While recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program have provided much to reflect upon in relation to government, security, risk, and privacy, they also prompted for me a much more basic question. Why is the tracking of the metadata of our communications such an abhorrent idea? Beyond the fact that this has been going on in secret, is there a deeper frustration or fear? I’m not sure that people are only afraid that Orwell’s 1984 is coming to fruition, or that as the Daily Show has suggested, people are relieved that previous worries were not just paranoia.
I wonder if it isn’t connected to the more basic point that in many countries today, people pay little attention to what becomes of the traces of their everyday practices. Revolutions in production and a plethora of plastic commodities has made it increasingly easy to buy and discard things with little thought given to the ecological consequences or plastic soup that is filling our oceans. Digital technologies have also made it increasingly easy to keep in touch, but with little sense of how texts and emails and phone calls themselves leave traces. Since we often don’t pay much attention to our own traces, we have little idea of what they might tell someone about us. Would they say more than we would like them to? What if we want them back? How do we possibly get a grip on their implications now, when we have been ignoring them for so long? Perhaps our worry is not that the details of our lives might be read off the traces we leave, but rather that others will misread and misrepresent us, to undesirable ends.
To end then, a quote from a great article by Louise Crewe which looks at ordinary objects and lists in order to think about disposal, the traces we leave, and the significance of banal practices:
Meaning lurks in surprising spaces, in the lowly and lost, the abandoned, and damaged. It is important to look at this stuff in the background “both as the resonance or fall-out of things in the foreground and, at some level, something that contributes to it. The foreground is made up of the information that we more regularly notice, although the background things-who we chat with or what we sketch out-probably takes up more of our everyday engagement” (Julier, 2004). The important point is to acknowledge how much “we construct the complexity of our lives from minutiae; and how little, from inspecting the minutiae, can we deduce that complexity” (Bywater, 2001, page 53).
– Crewe, Environment and Planning D, 2011, vol 29, pg44