The ethics of inattention: Revitalising civil inattention as a privacy-protecting mechanism in public spaces

Tamar Sharon*, Bert-Jaap Koops

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Societies evolve practices that reflect social norms of appropriateness in social interaction, for example when and to what extent one should respect the boundaries of another person’s private sphere. One such practice is what the sociologist Erving Goffman called civil inattention—the social norm of showing a proper amount of indifference to others—which functions as an almost unnoticed yet highly potent privacy-preserving mechanism. These practices can be disrupted by technologies that afford new forms of intrusions. In this paper, we show how new networked technologies, such as facial recognition (FR), challenge our ability to practice civil inattention. We argue for the need to revitalise, in academic and policy debates, the role of civil inattention and related practices in regulating behaviour in public space. Our analysis highlights the relational nature of privacy and the importance of social norms in accomplishing and preserving it. While our analysis goes some way in supporting current calls to ban FR technology, we also suggest that, pending a ban and in light of the power of norms to limit what is otherwise technically possible, cultivating new practices of civil inattention may help address the challenges raised by FR and other forms of digital surveillance in public.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-343
Number of pages13
JournalEthics and Information Technology
Volume23
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021

Keywords

  • Civil inattention
  • Discretion
  • Facial recognition
  • Privacy
  • Reserve
  • Social norms

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