The space invaders

Our privacy and freedom of thought is routinely and pervasively breached by the masters of surveillance capitalism. What is this doing to us as humans and to our democratic choices in life? Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips talks to Vanessa Baird.


VB: Why does privacy matter?

AP: Privacy matters for several reasons. One is to do with self-protection. As a child growing up, one of the developmental achievements is having, or believing that you have, a private space inside yourself that is un-impinge-able on by anyone, that means you can’t be violated, you can’t be intruded upon, you can’t be taken over and you can’t be colonized. So, you have some sense of internal safety as though there was a protected space inside you. One way of seeing this is as ‘having a mind of your own’.

What aspects of digital intrusion into our privacy most concern you?

All the forms of surveillance technology; all the ways in which we are compelled to consume or think about consumption, even when we do not want to. Contemporary technology is extremely intrusive. It’s not exactly a calculated attack on our internal world, but it is certainly an attempt to furnish it so that we can’t stop thinking about what might be on the screen or for sale. We are all the time being incited to have appetites that we are not given enough space to think about.

Some people will look at the popularity of social media and say that it shows that we don’t really care very much about privacy; that we want to be known and watched, as Google knows us and watches us. What would you say to that?

I think there’s an attempt to sell us social media by idealizing it. When someone says we want Google looking over us, it’s a bit like treating Google as a god, or as a parent, as though we really want someone to keep an eye on us, when, of course, it isn’t remotely like that. In fact, a lot of social media exploits people’s anxieties and attacks their capacity for privacy in the attempt to produce a consensus to do with consumption.

The risk of neoliberalism is that we begin to see ourselves entirely as consumers and producers and we think of all experience in terms of profit and loss. There is a dominant metaphor that we can’t think outside it. One thing that social media makes very difficult is for people to have the mental space to think, to digest their experiences, partly because its instantaneous, partly because it’s so visual. So, I think the risk is that conversation and thoughtfulness are sacrificed for a version of immediate gratification.

Without a sense of the private self there is very little to exchange in relationships

You’ve worked with children and adults for many years now. What changes have you seen in terms of child development and mental health that you can put down to the digital revolution and the surveillance capitalism that has accompanied it?

Among the children that I have seen there is a tremendous anxiety about competition and about comparison. Growing children are now assaulted by so many competing images of what they should and should not look like. It’s as though people have been invited into a global arena of competition and what we’re really interested in about other people is a version of prestige or celebrity or having some sort of magical power. What gets lost is anything to do with romance or affinity or something more mysterious that goes on between people. It’s as though people have had to commodify themselves in order to compete in the market and those social relations are entirely a market place.

Does this manifest itself in self-harm and depression in children?

Yes, these things are on the increase. I don’t think social media is [solely] to blame; I think it’s one of the elements in a culture that is to blame. Capitalist culture is more and more difficult to grow up into. Under the guise of giving us infinite choice, it is extremely confining and constraining in terms of who we can be and what we can feel, what we can say. It’s excessively censorious under the guise of being entirely open.

It’s said that without privacy there can be no intimacy. Can you expand on that?

A capacity for privacy comes out of a confidence in one’s ability to have one’s own thoughts and to be able to exchange things with other people from a position of relative security. Security here means being sufficiently protected and also having sufficient trust in, or a willingness to test the trustworthiness of, other people. Without a sense of a private self, there is very little to exchange in relationships. It’s like what’s exchanged between people in intimacy is precisely their privacy; privacy becomes the medium. In testing or developing a relationship the question is how much of one’s privacy can one allow someone else to enter into and how much privacy can one enter into with another person.

What advice would you give to children and adults in relation to digital technology and protecting their privacy?

I don’t think the solution to this is to ban social media. I think the solution to this is to help children develop useful conversations and ways of thinking and describing that can be evaluated in an on-going way. The risk is we simply become passive consumers of digital technology and are therefore formed by it. What I would encourage is an active engagement with the issues that social media raises, so that it becomes, if you like, a pretext for an ongoing conversation: about what we people want to use it for and how it is using us.

I think it’s important that there isn’t a blurring of the generations; that the adults don’t just assume that the children know more about social media than they do, because, even if that’s true, the children don’t know more about life than they do. There’s a risk of adults abrogating their position or being made to feel ‘old fashioned’. It’s very important that adults go on promoting the things that they value, including their criticisms of social media if they have them. But the point is to make a conversation, not a battle – or not only a battle.

What do you make of developments in biometric technology such as ‘brain fingerprinting’ and the ability to connect brains to computers, bypassing consciousness? What does this say about human agency?

To me it’s horrifying. Anything that represents itself as bypassing consciousness is potentially dangerous because what it means is bypassing our capacity for choice, and even if our capacity for choice is limited, it’s still crucial. Anything that tries to get round or undercut or float free of our complexity is going to be potentially misleading and damaging.

If our privacy is being breached, our independence of thought manipulated, and our desires and actions predicted, what impact does this have on democracy? What does this mean for us as democratic beings?

The risk is it turns democracy paranoid. It creates a continual suspicion about what we are up to and what people are up to in relation to us. I think democracy depends upon, broadly speaking, a more sympathetic sense of fellow feeling, a capacity and willingness to identify with the pleasures and sufferings of other people, and anything that inures us, or anything that we can only adapt to by becoming more brutal or cruel or bullying, has got to be bad. In a way the only moral question in any given situation is: what is the kindest thing to do?

And if we lose an interest in, a capacity for, and a pleasure in kindness, it’s going to be very difficult to make a world that feels worth living in.

A lot of people today feel we are being manipulated. Is that part of the paranoia or is it true that we are being manipulated more than before?

It’s true that we are being manipulated. It’s not difficult to see. All the time our appetites are being manipulated, all the time we are being invited to think about wanting more things and this does not leave us much mental space to think or to think about how we are being manipulated. The risk is that we take a masochistic solution. That is to say we find a way to enjoy being manipulated or feel somehow gleeful in that, but what we lose is any sense of our own agency, or autonomy, or capacity to make moral judgement.

Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and writer. His latest book, On Wanting To Change, was published by Hamish Hamilton on 18 March.