Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 46


Ubiquitous Computing vs. Radical Privacy: A Reconsideration of the Future *

by David Porush, PhD (

In his October installment of The Last Link, Steve Doheny-Farina confronts the prospect of ubiquitous computing which Mark Weiser at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has popularized. In Weiser's view, "invisible" computers will keep track of the motions of employees through the work environment. Employees will wear remote signal badges or some other form of ID and computer-directed monitors will record and presumably help direct their motions and activities.

Even though ubiquitous computing--or "ubicomp"--is still (like cyberspace) largely vaporware, Doheny-Farina and others are already contesting the future dystopian territory and the challenges to notions of work, selfhood, and privacy which this new technology implies. So Doheny-Farina quotes Howard Rheingold's final chapter of The Virtual Community, which in turn quotes Gary Marx on issues of privacy and computing. Mr. Marx presents five principles outlined in the Code of Fair Information developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973:

  1. There must be no personal-data record keeping whose very existence is secret.
  2. There must be a way for a person to prevent information that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.
  3. There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about himself.
  4. Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data (Rheingold, 1993, p. 294).

"In light of my concerns about Ubicomp," writes Doheny-Farina, "I want to propose a few principles of my own:

  1. The normal state of anyone's computers is OFF.
  2. The normal state of anyone's relationship to computer networks is UNCONNECTED.
  3. The normal state of knowledge about the location of anyone is UNKNOWN--whether connected or unconnected.
  4. Connectivity and location is private information that must be protected by both technological and social policy mechanisms."

It would be hard to contest Professor Doheny-Farina's gut reaction to this technology: ubicomp sounds like the ultimate Big Brother implementation, (over and above the health notions which no one seems to be addressing: I don't welcome the prospect of being immersed in a microwave bath every time I show up for work). None of Weiser's reassurances that the technology will be implemented only with willing participation reassure me. I know how culture and technology conspire to make non-participation virtually impossible. Try renting a room in a hotel or renting a car or making a plane reservation without a credit card. You can't. Try getting a mortgage without an established credit rating. If you ain't a blip on TRW's screen you don't exist. And each time you use that credit card, Big Brother can locate you, find out how much you spent, what you bought or ate or rented. You have surrendered your privacy. Now imagine trying to get a job in a ubicomp workplace if you object.

Or to put it another way:

PORUSH's LAW: Participating in the newest communications technologies become compulsory if you want to remain part of the culture.
Just recently I heard someone boast that they turn off the telephone one day a week. I know one family that has only one television, and they're very proud to note that they don't have cable subscription. But I don't know anyone who has neither telephone nor television. I'm sure such folks exist. I'm sure some early adherents of hieroglyphics thought the phonetic alphabet was an outrageous innovation that carried new threats to privacy and freedom and so they chose to remain illiterate. But most of us will slide with the glide. Participating in the newest communications medium is more or less compulsory. And few citizens object, anyway.

This does not mean that older means of communications won't continue to persist. Hypertext may make the book somewhat less energetic and attractive as a menu choice, but books will continue to be written and sold, just as we still have a thriving oral tradition alongside the book. It isn't either/or it's both/and. But the both/and implies more or less universal participation. You have the telephone, and you walk over to your neighbor's house. You listen to the radio in your car, and you have a television. You navigate information presented hypertextually, and you read books in bed.

So let's assume we emigrate part of the time to a ubicomp world. What is the proper response to any such future implementation? Do we insist on a fundamental disconnection from comm links in reaction to ubicomp's threat to our privacy?

A method for understanding future culture

I like to try to find ways to understand what might fundamentally change when we evolve new communications media. One problem in projecting the future is that what we think are universal, natural, and inalienable foundations for human behavior or rights are actually cultural-specific--and therefore temporary and local-- constructions whose relevance may disappear in any future culture. So trying to design tomorrow's future from today's assumptions are problematic. A good way to exercise caution is to contrast our present assumptions with historical periods or other cultures where we humans operate according to different assumptions about what is natural, normal, or essential.

For instance, to take an example that will help us obliquely to understand issues of privacy, it is clear that the Jewish textual tradition of the Talmud was an early example of hypertext. The Talmud is a transcription of an ongoing symposium begun in the first century AD and continuing today devoted to commentary and exegesis of questions in the Jewish tradition. It represents a largely non-Western method for arriving at truths, a method that thrived and still thrives on the margins of Western culture. In fact, it was viewed as so very alien (and therefore threatening) that the Catholic Church many times during the Medieval period decreed that the Talmud should be burnt.

