Privacy From What?

Article/Op-Ed in Slate
July 19, 2016

Josephine Wolff wrote for Slate about a new play starring Daniel Radcliffe that shows just how muddled our conversations about data are:

Three years after Edward Snowden revealed to the world the scale and scope of the U.S. government’s digital surveillance apparatus, what is the state of public discourse on issues related to technological privacy? Exceedingly jumbled judging by the play Privacy, which stars Daniel Radcliffe and opened at the Public Theater in New York City on Monday (after previews July 2–17). The play, created by James Graham and Josie Rourke, is an updated and heavily revised version of the 2014 London production put on by the Donmar Warehouse, which also co-produced the New York production. It is intended as a work of documentary theater: Much of the dialogue is stitched together from interviews with a series of academics, civil liberties advocates, journalists, tech industry representatives, and policy makers.
The frantically paced mini-lectures, interactive audience participation, and projected slides (to say nothing of the bibliography in the program) make the whole experience feel more like a college seminar than an evening at the theater. But the unstructured muddle of ideas and characters and topics—including how technology changes the nature of loneliness and intimacy, government surveillance, corporate data collection, the curation of online identities, and Brexit, to name just a few—is too disorganized to offer any clear or nuanced lessons about digital privacy. (Of course, a play isn’t necessarily supposed to teach lessons, but this one has such a strong instructional bent that it seems worth noting.) Instead, it offers a fascinating and slightly alarming picture of just how confused our understanding of privacy remains and how little progress we’ve made, post-Snowden, toward having a thoughtful, informed, level-headed conversation about it.