The Spectator

Don’t Cry for Me, Jeff Jarvis

Google guru attacks Germany for allowing Internet privacy.

Jeff Jarvis

“What have you done, Germany?”

Who knows whether this cri de coeur, this outburst of agony and self-aggrandizing hysteria will join “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in the pop cultural pantheon of embarrassments. But the heart-wrenchingly plaintive plea of Web-guru, Google worshipper and prostate operation tweeter, Jeff Jarvis, published last month, will certainly have a special place in the history of digital idiocy.

What have you done, Germany?

Well, a couple of things come to mind. You know, World War I and World War II for instance, and that industrialized mass-murder thing, and East Germany’s Stasi surveillance and torture regime. But, no, Jeff Jarvis was talking about a more recent German national crime, asking what to him is a more important and profound question: What have you done to me, Jeff Jarvis, great and mighty Oz of interweb sophistry, whose rules of the road when it comes to Web behavior must be obeyed?

Jarvis’s scathing J’Accuse against a shocking violation of his “publicness” philosophy has undoubtedly shaken the German nation to its very roots.

Deutschland now has another profound crime, another profound shame to add to its history. They’ve interfered with the absolute total completeness of Google street views! It seems that Germany, out of what Jarvis—who is writing an attack on privacy called Public Parts, which will presumably argue that everybody should (as he did) tweet the contents of their adult diapers—calls a “mania over privacy,” has allowed its homeowners to opt out of Google Street views.

Oh, the humanity!

Google has in fact shown remarkable cultural sensitivity by allowing Germans to choose to have the street-view photographs of their homes blurred out by pixilation. But Jarvis is not having it. Der Kommissar is on the warpath!

Jarvis, who wrote a long, sycophantic book called What Would Google Do? (thus equating Google with Jesus), shockingly can’t abide such sensitivity even from his Google overlords. Indeed, he reaches embarrassing heights of rhetorical excess in condemning this blasphemy: He approvingly cites a German commenter who suggests that by allowing for privacy opt-outs, Germany is “digitally bombing its own buildings,” the pixilated blurs the equivalent of bomb craters in the virtual landscape. A digital Dresden! Jarvis accuses these shy German citizens, a quarter-million of them in a population of 82 million, of “desecrating the landscape” somehow, by creating gaps in the seamlessness of Google surveillance, limiting the clumsy TSA-like intrusiveness he demands with the totalitarian wrath of a would-be digital dictator. (He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s trivializing the victims of Germany’s actual crimes and bombing casualties.) Nope, the “default” position of everything in King Jeff’s perfectly run society should be “publicness,” he thunders: “Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public.”

“What have you done, Germany?” indeed.

Now, I’ve resisted taking shots at Jarvis since I wrote my original portrait of the globe-trotting conference-and-consultant racket he’s been running, offering fearful corporations advice about the digital future (a future that often includes more cash, cushy conference gigs, and J-school sinecures for Jeff). Because, frankly, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, or clubbing halibut in a boat, to update the simile (although I recommend Mark Dery’s delightfully over-the-top reaction to Jarvis’ self-congratulatory prostate-op tweets).

But the emptiness, self-subverting grandiosity and pomposity of his McLuhan-wannabe pronouncements don’t seem to have diminished the number of institutional suckers who have bought his philosophy and made him the go-to digital futurist preaching the gospel of “entrepreneurial journalism.” It is all of a piece with once-proud Medill School of Journalism’s self-abnegating decision to rename itself the “Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications” (LOL). (I suppose I should note, in the interest of disclosure of the source of my dismay, that I was once a “distinguished visitor” at the old Medill.) But Medill’s decision is consistent with the City University of New York’s decision to install the clownish Jarvis as director of an “entrepreneurial” journalism program that has ambitious plans to partner up (for synergy) with Trader Joe’s to establish a department of advanced zucchini studies. (I made that last part up, but it wouldn’t surprise me.)

The motto of honorable journalism was once “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Now it’s “discounts for the comfortable and comfort food for the afflicted.” Or how about simply, “Anything that makes a buck is by definition good journalism.”

But let us return to that plangent cry: “What have you done, Germany?” This attack on the privacy opt-out comes at a time when privacy has become a major issue in the future of Internet publishing (and the Internet generally), so let’s try to take Jarvis’ “What Have You Done, Germany?” argument seriously for a moment.

He argues that any citizen could stand in front of any house in Germany and take its photo, whether the owner liked it or not.

Very true. But in conflating Google Street View’s panopticon surveillance with some dude taking a picture for whatever reason, Jarvis is basically taking a position much like that of the Roberts Supreme Court in its ignominious campaign finance decision Citizens United, which abolished a century-old distinction between private citizens and corporations and gave big-dollar corporations unlimited latitude to pour money into the political process (and thus distort campaigns to their ends). The central idea of the court decision was that corporations are “people,” just like you and me. No difference between you and Google as far as the right to influence the electorate through saturation advertising.

