Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Privacy: The Obstruction of Visibility as the Regulation of the Evidence Required for Imaginative Simulations

So I often think about the issue of privacy. The issue of seeing each other and seeing other people and how we don't want to see each other.

I think that this issue becomes clearest to me when I enter public bathrooms. The rinky dink stalls just seem so hilarious to me. They just seem so odd because the bottom line is that I can see through the slits in the door. They don't hide you very well. I can see you. Sorta.

So this just leads to me ask certain questions about what privacy really is, how it is accomplished, what it is for, and how it really works when we say that it has been achieved. What I'm really getting at is that privacy might have something to do with the imagination and simulation theory of mind. Let me talk about three things to think about this. First, I'll talk about the experience of being the one seeking privacy, the one inside the bathroom stall who wants not to be seen. Second, I'll talk about being the one who is outside the stall and who has no real view of the other person. Then I feel like identity may also have something to do with this, so I'll talk about that.

So when you are in a bathroom stall you have this door closed and for the most part no one can see you. You are hidden from the gaze of other people. But what is it that would truly make you feel like you were invisible to other people? What really provides that sense of privacy? I am suggesting that it is your own imagination and capacity to internally simulate other people's gazes that would make you feel uncomfortable. Say, for example, that I was in a bathroom stall, and then I left said bathroom stall only to realize that someone I knew was waiting for that same stall. Suddenly they realize that I was the person in that stall, and I realize that they have now seen me. They now have all the information that they need to imagine my sitting on the toilet. So my privacy is retroactively destroyed. Although I am no longer in the bathroom stall in that moment, and they are not actually seeing me in a moment of exposure, they very shortly after the fact have been given all the evidence they need to see me exposed in their mind's eye.

All of this really has to do with how we perceive other people in our mind's eye. That is the place where simulation takes place, where imagination takes place. I believe that other people exist primarily in our imagination, as my writing of 6/13/10 should have made clear.

So what if I am the person outside of a stall, what is it that gives the person inside the stall privacy? Well, I had an interesting experience once at the National Archives. Everyone there wore name badges that had their picture on them. Once someone was in a bathroom stall and there ID was clipped to their belt loop, so because their pants were around their ankles their picture was visible to me. So basically because I had their picture right there in front of me they didn't really have such a thing as privacy. Sure, I couldn't actually see them naked sitting on the toilet, but I had all the evidence that I needed to imagine them sitting there.

So I am saying that privacy doesn't just depend on the obstruction of visibility, it depends on someone being prevented from having the evidence they need to imagine us in a compromising situation.

Let me give an example: what if we didn't want our parents or our friends to have any knowledge of an embarrassing romantic, sexual, social, or some other type of encounter that we had. We wouldn't tell our parents obviously, and then a couple of weeks may go by and we may forget about the whole thing and think that our privacy has been established. But suppose that we wrote about our embarrassing event in a journal of sorts, and then our parents or friends or whoever read our journal without our permission. Clearly, our privacy has been blown.

But why has our privacy been blown? The event was not directly witnessed by out family or friends, but we still feel the pain of embarrassment, and the feeling that our privacy has somehow been compromised. But why? What is it that has compromised our privacy? It is something in the imagination of our friends and family who have now read our journal.

Prior to that moment our friends/family had no evidence of our embarrassing moment. But once they read it, they suddenly have evidence to imagine and simulate us in that compromising situation. And thus we have evidence to imagine them imagining us in that situation. It is our knowledge of their knowledge that makes us feel embarrassed.

So privacy comes down to regulating the evidence that other people have to imagine us in compromising situations. To bring it back to my original example, when we are in a bathroom stall we are blocked from other people's visibility enough that they don't have any evidence to imagine who it is that is sitting in the bathroom stall. Similarly, we don't have any evidence to imagine that we are being watched by a specific person.

All of this has to do with what Foucault describes when he talks about panopticism. It is other people's gazes, and our knowledge of their gaze, that really gives us the means of controlling our own behavior, or of feeling like we do or do not have privacy.

So it comes to down to the economy of the imagination. It comes back to how much information is available to allow people to imagine us in certain ways. What matters is the evidence people have to imagine us in compromising situations, and how much we are aware of how people are able to imagine us in those compromising situations.

It is like a loop of imaginative simulation. We are imaginatively simulating other people's imaginative simulations of us. So it becomes about gauging what kind of evidence people have to simulate us. This is what I mean by the economy of the imagination. What kind of things are people able to imagine us doing. What is the evidence that they have that is allowing them to imagine/simulate us in those ways.

What a weird post this is. Sorry it is so embarrassing and silly. It is funny because I'm very embarrassed to be writing about this. About this issue of bathrooms and privacy. It just sounds very funny to me.

And in some ways I am engaging in the process I am describing. I am putting out information about my thoughts that will potentially compromise the privacy of my mind. So who will read this, and will it effect the way that other people imagine me? How does this change the economy of my imagination of other people? It makes it so that certain people can think certain things about me. And it makes it so that I have to think those certain things about myself as if I were other people. This whole post just fucks with my mind. The loop of imaginative simulations between people is so hard for me to articulate clearly and without all this jargon and technical terminology. Whatevs.

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