Privacy, trust, context, and legitimate peripheral participation

by Sebastian Benthall

Privacy is important. For Nissenbaum, what’s essential to privacy is control over context. But what is context?

Using Luhmann’s framework of social systems–ignoring for a moment e.g. Habermas’ criticism and accepting the naturalized, systems theoretic understanding of society–we would have to see a context as a subsystem of the total social system. In so far as the social system is constituted by many acts of communication–let’s visualize this as a network of agents, whose edges are acts of communication–then a context is something preserved by configurations of agents and the way they interact.

Some of the forces that shape a social system will be exogenous. A river dividing two cities or, more abstractly, distance. In the digital domain, the barriers of interoperability between one virtual community infrastructure and another.

But others will be endogenous, formed from the social interactions themselves. An example is the gradual deepening of trust between agents based on a history of communication. Perhaps early conversations are formal, stilted. Later, an agent takes a risk, sharing something more personal–more private? It is reciprocated. Slowly, a trust bond, an evinced sharing of interests and mutual investment, becomes the foundation of cooperation. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is solved the old fashioned way.

Following Carey’s logic that communication as mere transmission when sustained over time becomes communication as ritual and the foundation of community, we can look at this slow process of trust formation as one of the ways that a context, in Nissenbaum’s sense, perhaps, forms. If Anne and Betsy have mutually internalized each others interests, then information flow between them will by and large support the interests of the pair, and Betsy will have low incentives to reveal private information in a way that would be detrimental to Anne.

Of course this is a huge oversimplification in lots of ways. One way is that it does not take into account the way the same agent may participant in many social roles or contexts. Communication is not a single edge from one agent to another in many circumstances. Perhaps the situation is better represented as a hypergraph. One reason why this whole domain may be so difficult to reason about is the sheer representational complexity of modeling the situation. It may require the kind of mathematical sophistication used by quantum physicists. Why not?

Not having that kind of insight into the problem yet, I will continue to sling what the social scientists call ‘theory’. Let’s talk about an exisiting community of practice, where the practice is a certain kind of communication. A community of scholars. A community of software developers. Weird Twitter. A backchannel mailing list coordinating a political campaign. A church.

According to Lave and Wenger, the way newcomers gradually become members and oldtimers of a community of practice is legitimate peripheral participation. This is consistent with the model described above characterizing the growth of trust through gradually deepening communication. Peripheral participation is low-risk. In an open source context, this might be as simple as writing a question to the mailing list or filing a bug report. Over time, the agent displays good faith and competence. (I’m disappointed to read just now that Wenger ultimately abandoned this model in favor of a theory of dualities. Is that a Hail Mary for empirical content for the theory? Also interested to follow links on this topic to a citation of von Krogh 1998, whose later work found its way onto my Open Collaboration and Peer Production syllabus. It’s a small world.

I’ve begun reading as I write this fascinating paper by Hildreth and Kimble 2002 and am now have lost my thread. Can I recover?)

Some questions:

  • Can this process of context-formation be characterized empirically through an analysis of e.g. the timing dynamics of communication (c.f. Thomas Maillart’s work)? If so, what does that tell us about the design of information systems for privacy?
  • What about illegitimate peripheral participation? Arguably, this blog is that kind of participation–it participates in a form of informal, unendorsed quasi-scholarship. It is a tool of context and disciplinary collapse. Is that a kind of violation of privacy? Why not?