Privacy and Philosophy

New Media and Affective Protocol

by Andrew McStay (Author)
©2014 Textbook VI, 186 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 86


What can philosophy tell us about privacy? Quite a lot as it turns out. With Privacy and Philosophy: New Media and Affective Protocol Andrew McStay draws on an array of philosophers to offer a refreshingly novel approach to privacy matters. Against the backdrop and scrutiny of Arendt, Aristotle, Bentham, Brentano, Deleuze, Engels, Heidegger, Hume, Husserl, James, Kant, Latour, Locke, Marx, Mill, Plato, Rorty, Ryle, Sartre, Skinner, Spinoza, Whitehead and Wittgenstein, among others, McStay advances a wealth of new ideas and terminology, from affective breaches to zombie media. Theorizing privacy as an affective principle of interaction between human and non-human actors, McStay progresses to make unique arguments on transparency, the publicness of subjectivity, our contemporary techno-social condition and the nature of empathic media in an age of intentional machines.
Reconstructing our most basic assumptions about privacy, this book is a must-read for theoreticians, empirical analysts, students, those contributing to policy and anyone interested in the steering philosophical ideas that inform their own orientation and thinking about privacy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Privacy and Philosophy
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Propositions to be assessed
  • A memo on method
  • Structure of the book
  • Section One: Living Together
  • Chapter Two: Aristotle, borders and the coming of the social
  • Living the good life
  • Polis and oikos
  • Arendt and the rise of the social
  • Media
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three: Liberalism, consent and the problem of seclusion
  • Toward self-definition
  • Between self and society
  • Positive/negative liberty
  • Conflict and paternalism
  • Deontology
  • Consent and autonomy
  • Tacit vs. informed consent
  • Problematizing privacy
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Four: Utilitarianism, radical transparency and moral truffles
  • First principles: Cumberland to Bentham
  • Mill: A friend of privacy
  • On Liberty
  • The harm principle
  • Criticisms of Mill and the emphasis on autonomy
  • Transparency and the economics of privacy
  • Moral truffles
  • Teleology
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: Pragmatism: Jettisoning normativity
  • Being contextual
  • The problem with normative ethics
  • Changing norms
  • Conclusion
  • Section Two: Knowing
  • Chapter Six: Heidegger (Part 1): Concerning a-historical being and events
  • A philosopher of seclusion
  • Decline and disclosure
  • A-historical history
  • Heidegger’s persisting influence
  • Events
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Seven: Heidegger (Part 2): On moods and empathic media
  • Moods
  • Co-evolving authorship
  • April Fool? The case of Verizon
  • Empathic media
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Eight: Latour: Raising the profile of immaterial actants
  • Living in the margins
  • Porous categories
  • Meta-stability
  • Privacy as a black box
  • Privacy as an actant
  • Politics and process
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Nine: Phenomenology: The rise of intentional machines
  • Intentional machines
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Ten: The subject: Caring for what is public
  • Identity, expectation and moods
  • Access to others
  • Dispositions
  • Being public
  • Inference tickets
  • Born public
  • Language-based conceptions of shared experience
  • Being social
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Eleven: Alienation: The value in being public
  • Back to Hegel
  • Alienation
  • Abstract alienation
  • Criticisms
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Twelve: Spinoza: Politics of affect
  • The influence of Spinoza
  • Expectation
  • Watching lives of others
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Thirteen: Whitehead: Privacy events
  • Events
  • Making public of private prehensions
  • Process and media
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Fourteen: Community facts
  • Community fact
  • Adopting a pragmatic outlook
  • Affective privacy
  • Appendix: An A to Z of privacy: New theories and terminology
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

← vi | 1 → CHAPTER ONE


A life without privacy is impossible. It connects with the most basic processes of how we live together and the institutions we create, and we can be absolutely clear upfront—there is no question of privacy disappearing. The notion that privacy might somehow be removed, surpassed or lost from the human equation is to very much misunderstand it. This is because privacy plays a fundamental role in our most basic daily interactions. Be this in our behavior towards each other, what we consider to be taboo, our modes of intimacy, the confidences we share with others, how we arrange our homes and working spaces, where we store thoughts and things of value, and more recently the ways that these are imbricated in media and technological systems, privacy is a very basic and primal premise. While passionately argued and defended, privacy is one of those words that does not lend well to precise definitions. In general though we use it as a means of referring to borders (keep out!); as a means of maintaining dignity in human behavior (for example sex or defecation); to highlight autonomy and the right to control aspects of our lives, relationships and bodies; and as a way of addressing the security of information that concerns us in some way. Like words such as freedom, liberty, equality and rights, we feel privacy to be an important ideal although laypeople and professional academics struggle to delineate ‘it.’ Privacy International (2013), a charity whose stated aim is to defend the right to privacy across the world, defines privacy as:

… the right to control who knows what about you, and under what conditions. The right to share different things with your family, your friends and your colleagues. The ← 1 | 2 → right to know that your personal emails, medical records and bank details are safe and secure. Privacy is essential to human dignity and autonomy in all societies. The right to privacy is a qualified fundamental human right—meaning that if someone wants to take it away from you, they need to have a damn good reason for doing so.

