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‘New media, new ethics, new selves?’

Security cameras in stores. Employees recording conversations with their bosses. Cameras that catch red-light runners. Police putting GPS devices on vehicles.

We live in a “surveillance society,” according to Professor Charles Ess, who spoke Sept. 20 at an ethics symposium on new media co-sponsored by the University of Richmond School of Law.

“Game over,” Ess said.

“We voluntarily participate in our surveillance,” he said. Just carrying a cell phone can allow tracking, and if the government wants to check out your calls, they can just ask. “We’re always on the grid, so long as our phones are on.”

The modern digital age may be undermining our “reasonable expectations” of privacy, our ordained ways of protecting intellectual property rights and ultimately, our notions about the “self,” according to Ess, a professor of media and interdisciplinary studies at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., and Aarhus University in Denmark.

Digital information is more “greased,” it slides quickly, easily and cheaply anywhere in the world. Different forms of media used to have their separate technological platforms and varying protective legal frameworks. There’s “a convergence issue. Media now all collapse into today’s smart phone,” Ess said.

Digital information slides around the globe easily, but different systems of law may afford differing degrees of copyright protection.

Constant immersion in this digital environment undermines the sense of self developed in Western societies in the past few hundred years, according to Ess.

“There’s a sea change in the sense of self,” with a shift from the Western, atomistic, individualistic view of self, to a more “relational” view of the self that is more characteristic of Eastern, African or Native cultures and philosophies, he indicated.

The idea of a coherent, individual sense of self, that provides a stable identity over time, is “not intuitive and not even the majority position. It’s an anomaly in both history” and around the globe, he said.

The individual sense of self, an underpinning of modern, liberal democracies, is giving way to a “smeared-out” relational self, Ess said.

Adolescents who frequently update their Facebook status may be moving toward an idea that, “if I just keep it to myself, it’s not really real,” Ess said. Still, they are sensitive to degrees of privacy, and may be developing a notion of “group privacy.”

There’s “a shift to a more networked self,” or possibly there is a “more hybrid sense of self” emerging, that includes both a more stable sense of long-term identity, and a view of the self as part of a group.

The law school cosponsored the Donchian Symposium on Evolving Perspectives on Ethics with UR’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies and the Robins School of Business. The law school’s Professor James Gibson, director of its Intellectual Property Institute, moderated Ess’ discussion with the audience.
By Deborah Elkins

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