Is It Better To Be Public or Private In an Age of Surveillance?

Like it or not, we now live in an age of surveillance.

If the state isn’t actually surveilling you, a corporation or business is gathering data about your location, your browsing history, your interests, your employment, and more. You’re also probably subscribing yourself to a system of (voluntary) surveillance from friends, family, and colleagues via social media.

Whether or not any of this is good for humans on net, it’s clear that there are new risks to deal with in a surveillance-oriented world. There’s the growing risk of social engineering attacks (people pretending to be you to get your stuff or hurt you), scaled-up libel due to “cancel culture,” doxxing, and actual physical attacks.

So, what is the best way to protect yourself and people you love from the consequences of the surveillance state? Beyond personal cybersecurity (that could be its own blog post *series* from a better techie), there are two possible approaches.

The argument for privacy

Being public in the way many folks are can open you and your loved ones to attack. Every time you post something on social media about yourself or your family, you might be opening yourself up to attack via that vector. So just don’t do it.

You can resist the surveillance society is to disappear – relatively speaking. While it may not be possible to get fully off the radar and off the grid, if you ditch your cell phone, run a privacy-friendly OS, use a VPN, delete your social media accounts, and use cash, you can get pretty hard to track.

There are still millions of unknown folks all over the world who live blissfully free of Facebook and its ilk. They don’t have to worry about their digital “permanent record” because they aren’t really known to begin with.

The argument for publicity

On the other hand, if it is impossible for you to go off the grid, being as public as possible – building a brand/reputation, developing a following, and documenting much of your life online – may be your best defense.

Criminals and even states like to work in secret and attack the marginalized. If you have a clean public reputation and supporters who have your back, it will be harder for bad actors to use the outcomes of surveillance to harm you. If you do go down, bad folks can be pretty sure that they will be found out.

If you are in the public eye, attempts on you will certainly increase, but your access to deterrents and protection will also increase.

I don’t know which is the right answer, but I have considered (and lived) both approaches in my own small way. Right now I lean toward privacy – before I leaned toward publicity. But whatever the case, I hope to maintain the freedom to choose either.

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Amor Fati, But for the Past

It takes as much equanimity to accept the past as it does to accept the future.

Friedrich Nietzsche (I think) introduced the notion of “amor fati,” or “love of fate” as a way for humans to reconcile themselves to the uncertainty of the future and the disasters it may bring for each of us. The idea? Don’t fear your fate, don’t even just “accept” it – *love* it. If you love whatever comes, and act accordingly, no fate can harm you.

Is your fate to break a leg right before your football team wins state? “Amor fati” would perhaps have you be the best crippled cheerleader/mascot/inspiration you can be, using your injury for all it’s worth as self-motivation, others-motivation, self-improvement, and others-improvement.

“Amor fati” is fine for the future, but what about all else that has come before? As Gus McRae of Lonesome Dove says, “the world ain’t nothin’ but a boneyard. . .” We live at the tail end of a long history of life that includes lots of death, injustice, and suffering. When I drive through the beautiful lands of the Southeast United States, I also have to remember that so much of it is what it is because people were kept as slaves here.

What’s more, we each live at the tail end of long personal histories of mistakes, foolishness, regrettable decisions (or indecisions), and pain. We each have to wonder more or less often how things might have turned out differently with us had things gone differently.

I think this is where we need a more clearly defined concept. Perhaps “Amor praeteritum”?

The past can be a horrible place, but (as so many popular songs attest) it’s also what brought us to where we are now. When someone says they wouldn’t “trade any of it,” it means they have accepted the pain of what came before as the price for becoming. This is a viewpoint worth having. As someone who has spent a good amount of time regretting paths taken or untaken, I reckon it’s one of the only ways to sane acceptance of life.

If it is Stoic to accept whatever comes, it is Stoic also to accept whatever has come before. Practice “amor praeteritum” alongside your “amor fati,” if it’s not too tall an order.

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I Was a Fool vs. I Am a Fool

“I’m so sorry for the way I acted. I was a fool.”

I’ve had some times when I’ve had to admit to other people (or to myself) my foolishness. I’ve looked back on times in my life when I was so sure I was wise and so wrong about that – and tried to admit my mistake.

Exhibit A: high school, when I was too cool and too smart for my town, my church, family, etc.

