I walk my two dogs, Laika and Sputnik, once or sometimes twice a day. On these walks, they sniff around a lot. One day, while they were on a particularly strong sniff binge, I wondered how their olfactory interaction with the physical world translated into a metaphysics, specifically, into an understanding of time. Sputnik and Laika could smell this patch of sidewalk’s recent past–they knew that my neighbor Mickey and her dogs Bentley and Beauty had taken a walk earlier this afternoon (I’m guessing this was the case because they go nuts for their scent, as Mickey always gives them treats). That’s not something I would know unless I (a) talked to Mickey, or (b) had surveillance camera data from the car dealership by this particular patch of sidewalk. What, for me, was an imperceptible, unknowable “past” was for them a perfectly accessible fact. The past was physically present for them in a way it was not for me. Surely this different perceptual orientation to the physical world translates into a different metaphysical experience of time and, well, of reality more generally. When the world is sniffed rather than seen, different features and patterns of relationships emerge as the prominent, organizing factors of that world.
I wasn’t particularly interested in following up on that idea until I read that “sniffing” is a metaphor commonly used to describe a specific type of data surveillance.
…Dataium software used a controversial technique to attempt to determine whether a visitor had been to nearly 100 other sites, including edmunds.com, bmw.com, usatoday.com, google.com, and linkedin.com. Known as “CSS history sniffing”, this technique exploits a security vulnerability in older Web browsers, such as Internet Explorer 8. Modern browsers have plugged this privacy hole. Dataium CEO Eric Brown told the Journal it has used the technique intermittently for testing.
This sensory metaphor seems really appropriate: in the same way that my dogs can reach into the recent past and “sniff out” who’s been peeing on their telephone pole, this Dataium software can reach into my browser’s recent past and “sniff out” the sites I’ve been clicking on.
It’s interesting that data sniffing is considered manifestly “unscrupulous behavior,” as the article puts it. I think I suggests how strongly our notions of privacy and propriety are shaped by the sense of sight and vision, that is, by a very specific sensory orientation to the world. Technology often augments our senses. My eyeglasses, for example, augment my naturally pretty crappy vision, just as telescopes augment even great eyes to superhuman strength.
Often, physiological and technological limits function as de facto ethical limits. It’s impolite, and, indeed, illegal, to watch what people do behind the solid, opaque walls of their homes, for example. The limits of conventional human sight are ensconced in US privacy law. When physiological and technological limits are overcome, we need to make explicit ethical rules to govern behavior that used to be physiologically and technologically impossible. Data “sniffing” augments “senses” that have generally been of little explicit ethical import. In Western culture and philosophy, smell generally isn’t thought to bring us epistemologically significant information. Sure, it helps us tell if the milk is bad, but this sort of practical information isn’t as culturally/epistemologically privileged as “theoretical” or “scientific” information, on the one hand, or political representation (“speech”) on the other. Or, to be more technical, smell, unlike either visual or auditory communication (writing and speech), does not take propositional form or carry propositional content.
Traditionally, “sniffing” was not a way to gain epistemologically, culturally, or politically relevant information–at least, not for humans. Now technology has augmented our ability to “sniff”–i.e., to perceive the past in ways previously unavailable to typical human sense perception, and perhaps manifestly typical“sniffing” behaviors feel creepy and unscrupulous because they ask us to comport ourselves to the world in ways that feel, well, unhuman. I doubt my dogs would feel creeped out that some other dog sniffed their pee on the local telephone pole (I mean, they’re counting on it–that’s why they mark the pole in the first place). Sputnik and Laika are used to leaving scents and having those scents sniffed, so they behave accordingly. Perhaps we’re just not used to thinking about and being accountable for the scents, both literal and figurative, that we leave around. What if learning to live in the world of big data and “history sniffing” means learning to relate to our bodies, our senses, and our world in different metaphysical terms (like how my dogs may have a different intuitive metaphysics than I have)? Perhaps before we think about the ethics of these technological advancements, we need to reconsider our metaphysical assumptions?