The Talmud--in contrast to the codex or book--is in format a series of accreted commentaries, largely anonymous. A page of the Talmud is structured around a central text surrounded by concentric layers of commentary and commentary on commentary. By form and content, it announces the unfinished quality of constructing knowledge and the collective construction of shared values. Even in its layout on the page, the Talmud suggests a kind of time- and space-destroying hypertextual symposium rather than an authoritative, linear, and coherent pronouncement with a beginning and ending written by a solitary author who owns the words therein. For example, think of the quintuple-play with which I opened this essay: I quote Doheny-Farina quoting Rheingold quoting Marx quoting the Code of Fair Information developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973, itself a committee-produced document.

By contrasting the Talmud to our normal paradigm, we reveal our assumptions and learn to understand knowledge-formation in an alternative way. Is it possible that our knowledge is borrowed and circulated and cumulative, more like the Talmud than like a book? As my colleague Karen Burke Lefevre admirably shows, writing is a social -- I would say communal -- act. Any writer is a conduit for the circulation of vast and collective ideas. By contrast, the "atomistic concept of the writing self," Lefevre writes, "...fails to take into account the social origins, influences, and consequences of invention. It abstracts writers from society, deemphasizing or ignoring their constant interactions" with society, an ever-evolving language, conventional "forms and norms. It overlooks that many ideas, images and texts derive from the heritage shaped by others, living and dead. It neglects the power of social collectives that shape and encourage" individual expression. [1]

The notion of a private self, or the notion of a singular origin of knowledge, pales into insignificance in the face of this talmudic-hypertextual-Internet-like vision of communally-constructed knowledge.

Furthermore, the idea of the book as intellectual property belonging to a solitary genius--as natural as it seems to us now--is largely an invention of the late eighteenth century. The concept of intellectual property was coeval with the rise of the book as a mass-produced object and capitalism itself. Codifiying this strange, perhaps even aberrant concept as copyright laws was driven by economic forces: the rise of powerful publishing houses and booksellers, along with the new ideas of writing as a mercenary profession, rather than a craft or calling, and the writer as solitary originator or genius rather than someone who was carrying forward a public tradition, participating in the circulation of social ideas. In her article "The Genius and the Copyright," Martha Woodmansee shows that there was a subtle shift in the idea of inspiration as "emanating not from outside or above" (from Muses or Gods or the tradition) "but from within the writer himself."[2] The negotiation of these new concepts in the latter half of the eighteenth century were so intense, that it produced a massive survey of the field by 1794 Ernst Marin Graff's Toward a Clarification of the Property and Protperty Rights of Writers and Publishers and of Their Mutual Rights and Obligations. With Four Appendices. Including a Critical Inventory of All Separate Publications and Essays in Periodical and Other Works in German Which Concern Matters of the Book as Such and Especially Reprinting (Leipzig, 1794) 382 pp. [3].

Even though copyrights were not even imagined until the eighteenth century, and regular laws governing them weren't conceived until the nineteenth century, today we consider them so natural, it is one of the measures of [Western!] civilization itself. In the last fifty years, copyrights have extended in time and space so that now estates[4] or publishing houses, can own an author's words even after an author is dead. International agreements on copyrights are almost always part of any treaty or trade pact.

Just a few weeks ago, the inability to achieve agreement on copyright laws governing records, tapes, videos, and books became the major sticking points in our treaty negotiations with China. The issues go deeper, however, than the billions of dollars that may be involved as China pirates videos and tapes and books for re-sale to their domestic market. The US is subtly demanding that China ascribe to the notion of private property and of the individual as an owner of words and ideas. The money and piracy issue is a Trojan Horse. Inside the belly of the lost copyright profits issue lurks a more devastating assault by Western cultural imperialism on Chinese paradigms of originality. We want one-fifth of the world's population to agree with our peculiarly Western ideal of intellectual property, which in turn entails very culture-bound ideals of how knowledge is constructed/created, who owns ideas, and even fundamental notions about the relationship between self and society or between private and public. It is possible that to other cultures, the idea of intellectual property entails a form of slavery or impoverishment.

