Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Death of Privacy and Why it Matters

I've been thinking about a constellation of issues lately and they neatly come together

1. What Privacy is about

In light of continual attempts by governments to spy on their own citizens, and I mean 'democratic' states like the US, Australia, etc., there are really common refrains that come up. Firstly that it is 'necessary', because of threats to state security, i.e. terrorism. Secondly that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

The first is blatantly untrue, in my opinion. Intelligence services have proven woefully inadequate at preventing terrorism, but governments are increasingly adept at defending against yesterday's threat. Hence the practically useless security charades associated with air travel. Furthermore, the sacrifice of freedoms is always a sign of defeat. Terrorists gained major success by creating the post 9/11 world, in which fear is a powerful motivator, and Western governments became increasingly un-free.

But it's the second refrain I am most interested in exploring. It seems obvious to me that it is an untruism, that there are plenty of reasons not to want to have information 'exposed'. And what I have concluded is that the issue is intimacy.

The act of sharing is an act of intimacy. When we share information about ourselves, we are creating a bond of intimacy between ourselves and the recipients. As they know us, they are intimate with us.

This has tremendous explanatory power. It explains why we are so upset when corporations share about us without consent - the language of 'violation' is particularly appropriate here since they have disclosed with others what we didn't chose to disclose. In a sense there are now 3rd parties who have an intimacy with us that is both non-reciprocal, and non-consensual. Privacy violations are a metaphorical rape.

It also helps understand the issues of mass celebrity. Any time there is one-to-many acts of communication, there is an imbalance in the intimacy created. The many feel like they know, and so feel intimate with, the one, but the one has no such relationship to the many. The more our world develops means of mass media, and so mass celebrity, the more disproportionate this effect becomes. For those who are so famous, it becomes particularly acute when a 'fan' crosses the line - acts according to the one-sided level of intimacy they feel.

Remove privacy and we remove intimacy, we make everything public, and so intimacy becomes infinite, and thus meaningless. When we are all naked in the public square, everyone is degraded.

2. The offense is always in the lead

We live in a world where technology advances and often there are two sides, the defensive and the offensive. The offense is always ahead. Let me explain by illustrating with castles.

Essentially castles are designed for defence. You put up some big walls, some moats, etc.. But the problematic thing about castles is that you actually want to use them - people need to go in and out, they need water, etc.. The problem with this is that these are always your weak points. That's why doors, gates, waterways, get special defences.

Except that offense is always ahead. Why? Because it's the offense's job to find new and better ways to exploit those weak points. The problem for defence is that it can only ever do catch-up, to defend against already known exploits.

You can see how this applies to technology - hackers always win. And the problem for the defense is that you can't really get rid of weak points if you want technology to be usable  And of course, the offense will always find a way.

3. The coming onslaught

It's worth reading these two reddit posts about privacy, and particularly about google glasses.
Who is spying? and Google Glasses.

Good? Back? Okay, let's continue. Google glasses extends the possibility of always on, always recording, audio-visual data. That's not what gg is about, but every aspect of its interface with the internet makes that more possible. That second reddit post talks about restrictions about having a light on the glasses, etc., and the social implications of wearing such glasses. Except all those things will fail. If there was a requirement for some kind of red-recording light, it would be bypassed. More importantly, I have every reason to think that eventually 'glasses' will become contacts, or cybereyes, or something else far less intrusive. Then  we will be living in a world of always being in the public sphere and being recorded forever. This is a troubling prospect.

It is, to be honest, a fairly daunting dystopian prospect. And yet I'm not sure how it is to be avoided, except through sizeable social resistance/change. Even then we may end up in a world where the ability to be private, to not share with everybody, becomes incredibly difficult (and so incredibly expensive). And then the only place to hide will be in plain sight.



Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A better way to teach fourth century church history

Just me firing off some thoughts:

1. I would start off with laying the ground for what was 'common' in the period to all parties. What is the shared legacy that exists, say, around 300-320?
2. Tease out the origins of that legacy, and how the Arian crisis emerged; don't neglect the politics of the Alexandrian scene.
3. Talk about Nicaea as the confluence of 3 things: a new world order that has to reckon with Constantine, a church that needs to deal with Arius and his theology, and a theological solution that left no-one happy
4. If you get 1 and 2 clear, then the next part of the syllabus should really deal with the trajectory of the major non-Nicene party under the two Eusebii. What is the common set of theological principles that shape this group?
5. It's then worth playing out the story of Marcellus, to see the other extreme, and the constant opponent of the non-Nicenes.
6. Only then would I take up Athanasius. Talk about both his theological inheritance, and his theological solutions and brilliance. Discuss his exiles, and how time in Rome aligns him with the West in a unique way. Also talk about how the connection with Marcellus both helps and hinders, and the politics of calling opponents 'Arian'.
7. Now you're ready to take the story forward through the decades, deal with a few councils, the moves and countermoves.
8. I think you can break down this part of the story into a chronological division, where Athanasius leaves off and the controversies move into a second stage. Again I would work on the streams and developments among non-Nicenes. Particularly the emergence of homoian/homoiousian/heteroousian theologies is worth giving flesh to.
9. Don't neglect Hilary. While the debates are mostly an Eastern ballgame, these are still Empire-wide affairs, and Hilary is a key bridge-figure, he makes Eastern theology intelligible in the West, and whether he keeps/brings it back/lays a foundation for later, he is certainly pro-Nicene.
10. Now you can talk about the Cappadocians. Again, trace the emergence of their thought. How the 3 hypostaseis/1 ousia 'solution' is an emerging grammar that helps dissolve some of the sameness/diversity tensions, while thoroughly refuting the extremist heteroousian position.
11. Politics. Just as Constantine is a key figure in resolving the Arian crisis with the council of Nicaea, Theodosius is key to resolving the ongoing debate with the council of Constantinople. But it is not 'all politics', it is the very real world interplay of theology and 4th century politics. Certainly emperors were not really dictating to the church what to believe (except, perhaps in Theodosius' edict pre-dating the council).
12. Solution vs. resolution: I would wrap up by talking about how Constantinople resolves the issues, and does represent a victory of one side, but that itself is not 'solution', it wasn't an answer that existed from the start, it was the end-point of a theological process. And, to be fair, it sets the stage for another 70 years of controversy over the two natures of Christ.

Monday, March 04, 2013

This is how 4th century church history used to be taught


The old, old story:

Once upon a time all the Christians agreed. And then a wicked heretic by the name of Arius appeared and started teaching that the Son was a creature, and not God. The church had a big council at Nicaea and kicked Arius out. But Arius was sneaky, and kept teaching lots of people, and so for 60 years lots of Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians kept opposing up, in fact the whole church turned out to be full of them. Luckily Athanasius had a big brain and knew the bible really well, and said we must stick with homoousios or we will all be Arian. Then Athanasius died, but the three Cappadocian amigos took up his sword and fought against all the 10,000 varieties of Arianism, until they won and had a big council in 381 and killed Arianism and everyone knew that God was the Three in one. Then they argued about the two natures of Christ.