There is no univocal meaning but privacy is better thought of as a rallying-word for a cluster of interests. In the quote there are a number of key words that have philosophical resonance, these being: control, dignity, right and autonomy—all highly liberal notions. Privacy International is accurate in that privacy is a qualified right. This means it is not (in liberal terms) absolute like other rights (for example, not to be tortured), but rather it may be encroached upon if there are other competing interests. Another key point about privacy is that while we might assume that we have less opportunity to be private than in the past given the rise of data-based technologies, this is not necessarily true. Despite technical innovation in media, feedback, profiling, targeting, bureaucracy, prediction and surveillance technologies, many societal changes since the industrial revolution involve a net increase in privacy. Be this less familiarity with our neighbors, more geographically dispersed family arrangements, working away from home, weakening of religious authority (and all-knowing deities and confessional practices), greater possibility of children having their own bedrooms, increase in car ownership (versus public transport) and so on, in many ways we are more private then ever (Westin, 1984 [1967]). Early on, we should also query the notion that privacy is essentially a positive notion. Areas of feminist discourse on privacy for example complicate over-simplified ideas about privacy as an always-desirable outcome, not least because of the potentially repressive dimension of privacy that may act as a control mechanism maintaining imbalanced power relationships (Rössler, 2005; Allen, 2011). Indeed, historically ‘the family home was a man’s castle but a woman’s place’ (Allen, 1988: 63) and patterns of female home ownership and inheritance rights remain patchy. If denied control over the home, privacy may also be a negative condition that acts as a hermetic seal against public visibility so to facilitate unaccountable behavior. On the domestic sphere, the Marxist feminist MacKinnon (1989) argues that privacy represents a domain where women are both deprived of power and recourse to legal protection, due to the historical unwillingness of the liberal state to intervene in private domains.1 For MacKinnon this is why feminism has to make the personal political, blur private/public distinctions and make sinister Warren and Brandeis’ (1984 [1890]) maxim, the ‘right to be left alone.’ This raises difficult questions about the reach of the state, with many liberal feminists recognizing historical imbalances but maintaining that privacy remains fundamental, particularly given its association with autonomy that facilitates richer, deeper and more significant relationships away from the attention of others (Allen, 1988; DeCew, 1997).

← 2 | 3 → Journalism also complicates the privacy-as-positive narrative by means of its overriding interest in making information public, transparent and open. Like professional fighters in the ring, on the one side we have ‘the right to be left alone’ and the other, the ‘public’s right to know,’ and the latitude given to journalists to conduct public interest investigations that may involve intrusion (Lloyd, 2012). On privacy invasion in journalism, Alan Rusbridger (2012: 142), editor of The Guardian, suggests five conditions: there must be sufficient cause along with prior assessment of harm to individuals and families; integrity of motive and justification that public good will follow; methods should be proportionate to the story and degree of public interest, and intrusion minimized; intrusion should be overseen by an authority; and there should be reasonable prospect of success with ‘fishing expeditions’ not justified. However, privacy in journalism by means of secrecy is necessary in the case of whistleblowing and the protection of journalists’ sources, and somewhat paradoxically we cannot promote transparency without privacy.

Propositions to be assessed

The point of this preamble is to highlight that privacy is deeply implicated in our lives at fundamental levels, that it is not solely positive or neutral, and that it has been broached in many ways, particularly in relation to new media technologies. Less however has been said about the philosophical dimensions of privacy. This is the subject of this book. While lacking the exact focus of empirical work or dedication to a sole topic such as ‘mobile apps, teenagers and privacy perception,’ my intention is to bring about new ways of thinking about privacy by casting a wider net to account for privacy. The vast literature on privacy in journal and book form affords some risk-taking, experimentation and unique ways of coming at privacy—which I employ particularly in the mid-to-latter half of this book. As so much has been written about the implications of novel technologies and their effects on social arrangements, I am reticent to recap all of this (for overviews see Lyon, 2001; Petronio, 2002; Rössler, 2005; Bennett and Raab, 2006; McStay, 2011). Instead this rich context of study provides latitude for something different. While early chapters assess familiar philosophical perspectives that underpin the majority of assumptions of privacy studies, later chapters are more novel in orientation. In a sense, this is to play at dressing-up, to try different hats and outfits, to mix and match at times, and see how privacy looks if we depart from the usual dualistic and liberal approaches that inform privacy studies. There is both a frivolous and more earnest element to this, but both aim to refresh our understanding of privacy, and provide new fields of inquiry and ways of thinking about privacy. While this book draws on a diverse range of approaches to explore the relationships between privacy and philosophy, ← 3 | 4 → particularly as they apply to media, I will develop my own arguments in dialogue with these philosophical traditions, particularly in reference to the following propositions that will be unpacked and referred to in this book. These are:

1.  Privacy should be conceived in terms of affective events;

2.  Privacy is an emergent protocol that contributes to the governance of interaction among people and objects.

Ideas about affect have a long philosophical history encompassing a wide range of thinkers and tactics that will be addressed in the course of this book. In general however an affective approach prefers to understand life in lived, immediate, experiential, sensational and felt terms. Important too is the recognition that an affective event is that which has the capacity to transform and influence other actors around it. This may involve inter-personal dynamics in terms of how two people relate and possibly cohabit, or global communication structures and international law. While today privacy is often discussed in terms of Facebook, Google, media behemoths and governmental surveillance, these are only small footnotes in a much larger story about how privacy comes to be by means of events that are to be recognized as felt and lived, as well as theorized.


VI, 186
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
publicness subjectivity transparency interaction
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrew McStay (Author)

Andrew McStay (PhD, University of West London) is Senior Lecturer in Media Culture at Bangor University. He is the author of Digital Advertising (2009); The Mood of Information: A Critique of Online Behavioural Advertising (2011) and Creativity and Advertising: Affect, Events and Process (2013).


Title: Privacy and Philosophy
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