The Catholic Thing
Modesty and Friendship: Lost in the Data? Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 22 June 2013

A few years ago, as my family strolled in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, a charming Disney employee approached my daughter and asked how she was enjoying the park  A conversation ensued in which the employee asked, and repeated aloud, her name, age, and hometown.

I interrupted when I noticed that the employee was speaking into a discreet microphone connected to a wireless device, the kind security personnel use. As the employee voiced each of my daughter’s answers, a colleague could record them and associate them with the credit card information I’d just used to pay for lunch, to build a more complete profile of our family.

Now, for the benefit of Disney’s lawyers who seem exuberantly protective of their corporation’s brand, let me specify that I do not know what Disney did with my daughter’s answers. But I take this to be one of my first uncomfortable encounters with what we now know as “big data.”

Today, we are accustomed to data gathering by private firms, government, political parties, and other organizations. We know that such information is collected, used, sold or shared, and stolen or leaked for various unknown purposes.

Few people are comfortable about the intrusion into our lives of contemporary data gathering. What have we gained, and what have we lost?

In the case of the recent revelations of massive data collection on the part of American intelligence agencies, we are told we have gained a measure of safety from terrorist attacks. The National Security Agency director assures us that “dozens” of terror plots – however elastic “dozens” is as a quantity – have been foiled. Islamist hatred of the West is real enough and the preparations for terrorist attacks can be readily concealed, so the value of the surveillance is plausible.

More dubiously, corporate data gathering supposedly gives us easier access to what we want, based on analysis of our shopping preferences. Political parties can understand our public policy preferences and adjust their own platforms or encourage those who agree with them to vote. Charities can target us based on donation patterns to afford us more opportunities to help.

What all of these “goods” have in common is that, because they are data-based, they are quantifiable and easily viewed in a spreadsheet or other material terms. We can easily grasp some notion of what we think we have gained, and some of the gains – lives saved – matter greatly.

What we have lost, the trade-off that makes us uncomfortable, is harder to discern.

Leaving aside the possible abuse of government data for despotic purposes – a very real possibility no matter how many lawyers and legal assurances are wrapped around the data – and leaving aside outright criminal use of data that escape “the cloud” into the wrong hands, the potential loss from having so much public and private surveillance is grave.

       Mickey Mouse data gathering

The loss goes beyond some vague political “right to privacy,” which may or may not be in the Constitution and which can be stretched to protect everything from telephone records to abortion and euthanasia. 

The losses include possibilities of modesty and friendship. The Catholic Catechism defines modesty more broadly than wearing decent clothes to Mass: 

Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. . . . It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. 
Most importantly, “There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. . . . Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”

The purity that is served by modesty is central both to our relationship with God and to our relationships with others, to our friendships. When our innermost thoughts are involuntarily taken from us – even if strictly in accord with the “privacy policies” we see so often and read so rarely – we feel violated, quite as if our clothes had been stripped from our bodies.

With modesty, we retain the freedom as persons to share our intimacy with those whom we choose: the freedom to form friendships, one of the highest purposes of a good life.

When all about us is known to everyone, whether we fully choose that or not, modesty is gone, and the possibilities of friendship disappear. We become instead concerned about whether our intimate thoughts conform to the prevailing ideology of those who might be reading our mail, following our web browsing, or otherwise gathering data about us.

When asked about this loss of privacy and modesty, the technocratic “thought leaders” of the digital world happily tell us that privacy is a thing of the past, a small price to pay for the delights of abundant information and constant connectivity. The breakdown of antiquated modesty, we’re told, is progress towards the greater collective unity of mankind.

Yet companies and governments make constant efforts to assure us that our privacy really is protected. They know we fear losing modesty, and not just to obvious criminals.

