Digifesto

Tag: helen nissenbaum

social structure and the private sector

The Human Cell

Academic social scientists leaning towards the public intellectual end of the spectrum love to talk about social norms.

This is perhaps motivated by the fact that these intellectual figures are prominent in the public sphere. The public sphere is where these norms are supposed to solidify, and these intellectuals would like to emphasize their own importance.

I don’t exclude myself from this category of persons. A lot of my work has been about social norms and technology design (Benthall, 2014; Benthall, Gürses and Nissenbaum, 2017)

But I also work in the private sector, and it’s striking how differently things look from that perspective. It’s natural for academics who participate more in the public sphere than the private sector to be biased in their view of social structure. From the perspective of being able to accurately understand what’s going on, you have to think about both at once.

That’s challenging for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the private sector is a lot less transparent than the public sphere. In general the internals of actors in the private sector are not open to the scrutiny of commentariat onlookers. Information is one of the many resources traded in pairwise interactions; when it is divulged, it is divulged strategically, introducing bias. So it’s hard to get a general picture of the private sector, even though accounts for a much larger proportion of the social structure that’s available than the public sphere. In other words, public spheres are highly over-represented in analysis of social structure due to the available of public data about them. That is worrisome from an analytic perspective.

It’s well worth making the point that the public/private dichotomy is problematic. Contextual integrity theory (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that modern society is differentiated among many distinct spheres, each bound by its own social norms. Nissenbaum actually has a quite different notion of norm formation from, say, Habermas. For Nissenbaum, norms evolve over social history, but may be implicit. Contrast this with Habermas’s view that norms are the result of communicative rationality, which is an explicit and linguistically mediated process. The public sphere is a big deal for Habermas. Nissenbaum, a scholar of privacy, reject’s the idea of the ‘public sphere’ simpliciter. Rather, social spheres self-regulate and privacy, which she defines as appropriate information flow, is maintained when information flows according to these multiple self-regulatory regimes.

I believe Nissenbaum is correct on this point of societal differentiation and norm formation. This nuanced understanding of privacy as the differentiated management of information flow challenges any simplistic notion of the public sphere. Does it challenge a simplistic notion of the private sector?

Naturally, the private sector doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the modern economy, companies are accountable to the law, especially contract law. They have to pay their taxes. They have to deal with public relations and are regulated as to how they manage information flows internally. Employees can sue their employers, etc. So just as the ‘public sphere’ doesn’t permit a total free-for-all of information flow (some kinds of information flow in public are against social norms!), so too does the ‘private sector’ not involve complete secrecy from the public.

As a hypothesis, we can posit that what makes the private sector different is that the relevant social structures are less open in their relations with each other than they are in the public sphere. We can imagine an autonomous social entity like a biological cell. Internally it may have a lot of interesting structure and organelles. Its membrane prevents this complexity leaking out into the aether, or plasma, or whatever it is that human cells float around in. Indeed, this membrane is necessary for the proper functioning of the organelles, which in turn allows the cell to interact properly with other cells to form a larger organism. Echoes of Francisco Varela.

It’s interesting that this may actually be a quantifiable difference. One way of modeling the difference between the internal and external-facing complexity of an entity is using information theory. The more complex internal state of the entity has higher entropy than the membrane. The fact that the membrane causally mediates interactions between the internals and the environment prevents information flow between them; this is captured by the Data Processing Inequality. The lack of information flow between the system internals and externals is quantified as lower mutual information between the two domains. At zero mutual information, the two domains are statistically independent of each other.

I haven’t worked out all the implications of this.

References

Benthall, Sebastian. (2015) Designing Networked Publics for Communicative Action. Jenny Davis & Nathan Jurgenson (eds.) Theorizing the Web 2014 [Special Issue]. Interface 1.1. (link)

Sebastian Benthall, Seda Gürses and Helen Nissenbaum (2017), “Contextual Integrity through the Lens of Computer Science”, Foundations and Trends® in Privacy and Security: Vol. 2: No. 1, pp 1-69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/3300000016

Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press.

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Robert Post on Data vs. Dignitary Privacy

I was able to see Robert Post present his article, “Data Privacy and Dignitary Privacy: Google Spain, the Right to Be Forgotten, and the Construction of the Public Sphere”, today. My other encounter with Post’s work was quite positive, and I was very happy to learn more about his thinking at this talk.

Post’s argument was based off of the facts of the Google Spain SL v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (“Google Spain”) case in the EU, which set off a lot of discussion about the right to be forgotten.

I’m not trained as a lawyer, and will leave the legal analysis to the verbatim text. There were some broader philosophical themes that resonate with topics I’ve discussed on this blog andt in my other research. These I wanted to note.

