Privacy in the information age

“The opening of … mail, like the revelations that the N.S.A. has been monitoring telephone, e-mail, and Internet use, illustrates the intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. … As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets.”

Jill Lepore has a great article in this week’s New Yorker in which she reflects on the NSA’s PRISM program through the lens of an 1844 uproar over revelations that the British government had opened the mail of an Italian emigré. The resulting outcry about “post-office espionage” led to a governmental inquiry that established new norms about the privacy of personal letters, resulting in “calls for transparency and an end to secrecy.” She makes a key point about technology, literacy, and the development of a right to privacy: before near-universal literacy, all writing was, in some ways, “secret.” But once everyone could read and write, everyone could be read and written—and they needed to develop new ways to avoid such a fate.

Lepore offers a penetrating analysis of the relationship between genres of writing—in this case, the letter—and concepts of privacy and publicity. Significantly, however, all of her examples come from the mid-Victorian period, after the major postal reforms of 1840, which introduced prepaid postage (previously, the recipient paid) and new mechanisms of postal privacy like envelopes, stamps, and letter boxes. The 1840 reforms marked a systemic revolution, but they were also the culmination of a long process of transforming letters into culturally and legally private documents. In the eighteenth century, it was fairly difficult to keep letters “private”: these were assumed to be documents that were read aloud, shared with family and friends, or even printed for broader circulation. As most buildings did not have numbered street addresses, letters were picked up at  local post offices, themselves public places where a variety of business transactions took place. And it was well known that government oversight of letters was routine: letter writers frequently referred to the possibility that their notes would end up in the Secret Letter Office. As Richard Grenville-Temple, an earl and powerful politician, wrote to a friend 1762, “I am so used to things of this sort at the Post office”—referring to a torn cover on one of his letters—”& am so sure that every line I write must be seen, that I never put any thing in black & white which might not be read at Charing Cross, for all I care.”

Opening letters, then, wasn’t new in the 1840s. But what is fascinating, and historically crucial, is that it was newly seen as a problem. In some ways, we are experiencing the same phenomenon again with the NSA revelations: we have assumed for some time that behavior on the Internet, from what we post on Facebook to what we buy on Amazon, is somewhat “public”—that we are choosing to engage in these forms of self-presentation and are therefore inviting scrutiny. But the extent of the ongoing surveillance, combined with the government’s extensive assertions of secrecy, have newly revealed this as a widespread social problem. It remains to be seen how digital surveillance will impact our ideas about publicity, privacy, and the right to either.


Close-reading code


I spent the past week at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, learning (among other things) how to use the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines to create digital editions of manuscript documents. I practiced on a set of seventeenth-century manuscript newsletters from the Bodleian Library’s Carte collection, which I took photos of during a research trip last summer. I’m hoping to use these samples to develop a grant proposal for a larger scale project for archiving newsletters, which are totally unavailable in digital form. Most researchers of early news circulation misunderstand these incredibly rich historical sources because they are so hard to access—located in often distant library archives and sometimes misclassified as personal letters.

In addition to this exciting future project (add it to the Future Projects List!), the course  got me thinking about the role those in the digital humanities should play in changing definitions of reading and literacy within English departments. The documents I produced are supposed to be digital transcriptions of an existing hard-copy text, and I did my best to encode all the features of my source, from alternate spellings to shifts in  handwriting. At the same time, I was both adding significant information to the document and providing my own interpretation of it. TEI allows users to create lists of people and places (to take two major categories) associated with texts. Therefore, my digital edition of just two four-page newsletters includes biographies of people from Thomas Carte, the eighteenth-century collector of the documents, to King Charles II, who appears as a topic of news. I also encoded a list of places mentioned in the news articles, providing coordinate points for the cities. This information clearly offers the researcher much more than does the original document.Image

It seems that code literacy—whether in TEI (which is based on XML), HTML, Java, or other coding languages—will increasingly be accepted as a new form of linguistic competency. Already, some graduate programs are allowing these skills to take the place of the traditional foreign-language requirement. And we could do more to connect our existing pedagogical technique of close reading with such new literacies. An insightful investigator could draw out many of the interpretive choices I made in marking up this document just from carefully reading the code. For example, I decided that it was important to correct archaic spellings—”haue” to “have,” “kingdome” to “kingdom”—but not to regularize capitalization. A student might ask: Why did I make this decision? What does it say about my goals for the markup and its application? (Answer: I would want the digital edition to be easily searchable, which is generally not affected by capitalization). As literature departments become more interdisciplinary and linguistically diverse, it should be a priority to marry our traditional pedagogical and methodological techniques with these emerging forms of literacy.


What Jane “saw”?

The new digital exhibit “What Jane Saw,” reconstructing Jane Austen’s 1813 visit to a show of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, has been getting a lot of attention, including a splashy feature in the TimesThe exhibit shows off some of the best of the digital humanities, incorporating an aesthetically pleasing presentation that both offers real new knowledge for scholars of the period and reaches out to members of the public in an accessible way. At the same time, the project shows the most basic processes of remediation, as Bolter and Grusin have detailed, at work. The goal is to achieve a sense of immediacy—seeing “what she saw,” experiencing “time travel,” in project director Janine Barchas words. But this very sense immediately runs up against the awareness of the many, many differences between what we are experiencing and what Austen did. Austen, of course, could not have conceptualized this kind of “exhibit,” nor can we really access the sights, sounds, and smells of the British Institution in 1813. The exhibit should prove incredibly useful for Austen and DH classes precisely for that potent conjunction of immediacy and hypermediacy.