Essentialism and Privacy

I first learned about essentialism while listening to an audio book of The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Essentialism has it roots in Plato’s Idealism, though I would suggest that our being drawn to it may be a result in the way the human brain functions. For those unfamiliar, essentialism, simply put, is the notion that “things” have an essential form behind them. Thus in Plato’s world, a circle is defined by a perfect ideal of circle and while real world circles may have variations, bumps and such, a circle is essentially a line drawn around a point at all times equidistance from that point.

There a large variety of geometric shapes, triangles, squares, dodecagon, for which humans have assigned monikers. However, there are an infinite number of shapes that defy such simplistic definition. While a line equidistance from a point is the perfect circle, a random squiggle is the best whatever it is, despite us not having a name for it. Now, I don’t claim to be a neuro-biologist, but in my rudimentary understanding, our brains store things in a way that provides simple categorization. Language is built on defining things we can relate to. We see something round, our brain fires off the neurons that represent a circle. We can also abstract by grouping things together. We see a 12 side shape; we may know it is a polygon but not a dodecagon. Our brains are really good at analogizing as well. We learn by analogy. We see something big, strong, with fangs and bearing its teeth, we may not know what it is, but we can recognize it’s probably a predator.

Dawkins discussed essentialism in the concept of evolution. Prior to Charles Darwin, living creatures broken into a taxonomy. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus is the seminal work Systema Naturae started with three kingdoms of nature (only two animals and plants were living), divided into classes then orders, genus, and species. We still use a form of this taxonomy today when we talk about life, only now thanks to Thomas Cavalier-Smith, we have six kingdoms. Dawkins beef with essentialism is that by categorization we make it more difficult to see the evolutionary changes. Take a rabbit, defined as a furry creature with fluffy ears, a bushy tail and strong hind legs. But that’s the ideal, every rabbit is different and if you go back in the ancestry of rabbits, when does it cease to be a rabbit? In the future, as generations are born, when does the descendent of a modern day rabbit cease to be a rabbit? Humans have a hard time dealing with conceptualizing large spans of time, so we can analogize (again, using that great learning technique) to relatives and aging.  My brother is clearly my relative, as are my first and second cousins. Though I don’t know them, I know I have third cousins and more that are relatives. At what point though are we no longer “relatives?” One young girl even claimed to show that all but one of the presidents were related, tracing lineage back to an English King. When I meet someone on the street, do I only not put someone in the “relative” bucket in my brain because nobody has done the analysis? Aging provides a similar means of clearly showing the continuity of life and a break down of our taxonomy of age. We are born as babies, grow to be infants, then toddlers, next children then young adults, then adults, then we’re labeled old, and perhaps elderly after that. But what defines those classifications? When do I become old? Do we one day wake up and we’re suddenly “elderly?” Isn’t 60 the new 30?

Once I learned about essentialism, I started seeing the dichotomy everywhere: the breakdown between where people try to classify or categorize things and the reality that there is a continuous line. One of my first epiphanies occurred when I was trying to clean up my vast MP3 collection. Many of the songs had no associated genre or the genre was way off. I set about to correct that. I started labeling all my music. But then I ran into a clear conundrum. Was Depeche Mode “new wave” or “80’s pop”? Was Billy Bragg punk, folk or some crossover folk punk? Clearly the simplistic labeling system provided by Windows was the problem as it only allowed me to pick one genre. I need something more akin to modern day tagging where I could tag a song with a related genre, one or more. But was that really the problem?

I started realizing this problem (though not in the way I’ve characterized it now) about 20 years ago in relations to techno music. There seemed to be all sorts of subgenres: jungle, synth, ambient, acid, trance, industrial. It seemed every time I turned around there was a new subgenre: darkwave, dubstep, trap, the list goes on. Wikipedia lists over a hundred genres of electronic music. I couldn’t keep up and have trouble distinguishing between many of them. SoundCloud has millions upon millions of songs. Many of these defy categorization. What we’re learning from this is that we can like a song without pegging it into a specific category and with the power of suggestion, SoundCloud can find other songs we like without us needing to search the “Pop-Country” section of the local record store.

So now I come to privacy. You may be thinking that I’m going to talk about personalization and privacy and how in order to suggest an uncategorizable song, I have to know about your musical taste. While that it a valid topic for conversation, I’ll leave that to another post. What I want to talk about today is privacy’s taxonomy. I’ve been a big fan of Dan Solove’s privacy taxonomy for quite some time. I think it really does a good job of pinpointing privacy issues that people don’t normally think about and allows me to explore when talking with others. Going through the taxonomy allows me to illustrate types of privacy invasion that aren’t just about insecurity and identity theft. Talking about surveillance allows me to discuss how it can have a chilling effect, even if you’re not the target of the surveillance or “doing anything wrong.” I can talk about how interrogation, even if the subject doesn’t answer, may make them uncomfortable.

But I’ve also been thinking about the taxonomy and essentialism. What are we missing in the gaps between the categories? I’ve been working on a book, hopefully, to be published later this year on a theory of privacy that I hope will fill those gaps. A unified field theory of privacy, I hope. Stay tuned.