If I follow Post’s argument correctly, it is something like this:

  • According to EU Directive 95/46/EC, there are two kinds of privacy. Data privacy rules over personal data, establishing control and limitations on use of it. The emphasis is on the data itself, which is property reasoned about analogously to. Dignitary privacy is about maintaining appropriate communications between people and restricting those communications that may degrade, humiliate, or mortify them.
  • EU rules about data privacy are governed by rules specifying the purpose for which data is used, thereby implying that the use of this data must be governed by instrumental reason.
  • But there’s the public sphere, which must not be governed by instrumental reason, for Habermasian reasons. The public sphere is, by definition, the domain of communicative action, where actions must be taken with the ambiguous purpose of open dialogue. That is why free expression is constitutionally protected!
  • Data privacy, formulated as an expression of instrumental reason, is incompatible with the free expression of the public sphere.
  • The Google Spain case used data privacy rules to justify the right to be forgotten, and in this it developed an unconvincing and sloppy precedent.
  • Dignitary privacy is in tension with free expression, but not incompatible with it. This is because it is based not on instrumental reason, but rather on norms of communication (which are contextual)
  • Future right to be forgotten decisions should be made on the basis of dignitary privac. This will result in more cogent decisions.

I found Post’s argument very appealing. I have a few notes.

First, I had never made the connection between what Hildebrandt (2013, 2014) calls “purpose binding” in EU data protection regulation and instrumental reason, but there it is. There is a sense in which these purpose clauses are about optimizing something that is externally and specifically defined before the privacy judgment is made (cf. Tschantz, Datta, and Wing, 2012, for a formalization).

This approach seems generally in line with the view of a government as a bureaucracy primarily involved in maintaining control over a territory or population. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but in a literal way of considering control as feedback into a system that steers it to some end. I’ve discussed the pervasive theme of ‘instrumentality run amok’ in questions of AI superintelligence here. It’s a Frankfurt School trope that appears to have made its way in a subtle way into Post’s argument.

The public sphere is not, in Habermasian theory, supposed to be dictated by instrumental reason, but rather by communicative rationality. This has implications for the technical design of networked publics that I’ve scratched the surface of in this paper. By pointing to the tension between instrumental/purpose/control based data protection and the free expression of the public sphere, I believe Post is getting at a deep point about how we can’t have the public sphere be too controlled lest we lose the democratic property of self-governance. It’s a serious argument that probably should be addressed by those who would like to strengthen rights to be forgotten. A similar argument might be made for other contexts whose purposes seem to transcend circumscription, such as science.

Post’s point is not, I believe, to weaken these rights to be forgotten, but rather to put the arguments for them on firmer footing: dignitary privacy, or the norms of communication and the awareness of the costs of violating them. Indeed, the facts behind right to be forgotten cases I’ve heard of (there aren’t many) all seem to fall under these kinds of concerns (humiliation, etc.).

What’s very interesting to me is that the idea of dignitary privacy as consisting of appropriate communication according to contextually specific norms feels very close to Helen Nissenbaum’s theory of Contextual Integrity (2009), with which I’ve become very familiar in past year through my work with Prof. Nissenbaum. Contextual integrity posits that privacy is about adherence to norms of appropriate information flow. Is there a difference between information flow and communication? Isn’t Shannon’s information theory a “mathematical theory of communication”?

The question of whether and under what conditions information flow is communication and/or data are quite deep, actually. More on that later.

For now though it must be noted that there’s a tension, perhaps a dialectical one, between purposes and norms. For Habermas, the public sphere needs to be a space of communicative action, as opposed to instrumental reason. This is because communicative action is how norms are created: through the agreement of people who bracket their individual interests to discuss collective reasons.

Nissenbaum also has a theory of norm formation, but it does not depend so tightly on the rejection of instrumental reason. In fact, it accepts the interests of stakeholders as among several factors that go into the determination of norms. Other factors include societal values, contextual purposes, and the differentiated roles associated with the context. Because contexts, for Nissenbaum, are defined in part by their purposes, this has led Hildebrandt (2013) to make direct comparisons between purpose binding and Contextual Integrity. They are similar, she concludes, but not the same.

It would be easy to say that the public sphere is a context in Nissenbaum’s sense, with a purpose, which is the formation of public opinion (which seems to be Post’s position). Properly speaking, social purposes may be broad or narrow, and specially defined social purposes may be self-referential (why not?), and indeed these self-referential social purposes may be the core of society’s “self-consciousness”. Why shouldn’t there be laws to ensure the freedom of expression within a certain context for the purpose of cultivating the kinds of public opinions that would legitimize laws and cause them to adapt democratically? We could possibly make these frameworks more precise if we could make them a little more formal and could lose some of the baggage; that would be useful theory building in line with Nissenbaum and Post’s broader agendas.

