Privileged Privacy

Since everyone’s kind of focused on ripping up the Castells piece (and for good reason), I figured I’d spend my post digging a little more into the Vaidhyanathan piece.

In his“Googlized Subject” section, he devotes most of his energies to ripping apart cultural imperialism, finally turning to her idea of infrastructural imperialism. His example for this case of Google is moving away from focusing on Google’s brand, but rather that “it’s that Google’s defaults of ways of doing spread and structure ways of seeking, finding, exploring, buying, and presenting that influence (though they do not control) habits of thoughts and action. These default settings, these nudges, are expressions of an ideology” (594). I thought that this new terminology was interesting, and I was excited to see how he utilized it. However, my expectations were crushed as he never truly laid out the broader strokes of the impacts of this outside of citing a couple of examples where Google changed its defaults to be sensitive to national issues. Did this fall flat for anyone else?

In her last section, I want to zoom in on more on the “we” he keeps using. Who does he mean by we? In this discussion of “the googlized subject” it seems that he universalizes the googler’s experience and privilege in the same breath that he damns universalizing speech. It seems somewhat contradictory to write entire sections of a piece discussing how people have pushed back against surveillance and then state that “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled – we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance: instead we don’t seem to care” (595). This not caring seems to be a privileged view. “We” don’t care because it hasn’t directly impacted “our” lives in a negative way. When it does, there’s hell to pay, as evidenced in her Facebook example from the privacy section. But who is this we? People who have historically been the subject of surveillance are typically very aware of the ways in which they are being watched – it’s the privileged class that seems shockingly unaware that the government and companies might want to watch them, too.

His semi-activist call to action also assumes a certain level of privilege and access not afforded by everyone in the US let alone the rest of the world. He seems to champion those that stood up to the big bully Google through legal action. However, I’m assuming that this grassroots reaction to Google’s surveillance policies is when those that had the privilege of not being surveilled come to find that they are subjected to the same treatment as marginalized populations – a horrific idea indeed. “I bought my private villa on the beachside to escape people watching me, to find some privacy, not to be photographed by Google” – seems to be the gist of the Google View protesters in the US. He hints at this somewhat by discussing the differences between those in cities and those in “the country,” but fails to recognize that there is a definite racial and class dynamic to this division. Those that have been surveilled (often those living in cities) in the US for a long time find Google’s practices nothing new, but they also are those that can’t afford to “fight the good fight.” Having the time and money to fight a service that saves time and money sometimes isn’t at the top of the “to do list” for those working multiple jobs just to get by. Thus, while he brings up some good points regarding re-thinking the idea of privacy, there is more room for critiquing what type of ideology goes along with the assumption of access to privacy.

Privileged Privacy

One thought on “Privileged Privacy

  1. You make some interesting counters to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s article, although I’m not sure I totally understand your train of thought with your analysis of the “privileged class” and its role in surveillance. I totally agree with the point that Siva’s semi-call-to-action is certainly targeted towards a privileged audience, but he does seem to acknowledge this to a certain extent. In the last few paragraphs he talks about most people “do not care” or who may in fact care are just not privileged enough to have the technical savvy/knowledge of how the surveillance machine works. Even the technical savvy to understand settings on Facebook is a privilege in which he mentions allows for some users to navigate surveillance in such a way that they do not have to give up some information they wish to keep private.

    In terms of fleshing out the other divides (racial and economic) in terms of privacy, you make another good point, although I think for the sake of his article he instead focuses on what he thinks is the larger divide between senses of privacy— living in an urban vs. rural area. One last point I wanted to respond to is that I think there is a difference, and its important not to conflate, what he describes as a general feeling of “not caring” about surveillance and being unaware. His point seems to be to show how Google, Facebook, etc. want us to not care about surveillance. It’s not that we won’t know. It’s not that the most marginalized or targeted of the general population don’t think we are being watched, it’s that at a certain point, people just give up caring. This is mass surveillance. When there is so much going on and we live in an age in which knowledge is produced at light speed, our collective memories are quick to forget or “not care” about certain things. Like everything Snowden and Greenwald and Poitras unveiled through their work. We get outraged, then we forget, and then we continue to exist in our old ways (generally speaking). This is what these companies want, and this is what Siva is pointing out. And yes, you’re right. Surveillance becomes a bigger issue when the privileged who think they are immune to it (Presidents, Prime Ministers, and German Chancellors for example) realize that they fall into the same mass surveillance structures as everyone else (kind of, not to the same extent but still). Siva’s main focus here, is that even in these situations, Google and Facebook and their ilk continue to get what they want— people stop caring. Even the most privileged (i.e. government officials caught in their two-faced dealings).


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