Homi K Bhabha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Niyam Bhushan and Dayanita Singh
India Quarterly Presents the Privacy Series
By Thomas Manuel and Sonalika Arora, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2016 bloggers
In a world where every pocket contains a camera, computer, tracking device and phone, all wrapped up in one seductive device, the issue of privacy has moved from abstract theory to urgent political debate.
Cultural theorist Homi K Bhabha laid the historical and theoretical groundwork for the conversation, moving seamlessly from Justice Brandeis’ 1890 essay, On The Right To Privacy, to the 2015 independent Hindi film, Masaan, via some of the many contradictions and nuances of the debate, such as the modern paradox of people’s desire for publicity at the cost of their privacy.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research, highlighted another paradox: the traditional Orwellian notion of surveillance is one of the bleak control of society by the state, but what we are actually seeing is that people are willingly accepting surveillance as a trade-off for online convenience and instant gratification. He used the example of Google, who claim that they track personal online searches in order to maximise individual user experience, yet have no systems in place that make that process accountable to their users.
Artist and bookmaker Dayanita Singh moved the discussion to a more personal arena, discussing the constant challenge of deciding what to reveal and what to conceal in her photography. Singh’s iconic work centres around families, homes and individuals. On one occasion, she captured a certain coldness in the faces of a couple who had fought the night before, and they were were extremely uncomfortable about having that moment recorded. Singh confessed to her interest in Instagram, the social media platform designed fo sharing photography, and expressed her excitement at the possibilities it possessed for creating ‘virtual museums’ of imagery, accessible to anyone through a simple hashtag.
Niyam Bhushan, reputed designer and editor, raised the stakes by loudly exclaiming that everyone’s privacy was ‘being plundered exponentially,’ and proceeding to interrogate the audience directly about their opinions on privacy. He asked any WhatsApp users in the crowd to raise their hands, and mischieviously enquired, how did they think Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook owner who recently bought the instant messaging platform – was going to recoup his $19 billion dollar investment. He called the audience a ‘goldmine,’ whose personal conversations with friends and loved ones were being mined by Facebook to increase advertising revenue, and who knows what else. Bhushan also attacked Facebook’s mobile app, which he claimed randomly switches on mobile’s microphones and webcams to collect information on its users. He warned that many people might regard online data collection as harmless, but the idea of secret recordings and photographs should be enough to make even the staunchest defender of Facebook recoil.
It was noted that the world’s biggest social media website, Facebook, and the world’s biggest search engine, Google, both fiercely protect their own privacy. Their algorithms are kept secret, according to Mehta, yet they increasingly direct the wants and desires of society. By controlling your feed, Facebook’s algorithm effectively decides what you see and what you don’t. Similarly, Google search operates as the ultimate arbiter of what is visible and what is invisible on the internet.
Mehta said ‘the virtual architecture’ of the internet was a human creation, and the public’s ability to engender reforms around privacy violations should be pursued vigorously. Bhushan declared Snowden as ‘the hero of a new age’ because his revelations about the extent of US mass surveillance have led to a total revolution in our knowledge of how ignorant of our ignorance we actually are. Homi K Bhabha agreed, saying ‘now we know that we don’t know.’
Singh observed that there was no word in Hindi for privacy, perhaps because it was not part of the culture in the past, but it was necessary to engage with it in the future. All the panel agreed that the audience needed to inform themselves further, and take small individual acts of resistance not just in the face of a surveillance society, but in the face of a surveillance world.