In the case of Germany, a global corporation is—or was, before the opt-out was allowed—trying to monetize an individual’s privacy, a monetization that is worth more if the company can claim absolute total, or totalitarian completeness. They are, if not stealing, appropriating something valuable from you without your consent, not making a souvenir for their private photo album.

(This framework is also useful in assessing Wikileaks, which Jarvis approves of, and which I approve of, too, because it’s big government that’s being made more transparent, not defenseless individuals.)        

In the German case, there’s the matter of cultural insensitivity. “[D]on’t tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi,” Jarvis warns us forbiddingly, trying to pre-empt an argument he knows he’ll lose. Easy for him to say, not having lived through these surveillance regimes. Bad as the Nazis were, the Stasi, the East German secret police, were even more surveillance-oriented. (Jeff, put The Lives of Others in your Netflix queue). The Stasi realized the dark dream of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, turning a whole state into a prison by means of total surveillance.

It might be worth dwelling for a moment on the panopticon, because I believe Jeff, who has not demonstrated much familiarity with history before Google or philosophy before Zuckerberg, perfectly illustrates the shallowness of many of today’s Internet gurus. Futurists who have no time for the past are now running “integrated marketing J-schools” and “entrepreneurial” programs rather than giving journalism students the deeper understanding of society, history, culture, and humanity that places like Columbia’s J-school and Harvard’s Nieman fellowship still care about.

And if he is aware of the panopticon and its implications, it’s all the more shameful that he doesn’t see the kind of digital totalitarianism he is shilling for.

But what grates most is his increasingly shrill and hysterical (in both senses of the word) advocacy of imposed, involuntary “publicness” on everyone. He seems unable to understand the difference between the virtues of transparency when it comes to powerful closed worlds of government and corporate power, and the perils—and invasiveness—of transparency when it comes to individual people.

While I have my disagreements with Hannah Arendt, her assertion that the essence of totalitarianism is the erasure of the boundary between the public and private spheres holds true. The takeover of the private by the public is always to be feared. Here again, one suspects Jeff is ignorant of such arguments. I would challenge him to tell us whether he’s read Arendt and, if so, what his response to her is. After all, this is someone who has been given a professorship at a major university. “Crowdsourcing” fellow Internet gurus is not the equivalent of an education but, rather, the compounding of multiple ignorances.

This apparent lack of familiarity with the discourse on privacy and totalitarianism (especially for someone writing a book on “publicness”) is so bizarrely naive that one is tempted to examine Jeff’s “everybody must behave like me” attitude with the psychological equivalent of an intrusive TSA scanner. What’s going on inside the cranial cavity of someone with the dire need to force “publicness” on privacy-loving citizens, on behalf of a Peeping Tom Big Brother? Could it be that in some recess of his psyche, he’s actually mortified by having thrust his genitals in everyone’s face and wants to make us all do the equivalent so he will seem less like a freak?

Actually, those of us who care about the preservation of privacy rights are fortunate to have someone as clueless as Jarvis as a figurehead of the movement to destroy them.

And privacy issues are only becoming more and more salient as the Web evolves. Jarvis has so far not commented on this invasion of privacy as far as I know. (I wonder why.) I am not enamored of abusive anonymous commenters who hide behind screen names, but don’t believe they should be involuntarily stripped of their anonymity. Jeff, let’s hear you praise the Gawker hack if you’re so into “publicness.”

Meanwhile the very words, that devil-phrase “opt-out,” that Jarvis feels is bombing and desecrating German buildings has now become the next battle in Web culture in America—indeed, in society as a whole, since the national TSA freakout over naked scanning and genital groping.

But there is a different kind of bargain with regard to privacy at the airport: You get to decide whether to fly, and allowing passengers to opt out of screening entirely could potentially put other people’s lives in danger.

The real philosophical, conceptual battle will come over the FTC’s proposal to allow Web surfers to opt-out of “behavioral profiling” enabled by “cookies” and more technically advanced tracking devices. Here the opt-out endangers the profitability of commercial entities on the Web in favor of personal privacy. The front page of the Times business section for Dec. 6 featured a story on “The Opt-Out Question: On-line Privacy Plan Raises Concerns in Tailoring Ads.” The more Web publishers know about consumer preferences from online profiling, the more they can charge advertisers for accurately targeting potential buyers. But the more they know the less privacy you’ll have, especially as tracking and data-mining get more sophisticated.

During the next two months, the FTC will be seeking comments from all interested parties on what the effect on Web commerce and Web culture would be if some kind of “do not track” mechanism allows privacy-minded consumers to opt out. The Times quoted opponents saying a “do not track” mechanism would “limit the ability for companies to monetize the Internet.”

The privacy-reserving choices seem to be between an omni “opt-out,” through which, once you press a button, your default position is that your information can’t be tracked at all, and a limited opt-out button through which consumers on a site they don’t want tracked could click through to a page that denies tracking for that specific site. Web industry associations darkly warn that the downside of the opt-out option would be the need to shift to more paid-content models.

It looks as if it’s going to be a bitter battle. But one thing both sides should agree to in advance is to “opt-out” of paying attention to ignoramuses like Jeff “What have you done, Germany?” Jarvis.

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