Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dave Hoffman on "Politics, Private Space, and Total Persuasion"

Dave Hoffman has a most excellent post over at the Co-Op. Gratuitous excerpts:

[T]here are analogies to be drawn between the government's defunct secret possibly ongoing program to gather reams of information about its citizens andcorporations' desire to grab consumer mind-share by every persuasive avenue possible. Indeed, we're rapidly approaching a time when it will be exceedingly difficult for the law to draw lines between advertising and not-advertising; between fraud and persuasion; and between censorship and consumer protection...

[B]usinesses are "more constrained in the claims they can make" than politicians, presumably by the law of fraud (in its various guises). But there is a solution to this problem: encourage consumers to make their own persuasive advertising by creating "social networks around products and brands . . ." In the future, we should anticipate that such social persuasion will become an increasingly prevalent aspect of corporate marketing efforts, just as politicians have worked to co-opt social networking sites for their own ends....

What's wrong with a society in which most speech that you hear is designed to persuade you to consume? When framed that way, some might immediately respond: nothing! After all, no one is being compelled to any particular purchase...

But I doubt that market rhetoric is going to provide satisfying answers to whether the law should work to hinder a total persuasion society. I haven't fully thought this issue through, but my starting point is an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Imperial Bedroom, in his book How to Be Alone. Franzen attacks privacy advocates for focusing on privacy as just problem of being from free from others' (corporations, the government, space aliens, the U.N., etc.) prying eyes and grasping hands.

Instead, the real loss of privacy in modern society is the "public sphere." He argues that Americans increasingly do not differentiate betweenpublic matters and private ones, that there are few places where "codes of dress and behavior are routinely enforced, personal disclosures are penalized, and formality is still the rule." Elsewhere, private life is "brutally invading" public spaces, through the media, cellphones, public conversations about private matters, and, in short, a "pajama-party world."

Franzen contrasts this world with a "genuine public space," a place where "every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted."

There is a connection between total persuasion and the loss of public space. This connection is deeper than the mere fact that public places are being renamed in service of persuasion. I’m not the first to note that the problem with persuasion's ubiquity is that it makes us unable to walk in public without feeling like a targeted consumer. To the extent that our fellow citizens are harnessed to this persuasive effort, this lack of noncommercial space will be all the more keenly felt.

I don't really address Dave's points about whether there are any legal protections against an increasingly consumerized existence, but I did bring up these points on the eroding boundaries between the private and public spheres, drawing on my research in social networking theory, my personal experiences blogging, and my Real Life Alter Ego's lurking habits on social networking sites:

Thanks for a great and interesting post. I'm not going to position myself on Franzen's side (would be hypocritical) or on the opposite (since I don't belong there either). Rather, I would offer these two thoughts:

1) The proliferation of blogs and online journals have been key to eroding Franzen's conception of the public sphere. My own blog, for example, has been characterized by Dan Filler as "a (particularly nice) mix of the personal and academic." I won't get into whether that's good or bad, but I will note that nowadays, even on what one would call "academic" (as opposed to the personal blogs of academics) blogs are riddled with personal observations. Dan Markel offers his travel tips on Prawfsblawg. Baby announcements are routine. Let's not even discuss such diary sites as Xanga or LiveJournal.

My point is, even as blogs have offered academics a new forum for their roles as public intellectuals, this public space has become a refractory for the private as well. Indeed, what to make of blogs that are both personal and academic, and commercial to boot? Most blogs run ads. How do you feel about this space being co-opted by commercial interests? The commercial aspect arguably erodes both the private and public interests of the space.

2) Blogs are inextricably linked to social networking. Blog communities are not a thing of imagination--check out the Co-Op's own blog roll to the right. This serves, I believe, an important function, a sort of virtual community for those who would otherwise feel isolated (for instance, the community of medievalist bloggers are surprisingly large in number relative to their percentage at any particular institution). Moreover, many social networking sites permit a blog option--either hosted on their own servers (MySpace) or through "importing a note" (Facebook). Again, these sites are overrun with ads.

It seems inexorable, this erosion of the public sphere, the commingling of public and private, and the commercialization of both sides of life.

Be sure to read Dave's entire post, and to contribute to the comments section here and at the Co-Op.