom, the nation. The construction of the nation-state was the project of the nineteenth century, while the construction of the welfare state was the project of the twentieth century. Both projects have created a bureaucracy in charge of gathering information about citizens. This knowledge has also served as identity formation, political identity, which resulted in tremendous crises (world wars based on nationalism, and the use of national registers to identify specific groups of population). The twenty-first-century model is still under formation, but seems to be basing itself on the digital revolution; a cyber-Leviathan struggling to cap a multitude of fluid political identities.

The good functioning of a modern democratic polity has become increasingly complex in our ‘knowledge society’. New actors have challenged nation-states. Multiple actors (transnational groups, the internet, foreign countries, large multinational or global companies, NGOs, etc.) impact on the functioning of democratic nation-states. These alternative actors have sometimes surpassed governments and public authorities in gathering knowledge about their citizens and in using it. The USA engaged in mass surveillance post 9/11, sometimes with the complicity of local governments.[1] Private corporations have established an economic system called ‘surveillance capitalism’.[2] China has built ‘smart cities’ where citizens cannot cross the street without the party knowing it.[3]

That ‘knowledge is power’ is a well-known aphorism, commonly traced to Francis Bacon (1561—1626), from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae: ‘ipsa scientia potestas est’ (‘knowledge itself is power’). Thomas Hobbes (1588—1679), who knew him, also wrote in his 1668 Latin edition of Leviathan ‘Scientia potentia est’, adding: ‘sed parva’; or in the original 1651 version ‘The Sciences, are small Powers…’[4] Hobbes’s point is that, since science cannot be contained in one person, it is a small power. Knowledge of everything, for Hobbes on the other hand, is real power, but only pertains to nature. What would Hobbes say today when governments and corporations have access to an unprecedented amount of personal information about individuals and have the ability to process and analyse all the data collected? ‘Scientia potentia est sed parva’?

Castells theorized the ‘information age’ as a competition between the self and networks driven by technology.[5] For Castells, social groups construct their identity, which shape the institutions of society. Who controls the means of constructing collective identities determines the content of these identities. Now, since the technological tools available determine social change, who controls this technology has tremendous power over society.

Today, the topic of privacy is therefore of paramount importance. Technology and economy have merged into a system of collection of data from individuals as a way of making a profit. This deep knowledge of individuals is not only selling new objects of consumption, but constituting political identities, disrupting elections, impacting freedom of thought by altering one’s access to unbiased information.[6] Have algorithms and artificial intelligence used by social media companies and governments to mine big data reached the status of all-knowing God? The individual still has free will against this powerful knowledge by protecting her privacy. A recent book argues simply that ‘privacy is power’.[7] If privacy is power and knowledge is power, research on the dynamic between knowledge and privacy is fundamental for democracy. Historical research should inscribe itself within this grand narrative of modernity as a construction of identities between the self and networks by powerful technologies. Or of postmodern deconstruction into small narratives, as Lyotard has it (more on this in a future post).[8]

Privacy studies as a field of research is still in its infancy despite a handbook.[9] What is missing is a richer historical perspective. The Centre for Privacy Studies at the University of Copenhagen is aiming at developing an interdisciplinary outlook on privacy and a method for privacy studies as a field. The history of privacy has been a developing topic of research for the past three decades. But it is more recently that the idea of privacy and the private/public nexus as threshold of contested power as a relevant tool for studying the past has emerged.[10] Privacy studies contribute to at the evolution of various understandings of privacy across time and space, and how they have been justified or limited in political ideologies.

The field of the history of knowledge can ironically be traced to Bacon again with his 1605 The Advancement of Learning, inspiring the taxonomy of knowledge in the French Encyclopédie.[11] It has had different names and objects of study over time.[12] The field is developing rapidly with a new Journal of the History of Knowledge created in 2020,[13] the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge,[14] following the work of Peter Burke since the 1990s.[15] Knowledge studies should examine how political knowledge of citizens was created, limited, and disseminated throughout modernity.

Knowledge has always been considered partial and limited. It could be that it is limited to an elite or that it is deemed dangerous and concealed, or simply that it is not possible to gather enough information. Echoing Bacon, Foucault has established a fruitful conceptual tool with the nexus power/knowledge that mutually create and influence one another: ‘the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’.[16] He had previously studied Bentham’s panopticon for prisons, a device bereaving prisoners of privacy and enabling the collection of information on their private behaviours at will and at random so that they discipline themselves.[17] In this sense, there has also been privacy of political knowledge of citizens. What justifies on the one hand the limitations to citizens’ privacy to gather political knowledge, and what justifies the limitation of citizens’ knowledge to this?

[1] Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Timothy H. Edgar, Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

[2] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2019).

[3] Kai Strittmatter, We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (La Vergne: Old Street Publishing, 2019).

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 63.

[5] Manuel Castells, The Information Age, Volumes 1-3: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden (Mass.); Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

[6] Ivan Manokha, ‘Surveillance: The DNA of Platform Capital—The Case of Cambridge Analytica Put into Perspective’, Theory & Event 21, no. 4 (2018): 891–913.