A test of this perhaps more nuanced but still teleological (indeed, instrumental, but maybe actually more properly speaking pragmatic (a la Dewey), in that it can blend several different metaethical categories) is to see if one can motivate a right to be forgotten in a public sphere by appealing to the need for communicative action, thereby especially appropriate communication norms around it, and dignitary privacy.

This doesn’t seem like it should be hard to do at all.

References

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Slaves to big data. Or are we?.” (2013).

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Location Data, Purpose Binding and Contextual Integrity: What’s the Message?.” Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy-A New Equilibrium?. Springer International Publishing, 2014. 31-62.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Post, Robert, Data Privacy and Dignitary Privacy: Google Spain, the Right to Be Forgotten, and the Construction of the Public Sphere (April 15, 2017). Duke Law Journal, Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 598. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2953468 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2953468

Tschantz, Michael Carl, Anupam Datta, and Jeannette M. Wing. “Formalizing and enforcing purpose restrictions in privacy policies.” Security and Privacy (SP), 2012 IEEE Symposium on. IEEE, 2012.

Existentialism in Design: Motivation

There has been a lot of recent work on the ethics of digital technology. This is a broad area of inquiry, but it includes such topics as:

  • The ethics of Internet research, including the Facebook emotional contagion study and the Encore anti-censorship study.
  • Fairness, accountability, and transparnecy in machine learning.
  • Algorithmic price-gauging.
  • Autonomous car trolley problems.
  • Ethical (Friendly?) AI research? This last one is maybe on the fringe…

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m quite passionate about the intersection of philosophy and technology. I’m especially interested in how ethics can inform the design of digital technology, and how it can’t. My dissertation is exploring this problem in the privacy engineering literature.

I have a some dissatisfaction towards this field which I don’t expect to make it into my dissertation. One is that the privacy engineering literature and academic “ethics of digital technology” more broadly tends to be heavily informed by the law, in the sense of courts, legislatures, and states. This is motivated by the important consideration that technology, and especially technologists, should in a lot of cases be compliant with the law. As a practical matter, it certainly spares technologists the trouble of getting sued.

However, being compliant with the law is not precisely the same things as being ethical. There’s a long ethical tradition of civil disobedience (certain non-violent protest activities, for example) which is not strictly speaking legal though it has certainly had impact on what is considered legal later on. Meanwhile, the point has been made but maybe not often enough that legal language often looks like ethical language, but really shouldn’t be interpreted that way. This is a point made by Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior in his notable essay, “The Path of the Law”.

When the ethics of technology are not being framed in terms of legal requirements, they are often framed in terms of one of two prominent ethical frameworks. One framework is consequentialism: ethics is a matter of maximizing the beneficial consequences and minimizing the harmful consequences of ones actions. One variation of consequentialist ethics is utilitarianism, which attempts to solve ethical questions by reducing them to a calculus over “utility”, or benefit as it is experienced or accrued by individuals. A lot of economics takes this ethical stance. Another, less quantitative variation of consequentialist ethics is present in the research ethics principle that research should maximize benefits and minimize harms to participants.

The other major ethical framework used in discussions of ethics and technology is deontological ethics. These are ethics that are about rights, duties, and obligations. Justifying deontological ethics can be a little trickier than justifying consequentialist ethics. Frequently this is done by invoking social norms, as in the case of Nissenbaum’s contextual integrity theory. Another variation of a deontological theory of ethics is Habermas’s theory of transcendental pragmatics and legitimate norms developed through communicative action. In the ideal case, these norms become encoded into law, though it is rarely true that laws are ideal.

Consequentialist considerations probably make the world a better place in some aggregate sense. Deontological considerations probably maybe the world a fairer or at least more socially agreeable place, as in their modern formulations they tend to result from social truces or compromises. I’m quite glad that these frameworks are taken seriously by academic ethicists and by the law.

However, as I’ve said I find these discussions dissatisfying. This is because I find both consequentialist and deontological ethics to be missing something. They both rely on some foundational assumptions that I believe should be questioned in the spirit of true philosophical inquiry. A more thorough questioning of these assumptions, and tentative answers to them, can be found in existentialist philosophy. Existentialism, I would argue, has not had its due impact on contemporary discourse on ethics and technology, and especially on the questions surrounding ethical technical design. This is a situation I intend to one day remedy. Though Zach Weinersmith has already made a fantastic start:

“Self Driving Car Ethics”, by Weinersmith

SMBC: Autonomous vehicle ethics

What kinds of issues would be raised by existentialism in design? Let me try out a few examples of points made in contemporary ethics of technology discourse and a preliminary existentialist response to them.

