Because you’re relatively immoral
You‘d never guess by her many achievements — a doctorate from Cambridge, a best-selling memoir — but for most of her life, Tara Westover’s environment has been anything but conducive to intellectual inquiry. While our parents were euphoric stumbling upon us perusing a textbook, Tara’s punished her.
Growing up in a survivalist household in a remote part of Idaho, her childhood was one of isolation and physical toil. Her father a radically religious conspiracy theorist, she was strictly forbidden to attend school or commune with other kids. Instead, her youth was spent on the family’s hazardous wrecking yard, sorting scrap. Whenever one of the many accidents occurred — be it a metal rod through her leg or a third-degree burn — it was her mother’s herbs that were the only remedy, for doctors were prohibited, too.
Above all else, though, it was the household’s censorship on books — with the exception of the Bible, of course — that proved to be too much for young Tara to bear. Unable to restrain her curious mind, she rebelled against her domineering father and began to devour literature clandestinely. The wild worlds sprung to life by the pages captivated her beyond measure, for they were so different from her own restrictive existence. Perennially reading, she could often be found in the basement, hiding behind a couch. Or up at night, a book quite literally shoved in her face, for moonlight was her only source of illumination.
The risk paid off. At sixteen, without any formal schooling whatsoever, she passed a college entrance exam and fled the veritable prison that was her home.
Tara Westover’s intimately personal battle with the lawmakers of her childhood — her parents — is mirrored throughout history on the grand scale of our society. At every noteworthy juncture of the moral and ethical development of humankind, small communities with an extraordinary vision for tomorrow have inevitably clashed with the prevailing rules of their today.
Think of the small group of idealists rebelling against the tyrannizing Roman Empire to spread Christianity. Or the many scientists burned at the stakes for shedding light on the true workings of our Universe. Or the surgeons risking their livelihoods breaking into morgues to study human anatomy at a time autopsy was forbidden. Or remember that America itself was born from an act of insurgency, with the Declaration of Independence an outrageous violation of the laws of England.
Of course, history hasn’t ended — even now, people are perennially breaking a rotten status quo, for their values are ahead of the laws. Maybe it’s a gay couple expressing their love in an oppressive regime. Maybe it’s a son helping his father leave this world with dignity in a state that deems euthanasia tantamount to murder. Dare I suggest it, maybe it’s a troubled young woman finally getting an upper hand over her depression using still-illegal psychedelics.
The lesson is simple: our society’s march towards a more just world is undergirded by its audacity to act in defiance against its own unjust laws.
Optimization theorists — the scientists who study the conditions under which a system, be it the whole global economy or a small ant colony, reaches an optimal state — call it the exploration-exploitation tradeoff. It’s the immemorial conundrum of weighing the exploration of new possibilities against the exploitation of old certainties.
To put too much weight on exploration alone is to indulge in deleterious idealism. The result: an obstinate refusal to accept any constitution whatsoever, giving way to anarchy. We could see the grave consequences of excessive revolutionary fervor most clearly during the French Revolution, with the rebels burning themselves out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.
The French bourgeois had finally bled themselves out of oppression. The well-meaning but fatally indecisive Louis VXI, his pompous wife Marie Antoinette, and most of their court were beheaded. With the monarchy overthrown, it was time to install the hard-fought-for republic. But they couldn’t. The bludgeoning would continue for a better part of a year, for anyone who stepped forward to suggest a new, fairer constitution was seen as a tyrant by the lethally quixotic mass and promptly executed. Every proposed law, however just, tumbled short of the revolutionists’ vague ideals. A society in a mode of total exploration — a society in chaos.
On the other hand, rigid exploitation of the established order — allowing no swerving from the law so as to maximize conformity — doesn’t leave any room for moral progress. A world in which laws are never broken is one in which our values are never challenged, for the former reflect and perpetually lag — the latter.
Such a world would be one of implicit oppression. If not in space, then certainly in time, as we’d constrain the posterity to adhere to the incomplete rules of their ancestors. Just as we look back, sickened by the savageous conventions of the Romans — the misogyny, the slavery, the pervading brutality perfectly encapsulated by the Colosseum — our descendants will look back on us, abhorred at the injustice of our judicial system we’re at present oblivious to.
It’s thus clear that the path to a fair society is one that goes through the middle, not along the precarious extremes. One that champions careful balance between the imposition of strict guidelines and their relegation to the sidelines. Viewed from this angle, the existence of covert crime is not a bug in the system, it’s a feature.
The necessary infringements of the established order are viable only in a society that allows for some slack between the violation and enforcement of its regulations. Occasionally, misconduct has to go unpunished, both for the people to maintain their mettle to test the boundaries of our present principles, and to give such productive restlessness a chance to go unnoticed long enough to gain momentum and nudge us forward.
The bedrock of this essential imperfection is privacy.
