Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Schopenhauer's Porcupine and Puberty

Middle school is rough.

"A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked."(1)

As young men grew and learned masculinity in the place and time I came from, they exhibited a peculiar kind of sociality I have only ever also seen among military.(2) We were complete assholes to one another. Everyone is constantly accusing everyone else of being a faggot in the most non-sincere and absurd way while simultaneously and ironically engaging in absurdly detailed critiques of everyone else's appearance and dress. Despite knowing how much it secretly hurts us, we assumed it was not a big deal for anyone else because any showing of intimacy would increase the available attack surface for insults. My best friend's parents thanked my parents because I stayed by him during a period of bullying by our own clique which led to him being suicidal in 6th grade. He was only 11, and was bullied to the point of considering suicide because of having a relationship with an unattractive and odd girl. My other friends and I just thought it was funny. He thought our response was maybe worth ending his life. I thought the jokes started out being pretty funny, but getting too far into a guy's personal business with a girl was very gay.

In this environment young men were desperate for intimacy. Girls were the only socially acceptable outlet for it, and young men were encouraged to succeed with girls, but were relentlessly mocked for failing or approaching any girl outside the five in the grade who were both extremely conventionally attracted and socially well-regarded. The AOL Instant Messenger software program was the best available solution we had, so we lied and said we were 13 and got accounts. All traffic was unencrypted and went through some strange AOL server that mined all the data, but with respect to our community it created the ability to have bilateral conversations with any person that could only be revealed by a participant in the conversation. We talked, occasionally to each other, but mostly to girls. The majority of the meaningful and intimate conversations I had during middle school happened through this program.(3) We couldn't drive, it was a magnet school for the gifted and talented so all your friends were too far away to walk, and our parents wouldn't bring us anywhere without a disturbingly exhaustive explanation of who would be there and what would occur. Occasionally something happened after a school play or during a big group outing, but mostly we just talked, and most of the talking was through the program.

Leroy Martin Middle School was a sad story, but I emerged far less damaged than if I hadn't been able to have those interactions on AOL Instant Messenger at all. I had not cut myself off so thoroughly from my inner emotional life that I began pursuing riskier and riskier behaviors just to feel anything like so many of my male friends, some of whom are now dead, some of whom I wonder every day if I will see their obituary shared on Facebook with no cause of death listed like we have seen so many times before. How human beings kill and die is something we rarely choose to understand. In war, we kill people across absolute social distance from us, foreigners mute in our language and alien in their nature. At home, we hurt and sometimes kill the people closest to us, and most of all, very most of all, we hurt and kill ourselves - suicide is nearly six times as common as homicide for white people in America.

It was easy for us to let people snoop on our bilateral private personal communications because we are mainly hiding parts of ourselves from our own social circle. For someone who has only feared the mockery of one's own friends and never anything like the KGB, it is almost impossible to imagine why a distant third party would care about your private bilateral communications or how they could manipulate or hurt you from such a distance. For those of us from communities that never suffered genocide and do not experience police brutality, it is mostly the people close to us that hurt us, as much as mass shooters and terrorists captivate the imagination. To have made us think differently and to make the next generation think differently requires a grand work of social philosophy and psychology which, fortunately, is already beginning - we must change the innermost threat model to create a presence of mind that can possess a healthy fear of the very distant third party platform possessing one's private communications.

Sometimes, sharing our insecurities with close friends in private can help us feel better. But when creepy guys know your insecurities, they can use them to manipulate you into doing things you don't want to do. Surveillance capitalism is like that - you get web services in exchange for letting the creepiest people in the world know every little thing you're insecure about. And they will buy the right to give you ads - ads targeted directly at you through the software you use every day, that lives in your pocket all the time, to manipulate you into being even more insecure, so you need to buy their products and behave how they want

Emotionally abusive people want to control you. A lot of times, in an emotionally abusive relationship, people are expected to stay in touch by messaging constantly. Isn't that gross? Doesn't it ruin your life to always have to be attached to someone in that way? What if, instead of abusive people, we thought about apps or companies that try to keep us attached to them on the phone all the time?

I learned in seventh grade that AOL could read my messages and my response was "Eh, weird." We need analogies narratives metaphors ideas to connect directly into minds and flip the switch to change the threat model. And we need to start with our own, because while my rationalistic understanding of the importance of privacy and the history, political economy, and sheer danger of it all has grown dramatically, my emotional response to my privacy being violated is still far away from the principled indignation someone like Eben possesses or a lot of people will be hurt and killed and, like I said, we mostly kill ourselves. -- JoeBruner - 14 Apr 2018



1 : Parerga and Paralipomena, Arthur Schopenhauer

2 : Most soldiers with PTSD come from non-combat roles nowadays.

3 : Why most of us learn to close ourselves off to our parents in this period of our lives is a difficult subject I will not reach here


Webs Webs

r3 - 16 May 2018 - 21:46:04 - JoeBruner
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