Ethical Charge Existentialist Response
A superintelligent artificial intelligence could, if improperly designed, result in the destruction or impairment of all human life. This catastrophic risk must be avoided. (Bostrom, 2014) We are all going to die anyway. There is no catastrophic risk; there is only catastrophic certainty. We cannot make an artificial intelligence that prevents this outcome. We must instead design artificial intelligence that makes life meaningful despite its finitude.
Internet experiments must not direct the browsers of unwitting people to test the URLs of politically sensitive websites. Doing this may lead to those people being harmed for being accidentally associated with the sensitive material. Researchers should not harm people with their experiments. (Narayanan and Zevenbergen, 2015) To be held responsible by a state’s criminal justice system for the actions taken by ones browser, controlled remotely from America, is absurd. This absurdity, which pervades all life, is the real problem, not the suffering potentially caused by the experiment (because suffering in some form is inevitable, whether it is from painful circumstance or from ennui.) What’s most important is the exposure of this absurdity and the potential liberation from false moralistic dogmas that limit human potential.
Use of Big Data to sort individual people, for example in the case of algorithms used to choose among applicants for a job, may result in discrimination against historically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Care must be taken to tailor machine learning algorithms to adjust for the political protection of certain classes of people. (Barocas and Selbst, 2016) The egalitarian tendency in ethics which demands that the greatest should invest themselves in the well-being of the weakest is a kind of herd morality, motivated mainly by ressentiment of the disadvantaged who blame the powerful for their frustrations. This form of ethics, which is based on base emotions like pity and envy, is life-negating because it denies the most essential impulse of life: to overcome resistance and to become great. Rather than restrict Big Data’s ability to identify and augment greatness, it should be encouraged. The weak must be supported out of a spirit of generosity from the powerful, not from a curtailment of power.

As a first cut at existentialism’s response to ethical concerns about technology, it may appear that existentialism is more permissive about the use and design of technology than consequentialism and deontology. It is possible that this conclusion will be robust to further investigation. There is a sense in which existentialism may be the most natural philosophical stance for the technologist because a major theme in existentialist thought is the freedom to choose ones values and the importance of overcoming the limitations on ones power and freedom. I’ve argued before that Simone de Beauvoir, who is perhaps the most clear-minded of the existentialists, has the greatest philosophy of science because it respects this purpose of scientific research. There is a vivacity to existentialism that does not sweat the small stuff and thinks big while at the same time acknowledging that suffering and death are inevitable facts of life.

On the other hand, existentialism is a morally demanding line of inquiry precisely because it does not use either easy metaethical heuristics (such as consequentialism or deontology) or the bald realities of the human condition as a stopgap. It demands that we tackle all the hard questions, sometimes acknowledging that they are answerable or answerable only in the negative, and muddle on despite the hardest truths. Its aim is to provide a truer, better morality than the alternatives.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by some questions implied by my earlier “existentialist responses” that address the currently nonexistent field of existentialism in design. These are questions I haven’t yet heard asked by scholars at the intersection of ethics and technology.

  • How could we design an artificial intelligence (or, to make it simpler, a recommendation system) that makes the most meaningful choices for its users?
  • What sort of Internet intervention would be most liberatory for the people affected by it?
  • What technology can best promote generosity from the world’s greatest people as a celebration of power and life?

These are different questions from any that you read about in the news or in the ethical scholarship. I believe they are nevertheless important ones, maybe more important than the ethical questions that are more typically asked. The theoretical frameworks employed by most ethicists make assumptions that obscure what everybody already knows about the distribution of power and its abuses, the inevitability of suffering and death, life’s absurdity and especially the absurdity if moralizing sentiment in the face of the cruelty of reality, and so on. At best, these ethical discussions inform the interpretation and creation of law, but law is not the same as morality and to confuse the two robs morality of what is perhaps most essential component, which is that is grounded meaningfully in the experience of the subject.

In future posts (and, ideally, eventually in a paper derived from those posts), I hope to flesh out more concretely what existentialism in design might look like.

References

Barocas, S., & Selbst, A. D. (2016). Big data’s disparate impact.

Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. OUP Oxford.

Narayanan, A., & Zevenbergen, B. (2015). No Encore for Encore? Ethical questions for web-based censorship measurement.

Weinersmith, Z. “Self Driving Car Ethics”. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Notes on Posner’s “The Economics of Privacy” (1981)

Lately my academic research focus has been privacy engineering, the designing of information processing systems that preserve privacy of their users. I have been looking the problem particularly through the lens of Contextual Integrity, a theory of privacy developed by Helen Nissenbaum (2004, 2009). According to this theory, privacy is defined as appropriate information flow, where “appropriateness” is determined relative to social spheres (such as health, education, finance, etc.) that have evolved norms based on their purpose in society.