When I meet folks from this time, I sometimes feel compelled to apologize for how I acted or seemed back then. Usually when I’ve had these conversations, though, I’ve made a mistake. I’ve said “I was a fool.”

The mistake here is not saying (accurately) that I *am* a fool now. I’ve seen enough revolutions around the sun to know that my understanding is constantly developing, and that every six months I can look back with embarrassment on the “me” of six months ago.

Given that embarrassment and growth in self-knowledge is coming down the line, I probably shouldn’t speak in any way to suggest that foolishness is a one-time mistake on my part. Instead, when I apologize for my foolishness, I should recognize the foolishness of now as well as the foolishness of the past.

“I’m so sorry for the way I acted. I am a fool.”

This is probably the most honest way to put it, and the most realistic. As even Socrates is said to have understood, we know nothing or very close to it. No use pretending that our path to wisdom is a one-failure-and-done kind of affair.

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If You Must Serve, Serve Someone Good

It is better to serve principles rather than people. But in work life, even the most independent and stiff-necked of us have to serve others. Employees (to some degree) serve bosses and managers. And even entrepreneurs are in service to customers and clients.

If there can be no freedom from service itself, there can be a freedom to choose whom to serve. And if you must work for someone else, it’s pretty important that you work for a person or group of people you respect.

The burden of working under a genuinely good man or woman is light. On the other hand, working for a lousy person is sheer torture – a disservice to you and to them.

This doesn’t just mean that you should pick someone who treats you well. You should pick someone who treats other people well, who abides by the Golden Rule, who speaks truthfully. You should pick someone you aspire to be like at your best moments. If you do, you will find that in serving your boss, you will be serving your principles.

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Even Anarchists Need Mayors

“Mayor ____ welcomes you to Atlanta.”

This sign greeted me as I left the airport for home. I kind of liked it.

Now as an anarchist, I don’t want any city governments, and I don’t give a damn about Mayor What’s-Their-Name, but I do give a damn about Atlanta. And like all cities I love, Atlanta has its own unique culture with unique values and customs.

Even if, God-willing, we managed to make Atlanta a city free from bureaucracies and governments, it would still help to have a figurehead for those values and customs.

We need someone who can cut ribbons, welcome people to town, organize volunteer events, and talk on important holidays. We need someone who can get up and say some nice things that more or less honor the shared values of a place. And we need them to have no constitutional or governing power over anyone whatsoever. Their power must derive from influence, respect, and earned authority from reputation and service, not coercion.

Look at the Queen: she doesn’t hold all that much constitutional power in England, but she traditionally has played a useful role in embodying Englishness – and serving as a role model for behavior, speech, dress, etc.

Mayors in a free society could do the same – and heck, we could even have mayors at other scales: whole regions. Mayor of Appalachia? Mayor of the Lowcountry? Mayor of New England? Heck, there are some folks who were destructive as politicians who would be fine as mayors of America.

Abstract values sometimes need a human face, and most humans want someone to look up to and to represent the best we have to offer. There are natural hierarchies, and there are some people worthy of honor and suited to serving (not ruling) large groups of people. So why not keep mayors around?

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The Freedom of the Blue Collar Worker

Tradesmen, contractors, and blue collar workers hold the jobs no one seems to want. They get paid less generally than some office desk jockeys, and they may never be rich enough to own yachts or mansions.

But they are free in a way few corporate employees are.

Excepting the more unionized trades, these men and women can generally go where they want to go and work for whom they want to work. They can work for themselves, and they can work together. And if they lose a job, they can generally find substitute work more easily than the ladder-conscious, highly specialized corporate employee.

They don’t have to follow the speech codes or dress codes of the modern HR department. They don’t have to pretend to be “company men.” They can smoke, let a few cusswords fly, and wear overalls and boots without worrying about being “professional” or “socially conscious” or “woke.” Their work exists outside of the realm in which “acceptable opinions” are necessary because their work involves changing things rather than changing people.

They don’t have to sit at desks. They get to see the sunlight. And they get to play with some of the greatest tools and machines invented by man – rather than staring at backlit computer screens all day.

There are many factors to consider in choosing a career, but freedom should certainly be one of them – and anyone choosing a career should consider the special kind of freedom which tradesman hold over their corporate counterparts.

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