The real dangers are not in data but in how technology is used for, or against, the person. The danger now is that we go along with whatever goods technology seems to bring, without thinking very hard about what that same technology risks taking away.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. 
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Ib, June 22, 2013
Very insightful and timely. Modesty is often thought of as humility these days, but it's not the same. But beyond that, your reflection underscores how Big Government can make the virtues difficult to acquire in small, but highly destructive ways.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 22, 2013
I will take my chances with Islamic terrorists but give me back my Constitution!
written by Manfred, June 22, 2013
The source of all these problems goes back to 1947-48 when Sec'y of State George C. Marshall asked Pres. Truman why the U.S. would ever support a nascent Jewish state in the midst of millions of Muslims upon whom we were dependent for our oil and who were our allies. In 1997, The Project for a New American Century was drafted as the Neo-Cons assumed control of the Republican Party. Read it. George Weigel was one of the signatories. Also read: A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.
What the Muslims have faced for decades and we Catholics are facing today is nothing less than a very hostile secular state, the U.S., which will destroy anything which stands in the way of a hegemonic world authority, America, which will crush anyone and anything which will interrupt what it perceives to be progress. Mr. Wood noticed his child being recorded in Disney's Animal Kingdom. Mr. Wood, because of his training knew how sinister this has become. If you want to know what tomorrow brings, read Kafka's The Trial.
written by Jack,CT, June 22, 2013
Mr Wood,
You shine the light on how things
are marketed in this Country.
The nice Thing is as the CCC stated we have
the choice to make, how much do we put out
there is a choice.
All who have made an online purchase understand
"Data Mining" as you are hit with ads for the same
or similar products for days!
Remember when it was such a simple time?
Well we no longer live there!
The rogue government worker betrayed his contract
at the least however with two million government
contractors it was a matter of time.
I have no idea why he betrayed his own country
to tell us what we already suspected?
To stay on topic, you must assume "Big Brother
is allows around every corner. I feel that if we
live a Modest life" nothing to fear!
The "Patriot Act" was born After (9/11), how fast
we forget...........
Bush signed off on this with the intention to
keep America safe.
We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend almost
4,000 did not perish but why?
Some are to young to remember and many of men dying
daily over seas were in second grade that day!
We must educate the youth about reason some are a
bit "Uncomfortable" with a daily "Reality'.
If one baby or family is saved by a little Loss
of freedom so be it ........
Besides I remember where I was that horrible
morning and if I must get "Advertisements" on
"Posters" after a purchase for a "Globe poster"
so be it.
written by Grump, June 22, 2013
It's a curious fact of American life that many who complain about government intrusion into privacy are the same people who reveal every mundane aspect of their pathetic lives on Facebook and other social media. Paradoxically, they crave solitude and attention at the same time. This, of course, is symptomatic of a nation of busybodies and tattletales who thrive on gossip and the banal while generally ignoring the serious issues of the day. Which is it? Look at me or Don't look at me.
written by Jack,CT, June 22, 2013
@Grump......I second that
written by Jim Thunder, June 22, 2013
There was a report in the paper a few months ago on various aspects of finding a mate through online resources. One reaction caught my eye: A woman complained that on a date she had with a man who had read her online profile, the man presumed in word and deed, a knowledge of her as if they had known each other for quite some time.
written by Jack,CT, June 22, 2013
That would b fine IF
you livd in a vacum!
written by Maggie-Louise, June 22, 2013
We hear the question posed endlessly these days: "Would you be willing to give up your privacy if it meant saving the lives of the victims o . . . terrorist attack (Boston, NY, wherever)?", and all the generous citizens say, "Yes, gladly."

I would pose the question in these terms: "Would you be willing to give up your privacy if it meant that in 20 years, we would be a country of 300,000,000 slaves instead of 300,000,000 free citizens? How, then, would we answer that question?

I've never forgotten the graph that my political geography prof. had that showed (by survey) that, by far, the greatest number of people were almost exclusively concerned for those closest to them in neighborhood and in time: their families, towns, states, country for the next year, five years. The number of people who cared for their country, their continent, their hemisphere, for then next 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, century, were far, far fewer. So, how many of us would suffer the deaths due to terrorism now if we could save our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, our country and maybe the world from absolute tyranny?

I was discussing some church policy with a priest and said, "But if we follow that policy, where will the church be in 100 years?" Just then a woman walked in and, overhearing us, said, "Who cares? We'll all be dead by that time."

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