If there was no opportunity to conduct matters in secret, Tara Westover would still spend her days scavenging garbage for scrap metal. If we were deprived of the hope that unfair rules could be furtively broken without persecution, we’d have no catalysts for change. Indeed, it’s often the ones most palpably oppressed, the ones who know what they’re fighting for in practice, not only in theory — the gay lovers forced apart, a rape victim jailed for getting an abortion — whose cries for liberation are the loudest.
Realizing this close relationship between societal progress and people’s privacy, the Founding Fathers vowed the right for the latter into the very fabric of their nascent nation. A common theme throughout the Constitution is that the job of law enforcement is made deliberately harder, not easier, providing the much needed slack where reformist insurgencies can brew. Fully half of the ten amendments outlined in the Bill of Rights are about intentionally creating inefficiencies and impeding the state’s ability to exercise its power and conduct surveillance.
This is particularly clear in the Fourth, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, authorizing them only “upon probable cause … and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” It’s due to this amendment that an obviously quilty criminal sometimes walks free, for his murder weapon was only found during an unwarranted search, and thus inadmissible as evidence. If you think that’s unjust, consider it’s also the reason you can’t jail a husband if, during an unrelated 911 call, the cops discovered a marijuana plant he grows for treating his wife’s epilepsy.
Day by day, we’re losing our fundamental liberty to go unnoticed. Our right for privacy is being so violated so flagrantly that drawing attention to it is an act of banality. It’s a truism to say that our “private” messages are shared with just about anybody by social networks, our physical conversations are recorded by virtual assistants, and our homes are peered into through our webcams. Total surveillance.
Now, sure, at present, the incessant monitoring isn’t complemented by widespread prosecution. It’s unlikely that our door will be kicked down the moment a private video of us smoking a joint is furtively uploaded from our phones to the NSA database. But by allowing our privacy to be consistently violated, we make it exceedingly easy for such an eventuality to unfold. It’s as if we’ve allowed policemen to be permanently stationed in our houses to ceaselessly tabulate our every move. Currently, they’re under orders to shrug off our private misdemeanors, but a sterner response is just a politician’s signature away.
We never know when an inciting incident— the 9/11 type, in which masses are rendered irrational by indignation — might prompt such a reaction. Precedents of impetuous, deeply flawed political decisions made in times of turmoil abound, but perhaps the most pertinent example is the United State’s ignominious invasion of Iraq. Of course, if we were to allow ourselves to be universally oppressed based on “private” information, there’d be no subsequent movements that could overturn the shortsighted ruling, for the underground that has historically facilitated them will have surfaced.
What’s more, with nobody reminding us of our lost freedoms, we’d soon forget them entirely. Not knowing any better, society would default to blind docility, perfectly content with its stagnation. In that sense, it would be less like Orwell’s 1984, where tyranny is overt and blunt, and more akin to Huxley’s Brave New World, where the line between subjugation and liberty is blurry and subjective.
The issue of privacy is much like the issue of climate change, where the bulk of the consequences of our negligence lie in the future. To tackle either requires us to first admit we’ve been living beyond our means and then sacrifice many of the comforts we take for granted today for a less precarious tomorrow.
One of the conveniences we have to do away with is the free-of-charge nature of our internet platforms. It’s the current ad-based business model of Google and Facebook that incentivizes them to breach the trust of their users. Such a system predicates the digital behemoths’ success on their ability to target advertisements, which in turn renders their revenues directly proportional to the precision to which they’re able to measure their users’ inclinations.
It’s thus largely the fault of our own stingy attitude — our unwillingness to explicitly pay for the services we consume — that has lead to the large-scale harvesting of our personal data. Were we to collectively accept a world where search engines and social networks operated under a subscription-based model, the risk-reward calculation they’d make before deciding whether to spy on us would no doubt compute in our favor. As the playwright Bertolt Brecht put it, “First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics.”
The second causality in the fight to win back our privacy is the speed at which data-hungry fields like artificial intelligence and robotics are currently progressing. Virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Duplex are able to convey such staggering realness only because we allow their developers to piggyback their inventions on the conversations we have in the supposed privacy of our homes.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such an arrangement per se, but we need to have total assurance that the personal data used for training these machine learning models are never stored or analyzed. Our focus should be on developing systems that, through a clever combination of cryptography and operational pipelines, are keeping our data from prying eyes (in a mathematically provable way) without compromising its usability for algorithmic development. In fact, such techniques already exist, but their deployment is lacking, in no small part due to limited public pressure.
It’s the subtle nature of the problem, the contrast between the cause — allowing ourselves to be monitored on an individual level in the present — and effect — moral stagnation on a societal scale in the future — that sidelines privacy as a defining issue of our time. In our inability to see much beyond ourselves and the immediate present, we’re unable to travel the distance from the personal cause to the impersonal effect. So we stop halfway, falsely concluding privacy to be relevant only for the guilty and shady.
I, for one, used to go about town proclaiming: “I don’t care about privacy because I’ve got nothing to hide.” Little did I know I looked as foolish as if I’d declared: “I don’t care about freedom of speech because I’ve got nothing to say!”
All Rights Reserved for Sten Sootla