I know I am being watched, I just don’t feel it

I was reflecting on the new results on perceptions of privacy and security in the post-Snowden era, released by Pew Research, and I made the connection to an interesting presentation I attended in a panel on Digital Culture & Communication at ECREA 2014 conference last week.

The presenter was discussing the phenomenology of the contemporary digital individual and the dissonance between the “I” (still present in the act-body, i.e. our body of performances and actions online), and the trace-body, the digital trace our act-body leaves behind, the detritus of our online activities. He was talking about the affective alienation of the I (our act-body in this context) from the ‘personal data’, or the trace-body, and how this alienation is experienced as an inability to sense our trace-body:

The slogan of this condition: ‘I know, but I do not sense.’ I ‘know’ my data is being exploited — Edward Snowden told me so, for one — but I don’t ‘sense’ it happening. Machines beep and whir in the night, unseen but believed in by subjects of the Web 2.0 age. This tension produces a generalised sense of peripheral paranoia: a passive and deferred form of paranoia which constantly lurks in the background, but is unable to break in to ‘rational’ decision-making by digital subjects.” (Sun-ha Hong, Subjunctivity and interpassivity: The mythological and phenomenological dimensions of digital surveillance, ECREA 2014 presentation, Lisbon, November 12-15)

In the beginning of his talk, Sun-ha was using the metaphor of Bentham’s panopticon, where the inmates feel they are being watched from the control tower in the center of the prison, but never know for sure if and when. It occurred to me that the alienation we experience construes itself in a reverse-panopticon, where the certainty of surveillance (I know for sure I am being watched) is never felt, never experienced at a personal level.


Privacy has been defined as “the selective control of access to the self” (Altman, 1975, p.24); or, against the futility of perceiving privacy as a binary 0-1 construct, “privacy […] is about the sense of vulnerability that an individual experiences when negotiating data”, “a sense of control over information, the context where sharing takes place, and the audience who can gain access” (boyd, 2008: 14, 18). The concept of audiences and publics are central aspects to privacy, as degrees of access might vary accordingly. Users can define personalised readerships enabled by customised privacy settings meant to increased individual control over who has access to one’s information. So maybe there is another affective and cognitive dissonance that contributes to the feeling of alienation Sun-ha spoke of, between the controllable trace-body, which we can have a sense of through our customised privacy settings for our intended audiences, and the same trace-body that is out of our control, “out there” for unintended reception.


Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behaviour: privacy, personal space, territory, crowding. Brooks: Monterey.

boyd, d. (2008). Facebook’s privacy trainwreck: exposure, invasion, and social convergence. Convergence 14(1): 13-20.

Hong, Sun-ha (2014). Subjunctivity and interpassivity: The mythological and phenomenological dimensions of digital surveillance, ECREA presentation, Lisbon, November 12-15.