To my knowledge most existing scholarship on Contextual Integrity is comprised by applications of a heuristic process associated with Contextual Integrity that evaluates the privacy impact of new technology. In this process, one starts by identifying a social sphere (or context, but I will use the term social sphere as I think it’s less ambiguous) and its normative structure. For example, if one is evaluating the role of a new kind of education technology, one would identify the roles of the education sphere (teachers, students, guardians of students, administrators, etc.), the norms of information flow that hold in the sphere, and the disruptions to these norms the technology is likely to cause.

I’m coming at this from a slightly different direction. I have a background in enterprise software development, data science, and social theory. My concern is with the ways that technology is now part of the way social spheres are constituted. For technology to not just address existing norms but deal adequately with how it self-referentially changes how new norms develop, we need to focus on the parts of Contextual Integrity that have heretofore been in the background: the rich social and metaethical theory of how social spheres and their normative implications form.

Because the ultimate goal is the engineering of information systems, I am leaning towards mathematical modeling methods that trade well between social scientific inquiry and technical design. Mechanism design, in particular, is a powerful framework from mathematical economics that looks at how different kinds of structures change the outcomes for actors participating in “games” that involve strategy action and information flow. While mathematical economic modeling has been heavily critiqued over the years, for example on the basis that people do not act with the unbounded rationality such models can imply, these models can be a first step and valuable in a technical context especially as they establish the limits of a system’s manipulability by non-human actors such as AI. This latter standard makes this sort of model more relevant than it has ever been.

This is my roundabout way of beginning to investigate the fascinating field of privacy economics. I am a new entrant. So I found what looks like one of the earliest highly cited articles on the subject written by the prolific and venerable Richard Posner, “The Economics of Privacy”, from 1981.

Richard Posner, from Wikipedia

Wikipedia reminds me that Posner is politically conservative, though apparently he has changed his mind recently in support of gay marriage and, since the 2008 financial crisis, the laissez faire rational choice economic model that underlies his legal theory. As I have mainly learned about privacy scholarship from more left-wing sources, it was interesting reading an article that comes from a different perspective.

Posner’s opening position is that the most economically interesting aspect of privacy is the concealment of personal information, and that this is interesting mainly because privacy is bad for market efficiency. He raises examples of employers and employees searching for each other and potential spouses searching for each other. In these cases, “efficient sorting” is facilitated by perfect information on all sides. Privacy is foremost a way of hiding disqualifying information–such as criminal records–from potential business associates and spouses, leading to a market inefficiency. I do not know why Posner does not cite Akerlof (1970) on the “market for ‘lemons'” in this article, but it seems to me that this is the economic theory most reflective of this economic argument. The essential question raised by this line of argument is whether there’s any compelling reason why the market for employees should be any different from the market for used cars.

Posner raises and dismisses each objective he can find. One objection is that employers might heavily weight factors they should not, such as mental illness, gender, or homosexuality. He claims that there’s evidence to show that people are generally rational about these things and there’s no reason to think the market can’t make these decisions efficiently despite fear of bias. I assume this point has been hotly contested from the left since the article was written.

Posner then looks at the objection that privacy provides a kind of social insurance to those with “adverse personal characteristics” who would otherwise not be hired. He doesn’t like this argument because he sees it as allocating the costs of that person’s adverse qualities to a small group that has to work with that person, rather than spreading the cost very widely across society.

Whatever one thinks about whose interests Posner seems to side with and why, it is refreshing to read an article that at the very least establishes the trade offs around privacy somewhat clearly. Yes, discrimination of many kinds is economically inefficient. We can expect the best performing companies to have progressive hiring policies because that would allow them to find the best talent. That’s especially true if there are large social biases otherwise unfairly skewing hiring.

On the other hand, the whole idea of “efficient sorting” assumes a policy-making interest that I’m pretty sure logically cannot serve the interests of everyone so sorted. It implies a somewhat brutally Darwinist stratification of personnel. It’s quite possible that this is not healthy for an economy in the long term. On the other hand, in this article Posner seems open to other redistributive measures that would compensate for opportunities lost due to revelation of personal information.

