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Privacy and Identity
Convenience: Debate


Terms of debate


Emerging big data technology generates questions on multiple levels: electrical engineers face problems involving the organization of datasets, retailers struggle to convert consumer information into purchases. On the level of philosophy and ethics, this is the question:

  • Is my privacy and identity worth more than my convenience? Is who I am worth more than how I am?


Because big data can suppress personal identity, while increasing comfort and facilitating happiness in our everyday lives, the technology sets individual initiative, which is gratifying but difficult, against accommodation, which is pleasurable and alleviating, but also depersonalizing.


Privacy and identity against big data convenience


The most accessible level of debate begins with the idea of privacy defined as control over access to our personal information, and then advances to by asking two questions.

  • The neutered identity question: Is the loss of privacy engineered by big data platforms preventing us from forming a concept of who we are as individuals?
    • As the Tinder: Live reality demonstrates, when we surrender control over the intimate details that define us, the risk of exploitation and ridicule surges. Consequently, it's going to be tempting to retreat into anonymity, into a reality of self-expression where we don't try to do or say anything that could offend, or be ridiculed, or that could set us apart from others.
    • Simply as a thought experiment, any one of us can imagine being live-streamed all the time, without editing. If that were to happen, it seems like we would be unable to exist as anything but a performer, as men and women always existing for others and never for ourselves.
  • The feedback loop/identity prison question: Is the loss of privacy engineered by big data platforms preventing us from changing and becoming someone new?
    • Tinder, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, they all curate: as you reveal what you want and like, they respond by feeding you more of it. Tinder keeps setting you up with the same partner, Amazon recommends more books on the same subject, Facebook conforms your news feed to your ideology, and Netflix keeps pointing you toward different versions of the same movie. As life gets easier, changing your life becomes more difficult. At the extreme, you can't become someone different because everything delivered into your experience reinforces what you already are.


Conclusion. The privacy and identity concern is that big data conveniences can prohibit us from being someone, and prohibit us from becoming someone else.


Philosophy and privacy, identity, convenience


Philosophy engages the privacy, identity, convenience dilemma with a thought experiment formulated to test the quality of life in a world of pure convenience.


The experiment loosely corresponds with the science fiction movie Total Recall where people go under sedation and into an electrode headwrap before living a thrilling episode entirely in their mind.

  • While other films and books play on the same idea, what makes Total Recall exemplary is that the brain-trips are what people do for their vacations. In other words, pleasure is reaching the degree of pure convenience.


The unblemished convenience corresponds with the complete absence of privacy. In order to create a durable and fantastic memory of a time that never happened, the mind device is equipped with probing electrodes. They map the subject’s deepest secrets, desires and fears, and exploit them to create an immersive, exciting, and harrowing artificial reality.


Shifting the scenario from cinema to academic philosophy, Robert Nozick proposed an Experience Machine. You float in a warm-water tank while a neurological apparatus sparks your synapses in delightful ways. The question Nozick asks about his machine echoes the one premising Total Recall:

Would you trade your sometimes frustrating embodied life for the data flood of generated reality?


Nozick suspects not, for three reasons.

  • Competition: We want to be better than others (win the tennis match, lure the elusive partner, triumph at the office), not just process those satisfactions in our minds.
  • Be (noun): We want to be someone, to have a palpable existence that can be touched, heard, and felt, instead of tracing back to fleeting neurons and digital realities.
  • To be: (verb): We want to do what we will remember. We want to make something of ourselves, not just watch and feel our lives play out in our head.

At bottom, each of these objections to the Experience Machine (or the Total Recall vacation) is a defense of personal identity. It’s the claim that making my own life, even if it doesn’t always feel good, is better than feeling good about a life that’s made for me.




Convenience and the annihilation of identity


What makes the Experience Machine interesting in the history of philosophy is a critical twist. Called Nozick’s Library, the apparatus comes with a collection of preconceived lives. One creates you as a dominating musician, another promises life-saving doctoring. There’s the story of the compelling actress, the vital athlete, the enchanting bohemian, and innumerable others.


The point: if you’re going to live an artificial reality, why be limited to your own imagination? Instead of asking for the Experience Machine to fulfill your own aspirations, you may find that someone else’s dreams sound better, so why not go for those?


If that’s the route taken, then personal identity gets ruined twice. First, there’s the exchange of lived existence for a fantasy. Second, the fantasy isn’t even yours.


