Privacy and Identity

Felix Stalder
Abstract for a talk Novi Sad, YU, July 31, 2003.

The notion of the "private individual" as a stable, somewhat self-contained and autonomous entity, to be distinguished from groups of all forms, is coming under stress.

On the one hand, the individual becomes ever more flexible. New communication technologies allow to "take on" identities in more or less playful contexts, a generally more dynamic social context encourages "life-long learning" and personal reinvention, and new advances in biomedicine allow for the physical reshaping of the body to an unprecedented degree.

On the other hand, new surveillance and control technologies make it possible to inscribe identities -- defined by an administrational matrix -- on the individual body to an ever greater degree. The instances in which 'privacy is invaded' are becoming too numerous to count and the recombination of the data gathered allows to create personalized profiles of great accuracy.

What, then, remains of privacy. Very little. What do we make out of this? One thing is that we have to consider that the notion of a "private individual" is not universal, rather, it is an element of alphabetic culture, whose foundations were laid in ancient Greece which became dominant with the spread of the printing press in the second half of the 15th century. What we can see now, is the demise of this 'meta-culture' which Marshall McLuhan called a long time ago "The Gutenberg Galaxy" to which the idea of privacy is intimately connected.

go to the slides of this talk