Looking at the Talmud and other cultures like China calls into question many of the assumptions we in the Era of the Book have taken for granted about knowledge, genius, the self, originality, texts, and intellectual property. It also gives us a way to anticipate many of the problems that arise with the advent of new technologies which undermine the Book. Furthermore, there is a relationship between questions of the self (raised by contrasts between Western and non-Western ideas of the authoring self) and questions of the citizen-self and privacy (that the threat of ubicomp raises). It is clear that part of what drives this growing obsession with selfhood and privacy is a mercantile ideology of property and ownership. If you agree that even your knowledge represented in words or your creativity can be commodified and turned into capital, then it is not hard to see why you would worry excessively about privacy. Compared to a talmudic-hypertextual-communal model of knowledge construction and creativity or originality, the commodity model tends to make us fear being spied upon and robbed of individuality--especially if it is the source of our intellectual capital. Commodification of thoughts leads to paranoia.

On, Connected, and Known

Armed with both this insight and this method of analyzing the future, let's consider Doheny-Farina's proposals for guarding our privacy in the future Orwellian state he fears ubicomp will bring:
  1. The normal state of any computer is OFF.
  2. The normal state of anyone's relationship to computer networks is UNCONNECTED.
  3. The normal state of knowledge about the location of anyone is UNKNOWN--whether connected or unconnected."
I'd like to call these principles into question by underscoring precisely how historically- and culturally-bound they are. While I don't challenge the idea that ubicomp has chilling prospects, I do worry about overreacting in advance by undermining other dearly-held principles.

Is the normal state of your home or apartment address today INVISIBLE or UNKNOWN? No. The door may be locked, and you may have a peephole, but the door itself is visible, accessible, and identifiable as the gateway to your residence.

Is the normal state of your telephone number or Internet address OFF, UNKNOWN and UN- (or DIS-) CONNECTED? No. If we imagine--shudderingly -- some future state where ubicomp is a reality and the rule, then these propositions effectively mean that the normal state of citizenship is ANONYMITY and INVISIBILITY. I would argue that such assumptions do more harm than good. Perhaps this is the dark end state of our American obsession with privacy, universal paranoia, but I think it is aberrant and threatens the more valuable and enduring notions of community. The normal state of our self in the community, I would suggest, is ON, KNOWN and CONNECTED.

Location is a touchier notion. I want people to be able to get to me in principle, but on my terms not theirs. I especially don't want people who own my time some of the time--my employer, in theory--to be able to own my time all of the time. I especially want to be able to go places where no one will be able to find me, for a time. I would prefer my employer not intrude on my home. But at the same time, unless I have an unlisted phone number, a post office box instead of a home address, an anonymous e-mail address (which, if widespread, leads to more problems for a community than it solves), etc., then people know where I am. They can--and in my community do--knock on my door unanticipated and unheralded. Indeed, this is one of the points of pride about my community.

By contrast, I feel quite insecure when I visit places and no one knows where I am. I feel UNCONNECTED, LOST, and ANONYMOUS. I too have some primitive, romantic, nostalgic vision of my robust, self-sufficient, natural Rousseauian self roaming the mountainsides totally unfettered by social obligation or contact. Even though I rarely (and now that I have children, never) take advantage of this potential freedom, I would fight to preserve it. But Doheny-Farina's suggestion that "the normal state of knowledge about the location of anyone is UNKNOWN" comes with serious problems. If I have a family, if I care for someone, if I am connected to a community, then the normal state of knowledge about me and anyone else is quite well KNOWN. I understand that his statement is true statistically. Name any random Joe Shmo and I couldn't tell you where he is (much less where he's AT!). But the principles of community and location are identical; having a community means being able to locate someone.

Where You're At

Frankly, I think trying to protect a theoretical freedom to be lost by suggesting it is the normal state of relationship to the society at large is a form of capitulation to the totalizing and dehumanizing aspects of communications technology. In our deepest instincts, most humans are communal: they willingly participate in community precisely because community gives them the ability to KNOW WHERE THEY'RE AT with respect to the community (and I would argue, the universe, physically, existentially, and metaphysically) and vice versa; the COMMUNITY KNOWS WHERE THEY'RE AT (again, physically, existentially, and metaphysically). You know your place. Doheny-Farina's principle works for Brentwood and Hollywood and other high-walled suburbs, avatars of the pomo condition. There, privilege and privacy come at a premium not just in dollars and cents, but in profound alienation and psychic unsurety, manifested in expensive security systems and obsessions with privacy. Building a whole culture on the foundation of such a "normal" or "natural" state yields a pretty dystopian future. Hey, in Japan they don't even have a word for privacy. (Actually, they do, but it's borrowed from our culture. As my translator and friend Professor Nobuo Kamioka informed me when I visited him in Tokyo in 1991, it's purabaishi - an awkward transliteration of the English.) That might help underscore just how local our assumptions about privacy are, and how little they will help us when it comes to designing rules for the Global Village to come.

