Through the Glass Darkly

Privacy is an interesting concept, one that both intrigues and baffles us, teasing us with seemingly unanswerable questions.  What does it mean to have privacy, or is it even a commodity capable of possession?  Is it simply the “right to be let alone,” as Warren and Brandeis wrote in their famous Harvard Law Review Article “The Right to Privacy?”  Did Aristotle have it right when he suggested that humans were political animals and that the right to exist and to speak in the public square meant that we had a right, therefore, to our thoughts?  Or was Cicero correct when he wrote that each of us has different personae, or masks, that we wear to hide our inner self, effectively making each of us a performer or creator of our public self, leaving our true person hidden?

We can’t agree on much, but most would agree that the private conversations we have with ourselves, the silent discourse of our minds constitutes an integral aspect of the private life.  Dutch lawyer, philosopher, and futurist Mireille Hildebrant wrote that “thoughts are developed in the privacy of one’s reading mind that are fundamentally opaque to others.  These thoughts can but need not be expressed in speaking or writing — they can be expressed as private thoughts[.]” It is precisely because we can choose to share our inner monologue (which is far more like a dialogue) that we can have privacy.

But what if our hidden, opaque, masked internal speech were manifest?  How would we maintain privacy, ever, if our thoughts themselves moved from interior to exterior?  That’s the stuff of nightmare and Orwell, right?

That is the vocalization of human brain waves processing the speech of another human being: brain waves made audible, interpreted through an algorithm in a neural network analyzer.  Put another way — you’re hearing someone else think.  Columbia University researchers say that the algorithm, which today has around 75% accuracy in decoding brain waves of humans listening to speech could soon process how humans think of speech internally as they say it, or even if they don’t.

Don’t mistake me – the potential for life-changing, life-affirming technology to give speech to those who have lost it, or never had it, is well worth pursuing.  Scientific advancements are rarely evil in themselves, and often have the very best intentions behind them.  This research could enable those afflicted by degenerative or neurological diseases to express their unspoken thoughts, a dazzling achievement of obvious importance to those with loved ones who have lost the ability to speak.

But while information and communications technologies (ICT) like these have obvious medical and social uses, they also have the potential for abuse as well.  Historians like Sarah Igo have documented this duality through history: telegraphs and telephones connected the world, but they were tapped.  Instantaneous photography allowed us to document our world and misappropriate private moments.  The internet unlocked the storehouse of human knowledge and democratized communication even as it tracks, digitizes, and cabins our autonomy.

It would be easy to overdramatize technologies like Columbia’s neural decoder.  (The disembodied voice doesn’t help, sounding as though it comes from an aural version of the uncanny valley) But from my perspective, it would also be foolish to underestimate the potential risks — after all, much of the aim of tracking technology is the accurate prediction of human behavior and, eventually, channeling that behavior into desired commercial, social (and even political) outcomes.  It isn’t difficult to see the connection between monitoring brain waves and the ultimate holy grail of ad tech: delivery of the perfect pizza ad to someone who has just thought to themselves “man, I could really use a slice right now.”

“But wait,” you might say, “this would require someone to be close enough to monitor our brain waves, which would be such a blatant intrusion on our personal physical space that it would never happen!  No one would allow a business to place a device on my body that would allow them to monitor brain waves without me knowing it, and they certainly would never fool me into thinking I was getting something for free while they monitored my intimate physical details.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my steps in because Apple Watch tells me that my heart rate is too low today.”

As I said, privacy is hard to define because it is the most intimate and, well, private aspect of our lives.  How we define the space inside and around us that constitutes our private existence varies depending on culture, economics, and physical reality.  But there must be a certain irreducible quantum of exclusivity, some space — physical or psychological — within which we can exist free from the intrusion of others.  The European Charter of Human rights guarantees the right to the private life, la vie privée.  What is that life if not the life of the mind, the internal reality hidden from others except those for whom we decide to lower our personae, our masks?  “For now we see in part we know in part [but] then I shall know fully even as I am also fully known.”  If we alienate the final province of our personhood, the last remaining space that only we ourselves know fully, what is it that makes us different from one another?


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