There’s an empirical part of the paper in which Posner shows that percentage of black and Hispanic populations in a state are significantly correlated with existence of state level privacy statutes relating to credit, arrest, and employment history. He tries to spin this as an explanation for privacy statutes as the result of strongly organized black and Hispanic political organizations successfully continuing to lobby in their interest on top of existing anti-discrimination laws. I would say that the article does not provide enough evidence to strongly support this causal theory. It would be a stronger argument if the regression had taken into account the racial differences in credit, arrest, and employment state by state, rather than just assuming that this connection is so strong it supports this particular interpretation of the data. However, it is interesting that this variable ways more strongly correlated with the existence of privacy statutes than several other variables of interest. It was probably my own ignorance that made me not consider how strongly privacy statutes are part of a social justice agenda, broadly speaking. Considering that disparities in credit, arrest, and employment history could well be the result of other unjust biases, privacy winds up mitigating the anti-signal that these injustices have in the employment market. In other words, it’s not hard to get from Posner’s arguments to a pro-privacy position based of all things on market efficiency.

It would be nice to model that more explicitly, if it hasn’t been done yet already.

Posner is quite bullish on privacy tort, thinking that it is generally not so offensive from an economic perspective largely because it’s about preventing misinformation.

Overall, the paper is a valuable starting point for further study in economics of privacy. Posner’s economic lens swiftly and clearly puts the trade-offs around privacy statutes in the light. It’s impressively lucid work that surely bears directly on arguments about privacy and information processing systems today.

References

Akerlof, G. A. (1970). The market for” lemons”: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism. The quarterly journal of economics, 488-500.

Nissenbaum, H. (2004). Privacy as contextual integrity. Wash. L. Rev., 79, 119.

Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press.

Posner, R. A. (1981). The economics of privacy. The American economic review, 71(2), 405-409. (jstor)

Three possibilities of political agency in an economy of control

I wrote earlier about three modes of social explanation: functionality, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of what it optimizes; politics, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of multiple agents working to optimize different goals; and chaos, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of the happenings of chance, independent of the will of any agent.

A couple notes on this before I go on. First, this view of social explanation is intentionally aligned with mathematical theories of agency widely used in what is broadly considered ‘artificial intelligence’ research and even more broadly  acknowledged under the rubrics of economics, cognitive science, multi-agent systems research, and the like. I am willfully opting into the hegemonic paradigm here. If years in graduate school at Berkeley have taught me one pearl of wisdom, it’s this: it’s hegemonic for a reason.

A second note is that when I say “social explanation”, what I really mean is “sociotechnical explanation”. This is awkward, because the only reason I have to make this point is because of an artificial distinction between technology and society that exists much more as a social distinction between technologists and–what should one call them?–socialites than as an actual ontological distinction. Engineers can, must, and do constantly engage societal pressures; they must bracket of these pressures in some aspects of their work to achieve the specific demands of engineering. Socialites can, must, and do adopt and use technologies in every aspect of their lives; they must bracket these technologies in some aspects of their lives in order to achieve the specific demands of mastering social fashions. The social scientist, qua socialite who masters specific social rituals, and the technologist, qua engineer who masters a specific aspect of nature, naturally advertise their mastery as autonomous and complete. The social scholar of technology, qua socialite engaged in arbitrage between communities of socialites and communities of technologists, naturally advertises their mastery as an enlightened view over and above the advertisements of the technologists. To the extent this is all mere advertising, it is all mere nonsense. Currency, for example, is surely a technology; it is also surely an artifact of socialization as much if not more than it is a material artifact. Since the truly ancient invention of currency and its pervasiveness through the fabric of social life, there has been no society that is not sociotechnical, and there has been no technology that is is not sociotechnical. A better word for the sociotechnical would be one that indicates its triviality, how it actually carries no specific meaning at all. It signals only that one has matured to the point that one disbelieves advertisements. We are speaking scientifically now.

With that out of the way…I have proposed three modes of explanation: functionality, politics, and chaos. They refer to specific distributions of control throughout a social system. The first refers to the capacity of the system for self-control. The second refers to the capacity of the components of the system for self-control. The third refers to the absence of control.

I’ve written elsewhere about my interest in the economy of control, or in economies of control, plurally. Perhaps the best way to go about studying this would be an in depth review of the available literature on information economics. Sadly, I am at this point a bit removed from this literature, having gone down a number of other rabbit holes. In as much as intellectual progress can be made by blazing novel trails through the wilderness of ideas, I’m intent on documenting my path back to the rationalistic homeland from which I’ve wandered. Perhaps I bring spices. Perhaps I bring disease.

One of the questions I bring with me is the question of political agency. Is there a mathematical operationalization of this concept? I don’t know it. What I do know is that it is associated most with the political mode of explanation, because this mode of explanation allows for the existence of politics, by which I mean agents engaged in complex interactions for their individual and sometimes collective gain. Perhaps it is the emerging dynamics of the individual’s shifting constitution as collectives that captures best what is interesting about politics. These collectives serve functions, surely, but what function? Is it a function with any permanence or real agency? Or is it a specious functionality, only a compromise of the agents that compose it, ready to be sabotaged by a defector at any moment?

