Our progressive counter-narrative to Silicon Valley’s surveillance capitalism must be based on a solid philosophical basis.
We must not only understand the nature of data, privacy, and of the self in the digital age but also articulate it as simply and clearly as possible. This philosophical core is based on the following core understandings and definitions.
1. People who use digital technologies are cyborgs.
Human beings extend their minds (Andy Clark & David Charmers, 1998) and thereby their selves using technology. We must, therefore, extend our understanding of the boundaries of the self to include the technologies by which we extend ourselves. The relationship of a human being to digital technology is analogous to the relationship of a cyborg to its organs. These organs must, therefore, be seen as existing within the boundaries of the self and fall under the protections of human rights legislation. (See Appendix: The Universal Declaration of Cyborg Rights). We must, therefore, advocate for the application of our existing human rights to the extended boundaries of the modern human being instead of advocating for a new set of “digital rights” or “data rights” or “tech rights” (digital/data/tech don’t have rights, human beings do – what we are talking about are human rights.) This is a crucial point as those advocating for new “data rights“ or “digital rights” often do so in hopes of making these lesser rights than the human rights we already have.
This description of our relationship to technology is just that: descriptive, not prescriptive. Nowhere should this be taken to imply that human beings must use digital or networked technologies. Quite on the contrary, just as our policies protect the rights of people who use modern technologies (and thus are cyborgs), we must – as forcefully – defend the right to not use technology. In other words, we must also protect freedom from technology. Given how digital technologies like fitness trackers are increasingly being mandated by workspaces or shadow profiles make everyone a de facto user of a social network even if they’ve never signed up, the importance of this principle cannot be understated.
2. Original consent: Privacy is the right to choose what you keep to yourself and what you share with others.
Whether or not you have privacy depends on whether or not the topology of your technology affords you original consent. Original consent is having the choice to keep something (a thought or the articulation/expression of a thought) to yourself or share it with others. If the topology of your technology is decentralised (or, barring that, end-to-end encrypted) – in other words, if you are extending yourself onto spaces that you own and control – then you have original consent. You can decide what you keep to yourself and what you share with others. If, however, your data originates in spaces that others own and control and must be processed with algorithms that others own and control, then you lack original consent. Without the right to original consent, all we can do is to ask the corporations who do own the machines to “please be kind” and honour our wishes.
3. Data about people is people.
The business model of people farmers is not to show you ads, it is to digitise you: to simulate you and to own that simulation. Data about a thing, if you have enough of it, and with the right algorithms, approaches the thing itself. For example, if I have a figurine and I have enough data about this figurine, I can take a 3D printer and make an exact replica of it.
4. Data about people is fundamentally different to data about rocks.
We use a single word (data) to refer both to information about people as well as information about rocks (non-person objects in the world around us). Yet while I cannot physically or emotionally hurt a rock and I cannot deprive a rock of its liberty or its life, I can do all of those things to a person. Therefore, the policies we enact must acknowledge the stark contrast between data about people and data about rocks. Whereas data about people should be owned and controlled by the people themselves, data about rocks should be owned and controlled by the commons (everyone). What we must not do is perpetuate the myth that “data” as an unqualified term has any meaningful semantics. Legislation that refers to “data” in such a generic manner is fundamentally flawed and will most likely disenfranchise people by conflating them with rocks.