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Welcome Back, or Can you be private in public?

A really nice piece by Jeffrey Rosen on a new case coming before the US Supreme Court. The particular issue in question is whether law enforcement can track people using GPS devices without a warrant. The bigger issue is the question of public anonymity — the way we are online, and thus legible, even when we move through real space.

A number of states are beginning to put together legislation to protect your right to privacy in public places. It is such an odd formulation. The critics say that is the very definition of public — you do not have a right to expect to be anonymous in a public place, like a street or a restaurant. But isn’t that how we’ve theorized the value of the public, precisely it’s ability to preserve a sense of one’s anonymity? Think of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the flâneur — the pleasure of the flaneur is not being known. There can be no flâneur in a fully-GPSed world, not just because you can’t get lost (one of wanderings key components), but because someone else always knows where you are.

As Benjamin already intuited at the opening of the last century, space has become increasingly legible. (His favorite example was the invention of street signs in early nineteenth century Paris). What this meant for our sense of ourselves was one of his central questions. It should also be ours.