A small note on cost and benefit

I have picked up Cass Sunstein’s latest book on cost / benefit trade offs, and am enjoying it. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental problem here with the framing. The model being put forward is one in which we straight-forwardly calculate costs and benefits for any choice and then we make the right, informed and rational choice. Yet, we know that this model breaks down in two significant cases – and that is when the costs or the benefits become very large.

At that point, the probability is subsumed by the gravity of the cost or benefit and deemed unimportant. These decision spaces, let’s call them the “rights”-space and “risk”-space, are spaces where we navigate in a mostly rule-based fashion, and where deontological and kantian methods apply.

We will not calculate the benefit of sacrificing human lives, because people have a right to their own life and the individual benefit of that is vast. We will not calculate the cost of a nuclear break-down accurately because if it happens it has such a great potential cost. Even if the probability is miniscule, and the expected cost and benefit could be calculated well, we don’t. Rationality breaks down at the event horizon of these two decision singularities.

Now, you could argue that this is just a human thing, and that we need to get over it. Or you could say that this is a really interesting characteristic of decision space and study it. I find that far fewer take the second approach, and so expose an interesting trait: rationality blindness. A striving for rationality that leads to a blindness for human nature.

If we were to develop a philosophy of decisions, one things we would need to do is to show that not all decisions are the same. That there is a whole taxonomy of decisions that needs to explicated and examined and explored. As this example shows there are decisions that do not admit of a probability calculus in the normal way.

(Is this not Kahneman’s and Tversky’s project? No, it is in fact the opposite. Showing that the idea of decisional bias actually reveals a catalogue of different categories of decisions – not weaknesses in human rationality.)

Memory, Ricoeur, History, Identity, Privacy and Forgetting (Identity and Privacy II)

In the literature on memory it is almost mandatory to cite the curious case of the man who who after an accident could remember no more than a few minutes of his life before resetting and then forgetting everything again. He had retained long term memory from before the accident, but lacked the ability to form any new long term memories at all.

His was a tragic case, and it is impossible to read about the case and not be dripped by both a deep sorrow for the man, and a fear that something like this would happen to anyone close to us or ourselves. Memory is an essential part of identity.

The case also highlights a series of complexities in the concept of privacy that are interesting to consider more closely.

First, the obvious question is this: what does privacy mean for someone that has no long term memory? There are the obvious answers – that he will still care about wearing clothes, that he will want to sleep in solitude, that there are conversations that he will want to have with some and not others, but does the lack of any long term memory change the concept of privacy?

What this questions brings out, I think, is that privacy is not a state, but a relationship. Not a new observation as such, but it is often underestimated in the legal analysis of privacy-related problems. Privacy is a negotiation of the narrative identity between individuals. That negotiations breaks down completely when one party has no long term memory. We end up with a strange situation in which everyone around the person in question may feel that his or her privacy is being infringed upon, but no such infringement is felt or experienced by the subject himself. Privacy is, in this sense, perception.

This follows from our first observation, that identity is collective narration (that may be a pleonasm, how could narration be individual?) and that privacy is about the shaping of that story. When one lacks the ability to hold the story in memory, both identity and privacy fade out.

Second, the case asks an interesting question about privacy and time. We can bring that to a point and ask — how long is privacy? European legislation has a peculiar answer – it seems to argue that privacy is only held by natural, living persons, and that death is a breaking point where privacy no longer applies. But if there was ever a case for a right to extend beyond the end of life, privacy is probably a good candidate. Should it be possible to reveal all about an individual at the very moment of that person’s death? Why is death a relevant moment in the determination of the existence of the right at all? And what would a society look like that entertained eternal privacy? What shared history could such a society have?

We run into another aspect of privacy here – that it is limited by legitimate interest, journalism, art, literature. So in a very real sense, privacy cannot be used to protect against unauthorized biography or infringing on the story we tell about ourselves. This is also a peculiar thing; it seems to fly in the face of the realization that identity is story, and suggest that if anyone really tells a story about you through the established vehicles of storytelling, then you are defenseless from a privacy perspective. There is a lack of consequence here, born out of the realization that storytelling may well be a value that is more important than privacy in our societies. That the value of history is greater than the value of privacy, and that the control over narrative ultimately needs to give in to the transformation of individual memory to history.