[7] Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (London: Bantam Press, 2020).

[8] Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne:  rapport sur le savoir, Collection critique. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979).

[9] Bart van Der Sloot and Aviva de Groot, eds., The Handbook of Privacy Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

[10] Sarah E. Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[11] Francis Bacon, The Two Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (London: Henrie Tomes, 1605).

[12] Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?, What Is History? (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), chap. 1.

[13] https://journalhistoryknowledge.org.

[14] Johan Östling, David Larsson Heidenblad, and Anna Nilsson Hammar, ‘Developing the History of Knowledge’, in Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2020), 9–26.

[15] Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?

[16] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 / (New York, N.Y: Pantheon Books, 1980), 52.

[17] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Practices of Privacy, the Online Experience

The lockdown efforts started exactly when my colleague Natália da Silva Perez and I were organising the final touches of our upcoming symposium, Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making. With participants coming from several different countries, there was no chance for us to host the event as planned, and we were facing three options: 1) cancelling the symposium; 2) postponing it in the hopes things would eventually return to a modicum of normality; 3) transform it into an online event.

We had spoken many times about academic accessibility and digital possibilities, so we decided to face the situation as an opportunity to venture in that direction. On top of that, with the cancellation of events we were going to participate, we had a little bit more time on our hands to dedicate to this online shift.

Our online platform x the discussions of the Royal Society: academic debates in flux

There was a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but besides the technical hurdles, we needed to make sure that our participants were comfortable and ready to join us in this new experience. The format had to be organised as to enable discussions without overwhelming any participant. As such, from the beginning, we decided to make this an asynchronous event. Thanks to the willingness of our delegates to record their presentations, we were able to create a space online where the participants could watch the talks and join the discussions. To give time for these discussions to flourish, we extended the period of the asynchronous event to cover a whole month (from April 24 to May 31, 2020).

The main issue with an asynchronous event was to guarantee engagement. We had our online platform, with the uploaded presentations and designated discussion spaces, but it is very hard for presenters to feel heard in this kind of environment. We decided to assign discussants for each of the presentations. Each week, some participant would write a question or a comment on one of the presentations as a way to get the conversation started.

Technology enabled these conversations, but brought with it its own hurdles! (image by redlemonade.ie)

A preliminary Zoom meeting took place, in which Prof. Mette Birkedal Bruun introduced the Centre for Privacy Studies, and we talked about what would happen in the weeks ahead. All participants could introduce themselves, giving faces to the names their peers would encounter on the online platform. While we could not yet meet in person, our personal spaces at home had to merge through the tiny Zoom window. After so many of these meetings, most of us are all too familiar with this unique feeling of impersonal intimacy.

Cartoon by Shannon Wheeler (cartooncollections.com).

Many academic colleagues share this experience of suddenly having to switch to online formats. A lot has been said about issues of privacy involving this shift. The irony of discussing historical notions of privacy in the process of knowledge-making in the context of the lockdown had not escaped us.

With that, we headed on to engage collectively with practices of privacy through history. Our discussions were centred around eight panels:

  1. Arts, Secrets, Techniques
  2. Scholarly Practices
  3. Confidentiality and Exposure
  4. Geographical Spaces
  5. Architectural Spaces
  6. The legal, the religious, the political
  7. Writing Lives
  8. Becoming Private

You can see the abstracts of these fantastic papers here. The papers spanned from early modern to contemporary issues of privacy within practices of knowledge production. Artisans, artists, authors, housewives, scholars and scientists, many were the historical actors in these processes. We also had the honour to have Prof. Catherine Richardson as our keynote, who provided a brilliant overview of the intersection between knowledge and privacy practices within her project on the cultural lives of the middling sort.

The online discussions were extremely insightful. The fact that people were commenting from home, with time to elaborate and with the chance to consult their sources and bibliography, meant that the comments and answers were detailed, precise, and of high academic level. These discussions worked almost like a process of open peer-review. However, it also made the process more demanding for the participants than the Q&A of a conventional conference.

Another thing that was lacking was the chance for interpersonal exchanges. With the formalities of the online platform, it was complicated to create a connection with the participant as individuals, and not only academics. After the discussions on the online platform were over, we noticed that there were so many threads and connections among the participants that deserved to be explored further. As such, we created separate Zoom meetings for specialised discussions: Women, Privacy, and Knowledge; Spaces of Knowledge, Knowledge of Spaces; Knowledge and Authorities; and Rituals and Religion. These optional discussions, with a smaller amount of participants engaging in real time, were extremely prolific, with incredible exchanges of sources, literature, and historical perspectives. Most importantly, they also gave us a chance to connect more personally with one another.

The Centre for Privacy Studies sends a heartfelt thank you to all participants! What an incredible journey! We are very happy to confirm that the in-person event will take place on March 4-5, 2021 (if the circumstances allow). In the meantime, we will work collectively on the future publication based on the symposium papers. In other wonderful news, Practices of Privacy will have its second edition in March 2022! The call for papers is already opened for the symposium Practices of Privacy: Vestiges of Dialogue. Hope to see you there!