The conclusion is that Nozick’s Library presses the privacy and identity versus convenience dilemma to its climax. When the life you experience was programmed by another, convenience is maximized (you don’t even have to bother to compose the existence you want), while your personal identity is doubly erased.


Real world decisions: Incremental, sporadic, concealed


One attraction of the Experience Machine is that it puts everything in the black and white of a binary choice:

Make and be yourself in a world that resists your efforts.


Satisfy your craving for pleasure with a convenient but impersonal neural device.


In the real data ethics world as we live it today, the choice isn’t a binary and obvious so much as incremental, sporadic, and frequently concealed.

  • Incremental: The Experience Machine is all or nothing. But, with Tinder, Amazon, Google, you sacrifice a degree of privacy for a bit of convenience.
  • Sporadic: The Experience Machine can last a biological lifetime (once you go into the device, maybe you don’t come out). But today’s interaction with data reality flickers, people go on Tinder for a while, delete their profile, go back on a year later.
  • Concealed: The Experience Machine is a device you consciously enter, and the trade of privacy for convenience is explicit: you feel it as the neuron belt wraps around your skull and begins probing the recesses of your mind. By contrast, the privacy cost of the convenience offered by big data platforms is hidden from us, and hidden by us.
    • Hidden from us: Many platforms (Tinder, Facebook, WhatsApp) let you get started by checking a box confirming that you’ve agreed to the terms of use. Those terms include an agreement to privacy invasion, which is normally hidden beneath countless paragraphs of legal jargon.
    • Hidden by us: Most of the time we don’t want to know. We check the box and start swiping on Tinder, and it’s easier to just not think about the possibility of our profile ending up exposed at Tinder Live, or sold to a databroker.

Zero point: mind, body, pleasure


It’s natural to associate our identity – who we are – with our mind. Similarly, the pleasures of convenience – what we feel – connect with our body. Our mind decides who we want to be, and our body enjoys or suffers the consequences. That’s exactly how Tinder works.


At the zero point, however, one of the polarities reverses.


In order to perfect convenience, the human body needs to be excised, the raw physical part has to be eliminated from the experience of ourselves. How else will we eliminate the inconvenient details of biological life: shaving in the morning, a sore back at night?

  • Of course the body lives on inside our imagination and consciousness: if what we ultimately want is pleasure, we need a place to feel. It's just that the sensations are artificial.


So, pleasure’s purification requires the physical body’s elimination. What remains is bodiless existence: we live on as a floating brain hooked up to electrodes. Sometimes this is called a brain in the vat scenario, but no matter the name, this extreme living condition creates an identity conversion: who I am becomes convenience. What it means to be me is the pure sensations wired to the cerebral source of my reality.


Deriving from that reality there's a strange communal possibility for my identity. If I am nothing more or less than the sensations wired through a brain, then any other brain electrified to feel the same way is me too. It's not a twin or a close resemblance, it's the same me, repeated.


At the zero point, we are pure empathy. When we feel what we do (as a receptive brain instead of creating the feeling by physically doing something outside the machine and with our own body), we are also all those others who are feeling the same way.


Again here, identity as something individual and unique evaporates as convenience floods reality.


Philosophy, identity and the docility of convenience


In his essay What is Enlightenment? Immanuel Kant warned that convenience could produce laziness. He didn’t mean physical indolence so much as personal docility. When life is too easy, people default toward taking things as they come; they drop into ruts, follow along, let their decisions be made for them. Every time that happens, Kant worried, a bit of personal initiative – and therefore personal identity – gets lost.


In the early twentieth century, Martin Heidegger found his own way to the conclusion that convenience can have an inverse relation with individuality. On one end of the relation, maximum convenience allows us to blissfully skate through our days without stopping to consider what the purpose of the hours may be, why it is I'm choosing to do one thing instead of something else. On the other end of the relation, the breakdown of convenience has a positive power: being challenged by the world is part of what lets each of us discover and create who we are as authentically unique individuals.

  • Example: Take a convenience, like a dishwasher: You only truly understand what the machine is when it breaks (because you’re forced to handwash the dishes). There’s something of that in human character too, you tend to discover a person’s deeper traits when some part of their existence is disrupted, broken, made inconvenient.


So, there’s an established history in philosophy that stands behind this idea: inconvenience may be beneficial in the sense that it forces people to flesh out the distinctive lines of their own unique identity.


