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2020th Stated Meeting: Technology, Surveillance, and the Contemporary Self

Watch video of this event.

On April 16, 2015, the Academy welcomed Peter Galison (Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University) and Jonathan Zittrain (George Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University), who presented on how digital technologies have redefined our notions of personal privacy—and transformed our sense of ourselves as individuals. The event served as the 2020th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

In his opening remarks, excerpted here, Dr. Fanton identifies twentieth-century Academy discussions as precursors to this contemporary conversation about the implications of the human-computer relationship, and the impact of the changing definition of privacy on the way we interact with each other and think about ourselves.

The subject of this evening’s program, “Technology, Surveillance, and the Contemporary Self,” is very much a 21st-century issue—a result of the rapid adoption of digital technologies at almost every level of society and in almost every aspect of our lives. But this is not the first time that the American Academy has considered the dangers inherent in the accumulation of our personal data in far-flung computer networks, or the consequences of digital surveillance on the way we understand ourselves as individuals in a wider world.

The Academy held a Stated Meeting on October 12, 1966, titled “Some Impacts of the Computer on Society.” Two speakers, Ithiel de Sola Pool, Professor of Political Science at MIT, and Robert Mario Fano, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT, analyzed the development of emerging large-scale computer facilities and their effect on American society.

According to an account published in our Bulletin, Professor Fano, who was the first speaker, explained that “it is technically possible for a computer system to be made to act as a knowledgeable assistant to any individual or group, even to those without specialized experience in computer programming.” He then anticipated contemporary networking capabilities, stating that “to act in this role, the computer system must be accessible to individuals both physically and intellectually; in other words, a person must be able to carry out a conversation with a computer, not in machine code, but in a language suitable to him as a human being, and to the subject of conversation. Moreover, since many intellectual activities are inherently cooperative in nature, the system must also be simultaneously accessible to many people.”

In his response, Professor Pool anticipated the very concerns we are here to discuss this evening. Again, from the Bulletin account:

“Mr. Pool believes that the most serious problem will be that of privacy. In the course of our daily life—at school, in business, at the bank, and in the retail trade—we will leave behind a trail of data in some computer’s memory. All these records are likely to become part of a unified utility system. If we then consider the tremendous volume of records that are generated in the course of a lifetime, we begin to realize the magnitude of the privacy problem. . . . As these unified computer facilities gain an increasing number of users, they become the subject of prying, both deliberate and accidental.”

Our first speaker, Peter Galison, is the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, with appointments in both the History of Science and Physics Departments. He is also Director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. Peter’s work examines the intersections of history, science, and philosophy. Among his books is the Pfizer Award-winning Imagine and Logic, a study of the effects of complex instruments on experimental physics; and Einstein’s Clocks and Poincaré’s Maps, an account of how scientists developed new conventions for measuring and describing time at the beginning of the 20th century. In a recent New York Times review, he was called “one of the premier science historians in the world.” And I am proud to say he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1999.

Jonathan Zittrain is the George Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at the Harvard Law School Library, and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Jonathan’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the opportunities for applying technology in education. He has also conducted important studies of the barriers to Internet access in China and Saudi Arabia, and has co-edited Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering and Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison and Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science Jonathan Zittrain.

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