Time, memory, identity and history. All of them are essential to explore in the language game of privacy, and need to be explored more deeply. Ricoeur’s thinking and ideas are key here, and his exploration of these themes more and more appear as a prolegomena to any serious discussion on privacy.

What has been written here, has been written on the right to be forgotten, but that is just a narrow application of the body of thought that Ricoeur has offered on these themes. So we will need to return to this a new in a later post.

The Narrated Self (Identity and Privacy I)

The discussions and debates about privacy are key to trust in the information society. Yet, the our understanding of the concept of privacy is still in need of further exploration. This short essay is an attempt to highlight one aspect of the concept that seems to be crucial, and highlight a few observations about what we could conclude from studying this aspect. 

Privacy is not a concept that can be studied in isolation. It needs to be understood as a concept strongly related to identity. Wittgenstein notes that doubt is impossible to understand without having a clear concept of belief, since doubt as a concept is dependent on first believing something. You have to have believed something to be able to doubt something. 

The same applies for privacy. You have to have an identity in order to have privacy, and in order to have that privacy infringed upon in some way. Theories of identity, then, are key to theories of privacy. 

So far nothing new or surprising. As we then turn to theories of identity, we find that there are plenty to choose from. Here are a few, eclectically collected, qualities of identity that I think are rather basic.

1. Identity is not a noun, but a verb, it exists not as a quality in itself but as a relationship with someone else. You find yourself strewn in the eyes of the Others, to paraphrase (badly) Heidegger. Your identity is constructed, changed and developed over time. A corollary of this is that if you were the last human in the universe you would have no identity. And you would not enjoy any privacy. 

2. The means through which we create identity are simple, and were best laid out by philosopher Paul Ricoeur. We narrate our identity, we tell stories about ourselves, and others tell stories about us. That is how our identity is constituted. 

These two qualities then imply a few interesting observations about privacy. 

First, privacy is also relational, it is the negotiation of identity with different audiences and constituencies. At least this is how it has been. One of the key challenges with technology is that it flattens the identity landscape, unifies the islands of identity that you could previously enjoy. What once was a natural fragmentation of identity is flattened and clustered as the information sphere grows larger and information about us more prevalent. Our ability to tell different stories to different people almost disappears. 

An aside: this observation that privacy is the telling of different stories about ourselves has led some economists like Richard Posner to state that privacy enables lying, and so that transparency would be preferable, since it would allow people to minimize risk. The flaw in the argument is that it assumes that there is a single true identity, and that this identity is revealed in the flattening of the information space, and the transparency that this brings about. This is not necessarily true: there may not be any “true identity” in any meaningful way. Just as there is no absolute privacy. An infringement of privacy is not so much revealing a truth about you as negating your ability, your autonomy, in telling stories about yourself. 

Second, this means that any right to privacy is synonymous with a right to the narration of our identities. This is what several writers have observed when they have equated privacy and autonomy, I think, but the focus on autonomy easily devolves into a discussion about the autonomy of will, rather than the autonomy of identity narration. 

Third, a society with the strongest privacy protections would be one in which no one is allowed to narrate your identity other than yourself. It seems self-evident that this creates a tension with free expression in different ways, but it highlights the challenging and changing nature of privacy infringments in an age where everyone is telling stories about us on social media. 

To sum up, then: privacy is a concept secondary to identity, and identity is best understood as the narratives of the self. Privacy then becomes the right to narrate yourself, to tell your own story. The political control and power over the stories we tell is a key problem in the study of the information society. One could even imagine a work written entirely focusing on the power over stories in a technological world, and such a work could encompass controversial content, fake news, hate speech, defamation, privacy and perhaps even copyright — we have here a conceptual model that allows us to understand and study our world from a slightly different vantage point.