Coloniality of the Algoritm Critical Theory Surveillance The Body as Data

Private space, public space, personal space

May 25, 2018


Private space, public space, personal space

Just a few reflections scribbled in haste for future reference.

Re-reading Jurgen Habermas’ “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” (a text I gotta confess I haven’t touched in ages and if I recall correctly I never even finished reading). His definition of “the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space”. This particular bit interests me:

The usage of the words “public” and “public sphere” betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Their origins go back to various historical phases and, when applied synchronically to the conditions of a bourgeois society that is industrially advanced and constituted as a social-welfare state, they fuse into a clouded amalgam. Yet the very conditions that make the inherited language seem inappropriate appear to require these words, however confused their employment. Not just ordinary language (especially as it bears the imprint of bureaucratic and mass media jargon) but also the sciences-particularly jurisprudence, political science, and sociology-do not seem capable of replacing traditional categories like “public” and “private,” “public sphere,” and “public opinion,” with more precise terms.

With the new data privacy laws coming into effect in Europe discussions of data protection are at an all time high. However, I was thinking of how outdated these definitions sound. In line with Habermas points about the woefully lacking categories surrounding the public vs the private I wanted to point to a third category that does not enter this discussions: the personal.

There is the public where the State has a monopoly on the administration of space and where technologies of surveillance and consumerism are deployed (both the all seeing eye of the State and the pervasive advertisements that populate our landscapes). In public, we can be surveilled, photographed, observed and recorded. As I mentioned earlier this week in the reflections about Amazon selling their image recognition technology to the police, all of this can happen also with the intent of generating third party profits. “We” as a commodity. Again, the body as data to be sold for the purpose of training machines. In turn, our eyeballs/ attention are constantly under dispute for advertisements (the technologies of consumerism). Data protections do not apply in any of these cases. “The public”.

The private, on the other hand, is conceived as in opposition to the public. “Private data” as a protected zone supposedly free from scrutiny (this analysis is better left for another day, “free from scrutiny” used very tongue in cheek etc). In the private sphere we are supposed to be protected by legislation and the prying eyes of the State (Ha!). However, this data, to which I often refer to as “intimate data” has been commodified and turned into a political tool as well.

But, in relation to issues surrounding body autonomy and agency, I was thinking of how “personal space” is not part of these discussions. As in, our right to personal space while in public for example. Such as, a stranger cannot come and grab me by the arm to demand my attention or touch us inappropriately, etc. It is understood that we, as subjects, have a right to “personal space” while in public. But such notion of personal space has not been extended in relation to how we treat “the body as data”. The “data” generated by our bodies while existing in public (ie while we occupy our personal space) is not afforded any kind of protection. We can be non consensually photographed, surveilled, used to generate profits, etc.

In turn, this intersects with issues I have discussed before regarding settler colonial mentality and the assumed “right to occupy space” (which is at play both in the way physical public spaces are occupied and assumed to be “up for grabs” re: data extractivism and in the way personal spaces on social media are not conceived as such)

this thread


So if we think of data as pertaining to either the private or the public, I posit that there’s a third possibility: the personal which I would tentatively conceive as an in between the two and similar to the way in which we have a right to personal space while in public tied to the aforementioned body autonomy and the right to our bodies (which we currently do not necessarily have in the sense of “the right to our bodies as data”). In this regard, feminist notions of the right to our bodies would be useful when discussing “the right to our bodies as data” as well. The State cannot arrest us without probable cause while in public (HA! again, let’s park this one for another time) but the State can gather our bodies as data without probable cause while we are in public.