Another question I’m interested in is how chaos plays a role in such an economy of control. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that entropy in society, far from being a purely natural consequence of thermodynamics, is a deliberate consequence of political activity. Brunton and Nissenbaum have recently given the name obfuscation to some kinds of political activity that are designed to mislead and misdirect. I believe this is not the only reason why agents in the economy of control work actively to undermine each others control. To some extent, the distribution of control over social outcomes is zero sum. It is certainly so at the Pareto boundary of such distributions. But I posit that part of what makes economies of control interesting is that they have a non-Euclidean geometry that confounds the simple aggregations that make Pareto optimality a useful concept within it. Whether this hunch can be put persuasively remains to be seen.

What I may be able to say now is this: there is a sense in which political agency in an economy of control is self-referential, in that what is at stake for each agent is not utility defined exogenously to the economy, but rather agency defined endogenously to the economy. This gives economic activity within it a particularly political character. For purposes of explanation, this enables us to consider three different modes of political agency (or should I say political action), corresponding to the three modes of social explanation outlined above.

A political agent may concern itself with seizing control. It may take actions which are intended to direct the functional orientation of the total social system of which it is a part to be responsive to its own functional orientation. One might see this narrowly as adapting the total system’s utility function to be in line with one’s own, but this is to partially miss the point. It is to align the agency of the total system with one’s one, or to make the total system a subsidiary to one’s agency.  (This demands further formalization.)

A political agent may instead be concerned with interaction with other agents in a less commanding way. I’ll call this negotiation for now. The autonomy of other agents is respected, but the political agent attempts a coordination between itself and others for the purpose of advancing its own interests (its own agency, its own utility). This is not a coup d’etat. It’s business as usual.

A political agent can also attempt to actively introduce chaos into its own social system. This is sabotage. It is an essentially disruptive maneuver. It is action aimed to cause the death of function and bring about instead emergence, which is the more positive way of characterizing the outcomes of chaos.

Protected: I study privacy now

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Responsible participation in complex sociotechnical organizations circa 1977 cc @Aelkus @dj_mosfett

Many extant controversies around technology were documented in 1977 by Langdon Winner in Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. I would go so far as to say most extant controversies, but I don’t think he does anything having to do with gender, for example.

Consider this discussion of moral education of engineers:

“The problems for moral agency created by the complexity of technical systems cast new light on contemporary calls for more ethically aware scientists and engineers. According to a very common and laudable view, part of the education of persons learning advanced scientific skills ought to be a full comprehension of the social implications of their work. Enlightened professionals should have a solid grasp of ethics relevant to their activities. But, one can ask, what good will it do to nourish this moral sensibility and then place the individual in an organizational situation that mocks the very idea of responsible conduct? To pretend that the whole matter can be settled in the quiet reflections of one’s soul while disregarding the context in which the most powerful opportunities for action are made available is a fundamental misunderstanding of the quality genuine responsibility must have.”

A few thoughts.

First, this reminds me of a conversation @Aelkus @dj_mosfett and I had the other day. The question was: who should take moral responsibility for the failures of sociotechnical organizations (conceived of as corporations running a web service technology, for example).

Second, I’ve been convinced again lately (reminded?) of the importance of context. I’ve been looking into Chaiklin and Lave’s Understanding Practice again, which is largely about how it’s important to take context into account when studying any social system that involves learning. More recently than that I’ve been looking into Nissenbaum’s contextual integrity theory. According to her theory, which is now widely used in the design and legal privacy literature, norms of information flow are justified by the purpose of the context in which they are situated. So, for example, in an ethnographic context those norms of information flow most critical for maintaining trusted relationships with one’s subjects are most important.

But in a corporate context, where the purpose of ones context is to maximize shareholder value, wouldn’t the norms of information flow favor those who keep the moral failures of their organization shrouded in the complexity of their machinery be perfectly justified in their actions?

I’m not seriously advocating for this view, of course. I’m just asking it rhetorically, as it seems like it’s a potential weakness in contextual integrity theory that it does not endorse the actions of, for example, corporate whistleblowers. Or is it? Are corporate whistleblowers the same as national whistleblowers? Of Wikileaks?

One way around this would be to consider contexts to be nested or overlapping, with ethics contextualize to those “spaces.” So, a corporate whistleblower would be doing something bad for the company, but good for society, assuming that there wasn’t some larger social cost to the loss of confidence in that company. (It occurs to me that in this sort of situation, perhaps threatening internally to blow the whistle unless the problem is solved would be the responsible strategy. As they say,

Making progress with the horns is permissible
Only for the purpose of punishing one’s own city.

