In my previous post on information sharing I ventured the idea of Information Technology as a technological enhancement which significantly extended (and altered) natural human skills and capacities; and that when this prosthetic capacity is integrated with an expansionist organisational programme like Transformational Government it results in a stretching (to breaking point) of the applicability of ordinary language regulatory terms like “sharing” or “purpose”.

What I want to suggest here is another perspective on the effects of the technological medium, with reference to the quality of privacy taken to be inherent in personal data as it relates to a natural person. I also have in mind here the gist of the Durant judgement (back to the person); and the related difficulty of tracking rights and interests in relation to processed personal data.

My text is the essay by the German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” , written 1935-36; now perhaps the single most famous essay on cultural theory written in the 20th C.

Briefly, Benjamin suggests that the “aura” of a work of art is diminished and ultimately lost when the work is reproduced as an image by technological means. By “aura” he means the uniqueness of the work of art, its particular location in the here and now, and the mysterious sense of distance inherent in the viewing of it.

We can substitute, without too much strain, the natural person for the work of art, because the natural person has similar qualities of uniqueness, particular existence in the here and now, and a sense of distance associated with a private self.

The technological reproduction of the personal data of this natural person erodes all these qualities in exactly the same way as the qualities of the work of art are eroded by copying. Uniqueness and here and now location in time and space disappear as much because of the properties of the technological medium as because of the purposes of the data controller in the public realm. What the Data Controller wants to do is to get closer to the individual, which is also enabled by the medium because it removes qualities associated with uniqueness and distance.

It is the reproduction of personal data with the effect of closeness even by just one data controller which can make it difficult to connect that data with the actual natural private person; and thus difficult to connect the digital person with the privacy interests of the actual person.

Benjamin also claims that the technological reproduction of a work of art removes it from the sphere of tradition, a sphere dependent on maintaining the aura and specificity of the art work. We can see a similar effect of the technological processing of personal data to the extent that the digital person cannot be related to the values and traditions of liberal individualism, still the cornerstone of our concepts of privacy.

Thus there seems to be no alternative, on this reading, to abandoning the traditional concepts of privacy when considering the interests at issue in the technological processing and reproduction of personal data – a tendency which is, I think, now fully visible, in the trend of seeing personal data as valuable physical items, the processing risks of which can be assessed and managed without reference to privacy interests.

The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and other writings on Media” By Walter Benjamin. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. London 2008.

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