The narcotics shortcut to perfect convenience


The theoretical route to understanding convenience at the extreme is the Experience Machine, or the brain in the vat, where science fiction biology melds with pleasures and experiences filtered to perfection by data algorithms. In these thought experiments, the headwrap and the electrodes meld with personalized tunings of artificial danger, joy, romance, intrigue, sophistication and excitement.


There is, however, a more realistic way to at least approximate pure convenience: the opium den. Or the Harvard psilocybin experiments, or any of myriad other scenes where people give up control over themselves in exchange for the suffusions of pleasure that serious drugs offer.


Critically, there are two streams of convenience running through opium-degree narcotics. One is easy pleasure, and the second goes further. Powerfully addictive drugs simplify the lives of their users by also providing what it is that they want. With addiction, convenience reaches the purity that philosophers speculate about inside the Experience Machine: you no longer have to labor to be happy (once you have the drugs), and you no longer have to labor to know what you want to be happy. Effort approaches zero: your wants are satisfied, and then what you want – your own desire – is also provided.


Comparing opium dens with big data convenience comes with significant limitations, but it does provide a quick route to a simple decision. Is it worth sacrificing your individual initiative along with the intimacy of your private efforts and desires, for swelling pleasures absorbed almost without effort?


Every major city has a street or two where opioid addicts gather and buy more. Frequently dirty, sometimes nearly toothless, they come close to incarnating a brain in the vat reality, one where the body, dignity and individual freedom are exchanged for facile bliss.


People driving past on their way to work spy out their car windows, and recoil in disgust.


It's also true, though, that the same men and women who reject the ecstasy of the addicts will labor for eight hours to pay for the beer or the wine that provides only a hint of the nirvana that the addicts embrace.


Looking at the scene objectively and from the outside, it's difficult to be confident about whether it's better to be someone who pursues pleasure, or to be a no one who, at least periodically, evaporates into it.


First argument in favor of convenience: Identity will be recreated


When privacy and identity are set against convenience, those who stand on convenience's side muster powerful arguments.


The most reassuring is that the reasoning underneath the dilemma is fundamentally wrong: convenience doesn’t necessarily hinder the creation of individuality. It may change the way we define ourselves, but that’s just a task in innovation for the next, electrified generation to undertake. Along one exploratory line or another, privacy vulnerabilities will be overcome as new forms of identity protection and creation are pioneered.

  • Every generation encounters unprecedented realities, and only defeatists or Luddites would constrain technological advances over fear of incommensurability to the accompanying challenges.

Seconds argument in favor of convenience:
So what?


Another response to worries about big data overwhelming personal identity is blunt: So what? The pleasures convenience yields are worth the sacrifice of privacy and personal identity.


If we get the chance to enter the Experience Machine, then of course we should take it. We’re all trying to get that with our lives anyway: to make ourselves into creatures that are happy and feel good. So, if there’s a shortcut – whether it’s a science fiction device, or Tinder that sets us up romantically, or a Spotify subscription that always knows the right song, or a Wine Library membership that regularly delivers a bottle that we're convinced we want – then we should trade in our personal details, and even our personhood. When you take everything into consideration, it’s just worth it.


Debate summary:
Privacy and identity versus convenience


The fundamental philosophical and ethical worry about rampant big data convenience is that individual identity is falling under serious pressure from easy enjoyments.

  • We are yielding control over our own identities by surrendering our private information for big data conveniences. The neutered identity argument, along with the feedback loop/identity prison argument, insist that personal initiative atrophies as our wants get channeled through our exposed individual details.
  • We are allowing ourselves to be defined by the machinations of big data operations. Not only are our wants satisfied, we no longer need to do the work of figuring out what our wants are. They are provided by the algorithms. Personal effort drops toward zero.

At the extreme, convenience usurps personality. It's no longer individuals trying to be who we are with less effort, instead, what it means to be each of us is nothing more than effortlessness.


The response from the convenience side is that it’s agreeable – it's pleasurable – to get what you want almost before you ask. More, the reason we protect privacy, and the reason we want to have personal initiative is to help us get convenient pleasure. So, if we can get the pleasure, then we should. And we should even if that means:

  • giving up on traditional concepts of privacy and personal identity, and pioneering new ones.
  • giving up on privacy and personal identity altogether because the pleasure is worth it.
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