Leave my iPhone alone: why our smartphones are extensions of ourselves

3 months, 14 days ago

Our phones offer connection, communication and knowledge and have become part of our identities. No wonder privacy violations bother us so much

Apples recent refusal to abide by a court order to unlock the San Bernardino shooters iPhone has brought to the publics attention an debate over cybersecurity and encryption that has been raging throughout the tech world for years.

On the surface, that argument has a particular and recognizable ethical character. But further down, it is about something else something deeper that has to do with identity itself.

Utilitarian intellectuals like John Stuart Mill have always held that the best style to decide any ethical question is to look and assure which action has the best consequences.

Turning to the iPhone case, the way this argument has played out in the media suggests that it is all about which future is more dire: the one where terrorists can hide their communications in common devices, or the one where the governmental eye of Sauron considers all.

Yet this characterization oversimplifies what is really at stake. Both pictures of the future are misleading, if merely because terrorists have, like the rest of us, numerous ways to get in contact with one another. Breaking into this particular iPhone wont change that. Moreover, your data is already unsafe. As more than one wag put it on Twitter, thats what makes it so ironic that privacy advocates like to complain on social media.

But the deeper problem with the its all about the consequences side of the debate is that it ignores the increasingly intimate relation we bear to the devices around us.

Smartphones were only the first step towards the world we live in now the internet of things. More and more devices from refrigerators to cars to socks interact with the internet on a nearly constant basis, leaving a trail of digital deplete. That means greater convenience, but increasingly it also means that our devices are becoming ready at hand as Heidegger would have said. Weve begun to see them as extensions of ourselves. The Internet of Things has become the Internet of Us.

It is tempting to see that as metaphorical. But there is actually a metaphysical phase here, one which we can get at by way of two very different, if consistent, philosophical routes.

The first style in stems from what is known as the extended intellect hypothesis. According to the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in a 1998 newspaper, our mental state, like our faiths or our memories, arent always simply in in our heads. They are spread out. In other terms, it is not just that I use my contact listing in my smartphone as a crutch to assistance me recollect, my actual remembering is partly constituted by the phone itself. It is a combo of brain cells and computer chips.

I am not sure whether Clark and Chalmers are right about the entire intellect, although they might be. But I am more convinced that one sort of mental state, the country of my knowing something, is often extended to our digital devices. My knowing, at the least in the passive, receptive sense of knowing, is definitely outsourced to my phone. And that is why I often feel 100% less knowledgeable when I dont have ready access to it.

If something like this is right, it helps to explain why we worry about losing more control over access to our smart devices. What and how I know it is part of my intellect; but if what and how I know is partly composed of what happens on my phone, if it is spread out in that way, then unlocking our devices is not simply like unlocking our home. It is more like opening up our intellects to Vulcan mind melds. And then the ethical topic here cant only be decided by tallying up the consequences; what harms our identity is a matter of principle.

Of course you might think that the extended knowledge hypothesis is too farfetched. But the other style to get to the same point is this: whether or not we actually are our telephones, we increasingly identify with them. We increasingly see them and the digital life we lead on them as partly constituting who we psychologically are.

The reason that matters is that psychology matters for autonomy. One type of freedom we care about is autonomy of action. But another type is freedom of decision. And you can violate my autonomy of decision in more than one route. One style is to overrule it. Hold a handgun to my head and I will find myself making decisions that arent actually in accordance with my most considered opinion about what is best for me.

On the other hand, you can also undermine it. Devote me a drug without my permission and my decision-making is constructed moot. It doesnt truly matter whether I wanted to take the drug or not. Ive taken it anyway and my decision is irrelevant.

Violations of information privacy undermine our autonomy of decision in the same way. They make a decision for us whether to share our datum. In some suits, perhaps like the case of the San Bernardino shooters phone, that may be justified. But there is a reason to be wary of generalizing, precisely because back-door telephone hacks would open us up to having our independence undermined in merely this way.

Arguably, what harms autonomy damages identity. And what harms identity, what harms us as individuals, as intellects, is not just a bad outcome it is bad in principle.

Michael Patrick Lynch is prof of philosophy and director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. His new book is The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. Follow him on Twitter: @plural_truth

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