A Dignity Worry about Automated Identity Management
posted by:David Matheson // 12:05 PM // May 28, 2006 // Core Concepts: language and labels | Digital Identity Management | Surveillance and social sorting
Consider an extreme proponent of the ancient Greek practical philosophy known as Cynicism. I’ll call him Diogenes, without implying anything about how closely he resembles the historical Cynic of the same name (who, you might recall, once suggested to a fawning Alexander the Great that the greatest honor the king could bestow on him was that of moving a little to the side so that he could continue to soak up the sun’s rays). Our fictitious Diogenes takes the Cynical doctrine of following the lead of nature, and of flouting any inhibitive social conventions, to a shocking level. In a way that might remind a dog-owner of her lovable companion (“Cynic,” after all, comes from kunikos in Greek, meaning “like a dog,” cf. Piering 2006), Diogenes makes no attempt to hide whatever inclinations and desires he happens to find coming his way naturally, and is quite happy to satisfy them whenever and wherever he can. Bodily functions that we would normally consider to be deeply private he carries out in full view of whoever happens to be in his presence. He says whatever comes to mind, regardless of who it might happen to offend or of how it might make him appear to others. Simply put, Diogenes lets it all hang out, always. And he’s convinced that doing so is the true road to happiness.
We might say that Diogenes believes that shame-avoidance -- at least as we commonly think of shame -- stands in the way of human happiness. Or we might say that he presents a formidable challenge to our convictions about the negative value of shame. But it seems to me that, whatever we say on those matters, Diogenes can at least properly be said to be living a shameful life. Even if he couldn’t care less about avoiding shame, and regardless of whether he thinks it’s something to be quite pleased about, Diogenes is in the business of performing one shameful act after another.
It’s interesting to note that this intuitive (to me, at any rate) verdict about Diogenes’s behavior -- it’s shameful -- sits ill at ease with philosophical accounts of shame that render it essentially a matter of sensitivity to the disapproval of others. Consider, for example, the view that an individual’s behavior is an occasion for shame just in case she feels bad about engaging in it when she considers that others disapprove. In this view, Diogenes is not living a life of shame. He knows that others disapprove of his startling behavior, but he doesn’t feel bad in the light of this knowledge, for he thinks that sensitivity to the disapproval is inimical to the prime directive of happiness.
Recently, New York University philosopher J. David Velleman (2001) has presented an alternative account of shame that is more accommodating to the intuitive verdict about Diogenes. According to this account, shame is at its core about failures of selective self-presentation: to say that an individual’s behavior is an occasion for shame, in other words, is to say that she has failed to take adequate care -- failed to manifest appropriate concern -- when it comes to selectively revealing (or, on the flip side, concealing) different aspects of herself in different contexts. Despite the fancy name, the concern for selective self-presentation is a pretty familiar feature of our lives. Indeed, according to some, it’s “among the most important attributes of our humanity.” (Nagel 1998: 4) It’s manifested in everything from such mundane activities as the wearing of clothes in public, retiring to designated rooms for intimate engagements, and taking care not to say everything we think to be true of individuals in their presence, to more elaborate attempts to respect what another NYU philosopher, Helen Nissenbaum (1998) has called “norms of contextual integrity” of personal information, whether in online environments or elsewhere.
If we accept this alternative account of shame, with its focus on failures of selective self-presentation, I think we’re in a good position to explain why Diogenes is living a life of shame. Diogenes can’t be said to be taking adequate care when it comes to selectively revealing different aspects of himself in different contexts, because he really takes no care at all. His starling behavior, given that lack of care, amounts to a radical failure of selective self-presentation, and is thus an occasion for shame.
Of course, occasions for shame need not be as radical as what’s involved in Diogenes’s case. He manifests a general, pervasive, and ongoing lack of concern for selective self-presentation. In more realistic cases, failures of selective self-presentation are considerably more acute, stemming from particular bits of behavior that manifest a temporary lack of care for selective self-presentation against the background of a more general care for it. To illustrate, consider the individual who make an ill-considered, out of character remark that exposes his feelings about another individual to a much larger audience than he intends. His remark can be said to be an occasion for shame because, despite the fact that he generally makes an active effort to reveal such attitudes only to a limited circle of close friends -- thus manifesting a general, ongoing concern for selective self-presentation -- this particular remark has undermined the general effort and thus manifests a temporary carelessness about self-presentation, one that amounts to a relatively small-scale instance of shame.
Notice that the avoidance of shame seems to be centrally tied to human dignity: an individual’s behavior can hardly be dignified if it is an occasion for shame, and dignified behavior seems to preclude shameful behavior. If we accept it, then, the failure of selective self-presentation account of shame would seem to translate into an important insight about human dignity, viz. that manifesting an adequate concern for selective self-presentation, through the active avoidance of failures of selective self-presentation, is a central condition on our dignity.
It seems to me that this insight about human dignity may well ground a worry about certain kinds of identity management technologies that are becoming increasingly prevalent on the contemporary scene. What I have in mind are those technologies that tend to automate the management of users’ identities to a very high degree, by significantly diminishing the users’ active participation in processes of their own identification. Consider, for example, implanted RFID microchips. One of the primary benefits of these technologies is identification convenience: if you’ve got the chip in your arm, the process of being identified in various ways is easier for you than processes involving old-fashioned counterparts. You don’t have to bother with finding the right card, producing the right documentation, providing the right answers to relevant questions, and so on. You just walk on through, and let the chip do your identifying for you. Brin (2004) makes the point in connection with biometric identification systems: “When your car recognizes your face, and all the stores can verify your fingerprints, what need will you have for keys or a credit card?”
Perhaps, however, the convenience of these technologies comes at too high a price on the dignity scale -- at least for those of us who, unlike our fictitious Diogenes, care about human dignity in the relevant sense. For it seems to me that there’s a case to be made that the more we subscribe to automated identity management technologies, the less likely we are to maintain a robust concern for selective self-presentation, because we are more likely to leave the presentation of aspects of ourselves up to the technologies and the systems of which they are a part. And if the insight about human dignity mentioned above is on the right track, this carries as a consequence an increased likelihood of diminishing our dignity as humans.
Diogenes in effect gives up on selective self-presentation by leaving his self-presentation to the hand of nature. Perhaps we should be careful about giving up on our selective self-presentation by leaving our self-presentation to the hand of technology. Our dignity may well be what hangs in the balance.
Brin, David. (2004). “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society!” Salon, http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2004/08/04/mortal_gods/index_np.html. Retrieved 26 May 2006
Nagel, Thomas. (1998). “Concealment and Exposure.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 27: 3-30
Nissenbaum, Helen. (1998). “Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The Problem of Privacy in Public.” Law & Philosophy 17: 559-96
Piering, Julie. (2006). “Cynics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/c/cynics.htm. Retrieved 25 May 2006
Velleman, J. David. (2001). “The Genesis of Shame.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30: 27-52