)

Anyway, it’s a cool topic to think about, what an information theoretic account of responsibility would look like. That’s tied to autonomy. I bet it’s doable.

scientific contexts

Recall:

  • For Helen Nissenbaum (contextual integrity theory):
    • a context is a social domain that is best characterized by its purpose. For example, a hospital’s purpose is to cure the sick and wounded.
    • a context also has certain historically given norms of information flow.
    • a violation of a norm of information flow in a given context is a potentially unethical privacy violation. This is an essentially conservative notion of privacy, which is balanced by the following consideration…
    • Whether or not a norm of information flow should change (given, say, a new technological affordance to do things in a very different way) can be evaluated by how well it serve the context’s purpose.
  • For Fred Dretske (Knowledge and the Flow of Information, 1983):
    • The appropriate definition of information is (roughly) just what it takes to know something. (More specifically: M carries information about X if it reliably transmits what it takes for a suitably equipped but otherwise ignorant observer to learn about X.)
  • Combining Nissenbaum and Dretske, we see that with an epistemic and naturalized understanding of information, contextual norms of information flow are inclusive of epistemic norms.
  • Consider scientific contexts. I want to use ‘science’ in the broadest possible (though archaic) sense of the intellectual and practical activity of study or coming to knowledge of any kind. “Science” from the Latin “scire”–to know. Or “Science” (capitalized) as the translated 19th Century German Wissenschaft.
    • A scientific context is one whose purpose is knowledge.
    • Specific issues of whose knowledge, knowledge about what, and to what end the knowledge is used will vary depending on the context.
    • As information flow is necessary for knowledge, the purpose of science, the norms of information flow within (and without) a scientific context, the integrity of scientific context will be especially sensitive to its norms of information flow.
  • An insight I owe to my colleague Michael Tschantz, in conversation, is that there are several open problems within contextual integrity theory:
    • How does one know what context one is in? Who decides that?
    • What happens at the boundary between contexts, for example when one context is embedded in another?
    • Are there ways for the purpose of a context to change (not just the norms within it)?
  • Proposal: One way of discovering what a science is is to trace its norms of information flow and to identify its purpose. A contrast between the norms and purpose of, for example, data science and ethnography, would be illustrative of both. One approach to this problem could be kind of qualitative research done by Edwin Hutchins on distributed cognition, which accepts a naturalized view of information (necessary for this framing) and then discovers information flows in a context through qualitative observation.

Nissenbaum the functionalist

Today in Classics we discussed Helen Nissenbaum’s Privacy in Context.

Most striking to me is that Nissenbaum’s privacy framework, contextual integrity theory, depends critically on a functionalist sociological view. A context is defined by its information norms and violations of those norms are judged according to their (non)accordance with the purposes and values of the context. So, for example, the purposes of an educational institution determine what are appropriate information norms within it, and what departures from those norms constitute privacy violations.

I used to think teleology was dead in the sciences. But recently I learned that it is commonplace in biology and popular in ecology. Today I learned that what amounts to a State Philosopher in the U.S. (Nissenbaum’s framework has been more or less adopted by the FTC) maintains a teleological view of social institutions. Fascinating! Even more fascinating that this philosophy corresponds well enough to American law as to be informative of it.

From a “pure” philosophy perspective (which is I will admit simply a vice of mine), it’s interesting to contrast Nissenbaum with…oh, Horkheimer again. Nissenbaum sees ethical behavior (around privacy at least) as being behavior that is in accord with the purpose of ones context. Morality is given by the system. For Horkheimer, the problem is that the system’s purposes subsume the interests of the individual, who is alone the agent who is able to determine what is right and wrong. Horkheimer is a founder of a Frankfurt school, arguably the intellectual ancestor of progressivism. Nissenbaum grounds her work in Burke and her theory is admittedly conservative. Privacy is violated when people’s expectations of privacy are violated–this is coming from U.S. law–and that means people’s contextual expectations carry more weight than an individual’s free-minded beliefs.

The tension could be resolved when free individuals determine the purpose of the systems they participate in. Indeed, Nissenbaum quotes Burke in his approval of established conventions as being the result of accreted wisdom and rationale of past generations. The system is the way it is because it was chosen. (Or, perhaps, because it survived.)

Since Horkheimer’s objection to “the system” is that he believes instrumentality has run amok, thereby causing the system serve a purpose nobody intended for it, his view is not inconsistent with Nissenbaum’s. Nissenbaum, building on Dworkin, sees contextual legitimacy as depending on some kind of political legitimacy.

The crux of the problem is the question of what information norms comprise the context in which political legitimacy is formed, and what purpose does this context or system serve?