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Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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During the war, Freud lectured on “The Censorship of Dreams” in early December 1915. Around that time, he inserted a new body of text into The Interpretation of Dreams, mapping wartime dream censorship directly onto wartime postal censorship:

Frau Dr. H. von Hug-Hellmuth (1915) has recorded a dream which is perhaps better fitted than any to justify my choice of nomenclature [for censorship].  In this example the dream-distortion adopted the same methods as the postal censorship for expunging passages which were objectionable to it.  The postal censorship makes such passages unreadable by blacking them out; the dream censorship replaced them by an incomprehensible mumble.”

A fragment here:  A 50-year-old “cultivated and highly esteemed lady” had (in her dream) gone to Garrison Hospital No. 1 saying that she wanted to volunteer for “service” meaning (as was evident to everyone in earshot): “love service” (Liebesdienste). To the sentry she announced, “I and many other women and girls in Vienna are ready to [mumble, mumble].”  Yet everyone in the dream understood her.  One of the officers:  “Suppose, madam, it actually came to…(mumble).”   Or later, the dreamer:  “It must never happen that an elderly woman…(mumble)…a mere boy.  That would be terrible.”   As she walked up the staircase she heard an officer comment: “That’s a tremendous decision to make – no matter whether a woman’s young or old!  Splendid of her!”

From blackouts to the holy data grail

These dream mumbles became for Freud the precise analogs of postal blackouts and newsprint whiteouts. In short, his experience of third-party intervention into the media/message is not just a bit of interference, it provided the affect and articulation of a central feature of our innermost self – and the experience of a generation that lived through the war. It provokes the thought:  What might the monitoring, mining, and archiving of our exchanges over all our digital media be doing to us?   

Freud hated censorship – but it was not a private torment. Vienna alone had 3,000 censors, and their ilk sprouted in the major belligerent cities. Indeed, the whole history of American journalism needs to be understood as a response to their labors under wartime censorship.   Our awareness of intercepts is similarly changing our sense of communication – at a deeper level, and I suspect it is only the beginning.  What has changed?  In Freud’s age, the back strips of deletion affected only post and newspapers. We joke about the snatching of our intimate texts, our voices and images over internet, our geolocation, social network posts, metadata, even our online gaming. 

But the holy data grail isn’t any particular channel of interception –forget the saccharine romance of “Lives of Others” – the all-too-human snoop, earphones on, pencil on paper, tears in eyes. The key for governments and corporations is the integrated archive, the joining of channels that can put (for example) your actions in a store together with your click-through behavior online. Or “content-derived metadata” (telephone numbers scooped from the content of your texts) together with your position and browsing history.

Facial recognition is only the beginning

We are all data now. Take video surveillance. Pioneered in its extensive form by the British, video, digitized, is far more than watching.  Our now digitized faces have become part of what the authorities call  “leaked,” data streams that pour, for example, from the world’s half billion iPhones. How quickly this all has changed. There’s a fascinating 2008 document in the Wikileaks archive – sensitive but unclassified. In it, an American summarized a conversation he had with the Duesseldorf Police Chief about video surveillance – it tells us a great deal. 

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