Doheny-Farina's fourth protocol:

Connectivity and location is private information that must be protected by both technological and social policy mechanisms.

is the least arguable, but it has some problems, too. First, to empirical principles: It is impossible for any mechanical system to be blind to any of its own states, unless some artificial mechanical barriers have been erected by a human system designer. Consequently, even if we could posit a system where the information was locked away and hidden from a human inspection of the system's total knowledge, someone--necessarily a human--is going to hold the key, and therefore, any technological solution must necessarily be imperfect and subject to human (intentional) incursion. As a result, the default condition of information about connectivity and location is public, not private. So here is where social mechanisms kick in - laws and customs that dictate "shoulds" and "oughts."

When human switchboard operators were supplanted by automatic switching, it represented an enormous gain for privacy (since human operators could, and regularly did, listen in on conversations). But now, with computerized switching and caller identification, someone somewhere has access to all phone calls. Someone can know who is talking to whom, and when. So there are laws, narrowly defined ones, about the circumstances under which conversations can be overheard, taped, or wiretapped. We may debate the fine points, but the limits are in place. E-mail will eventually function the same way. Sysops now have access--were they to care enough to look--to the time, addresses, and even the "Subject" lines of all exchanges. Of course, there are netiquette protocols, and probably soon some laws, protecting the privacy of these exchanges, like the laws that keep IRS or medical information confidential and police from busting down our doors willy nilly. These social policies and laws work pretty well now and there is no reason they shouldn't work in the future. So I will go along with this fourth protocol, with a friendly amendment:

Connectivity and location are public data whose abuses for profit or intrusion must be prevented by social policy mechanisms.
However, this is covered under the original guidelines established by Code of Fair Information developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973 (quoted at the beginning of this essay), and so we can even dispense with this formulation.

Hasty Projections

Let's not be so hasty to re-define what is the natural or the "normal" or the default state of our communications and our mutual connectivity. I believe the future negotiations over what information is private and how it will be used will permit mostly satisfactory resolutions to emerge in a democratic society. But assuming that the default state of human communication is private, disconnected, and anonymous strikes at the very core of what it means to be part of a community or a culture in the first place. The price of such an assumption is just too high and I for one am not ready to pay it. I'll take my chances with Big Brother rather than face a society whose assumption is that its citizens are monads, atoms, or hermits. Beyond that, there is a lesson to learn about projecting our local and history-bound values onto other cultures, even our own culture of the future.


* parts of this essay were delivered as a talk to the Whizin Institute Symposium on "The Moral Toll of the Information Superhighway" February 5-7, 1995 in Los Angeles. The author also wishes to thank his colleague, Prof. Karen Burke Lefevre, for help in research and discussions about some of the ideas herein.
    [1]Karen Burke Lefevre, Invention as a Social Act (Southern Illinois UP, 1987) paraphrased by Lefevre in her article "The Tell-Tale Heart: Determining 'Fair' Use of Unpublished Texts," Law and Contemporary Issues 55, 2 (Spring, 1992) 178.
    [2] See Martha Woodmansee's excellent account of this period in Germany in "The Genius and the Copyright," Eighteenth-Century Studies 17,4 (Summer, 1984) 440.
    [3]Noted in Woodmansee, op. cit. above.
    [4] If you're interested in further reference about the current copyright debate, it's worth looking at the legal case of Salinger v. Random House, 811 F2d 90 (2d Cir 1987); and at the so-called "Green Paper: Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure" by Bruce A. Lehman, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks drafted by the Secretary of Commerce (July, 1994). The latter is premised on an extreme vision of the commodification of intellectual property. ¤


David Porush is professor of literature at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. He is working on a book entitled Telepathies, about cyberspace and the alphabet.

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