A longer, more academic version of this post appears at Its Her Factory.

This post follows up on my earlier post about a culture of moderation. Here I want to consider one aspect of this contemporary focus on moderation: the idea of “balance.” We talk about work/life balance, the “balance” between individual freedom and national security, and, as Jenny notes, the “balance” between tech use and abstention.

This language of balance was particularly prominent in recent discussions of NSA spying. In fact, “balance” is the term the Obama administration uses to justify and rationalize government surveillance. In an August 2013 news conference, President Obama said “we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms.” When he was interviewed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper elaborates on the administration’s concept of “balance” (this starts in the video around 6:30).

Clapper says: “The challenge for us is navigating between those two poles. It’s not a balance, it’s not either/or, there has to be that balance so that we protect the country and also protect civil liberties.” Though he appears to contradict himself in this statement (it’s not a balance, it is a balance), I read this as a contrast between two different concepts of balance. On the one hand, “balance” could mean the average of two extremes, an either/or; on the other hand, “balance” could mean a dynamically-adjusting continuum (the kind of balancing done, for example, by an audio equalizer or an electrical resistor). What Clapper is arguing, I think, is that the “balance” the government must strike is of the latter type, not the former type. Mitchell’s follow-up reinforces this reading. She says, paraphrasing President Obama, “You can’t have a 100% security and then you have 100% privacy and then 0% inconvenience.” Security and freedom/privacy are not absolutes or binary opposites; rather, they’re like asymptotes or limits on a continuum, limits that you can approach but never reach.

According to this model of balance, the most just approach is the one that finds the sweet spot, or, in Clapper’s language, “the exact tipping point” in which both freedom and security are maximized without one pushing the other beyond the point of diminishing returns (the Boston Marathon bombings are the example Clapper cites of diminishing returns).

This language is echoed in Ludacris’s song and video “Rest of My Life.” I’ve written about this here, but the tl;dr is: the image of a cresting wave captures the ideal of maximizing risk and reward, a life pushed to its limits, or, what I call elsewhere, “living on the edge of burnout.” The lyrics constantly evoke this ideal:

…What the hell is a life worth living if it’s not on the edge

…Tryin to keep my balance, I’m twisted, so just in case I fall/written on my

tombstone should be ‘women, weed, and alcohol

…I go for broke…I’m willing to bet…

So if balance is the ideal, how is it achieved? Clapper argues that the best way to preserve the balance between individual freedom and state security is “to be as precise as we can be” in selecting “what we actually need to ‘read’.” In this view, a just society is one that most accurately filters the signal (useful information, or information whose use reaps a profit) from the noise (information that’s not profitable, info with too high an opportunity cost). This echoes Nate Silver’s argument in his book about big data, The Signal And The Noise. “Information is no longer a scarce commodity; we have more of it than we know what to do with. But relatively little of it is useful…We have to be terribly selective about the information we choose to remember” (34/26 of Kindle version). Filtering signal from noise (“the truth” from “what distracts us from the truth,” Silver 35) is, according to Silver, the epistemological, social, and ethical problem facing us today.

Ok, so, filtering. But what are the filters? But Clapper and Silver suggest utility as a filter. But that just pushes the question back: useful for whom, and in what way? In the end, it all depends on the end balance you want to achieve. Think back to the audio equalizer example: some equalizers let you choose among different acoustic profiles–rock arena, concert hall, etc. In social and political terms, these profiles might be something like the relative distribution of wealth, whiteness, vulnerability, health, etc. In other words, you can strike a balance that distributes risk and rewards at specific levels for specific populations. For example, it is now common for US government policy to distribute risk to individuals and rewards to corporations (e.g., bailouts for banks but not borrowers). Stop-and-frisk and stand your ground laws are other examples: risk is distributed to people of color, reward (security, survival) to white citizens and to the state/police. We choose the filters that produce the distribution of risk and reward (i.e., the social profile) that is most beneficial to society’s powerful and privileged groups. So, this concept of “balance” isn’t really about protecting individual rights, liberties, or privacy; rather, it’s about maintaining the overall mix or balance of relationships that allow society to function at maximum efficiency and productivity. (This is why, as Jenny notes in her above-linked post, that at the individual level this ideal of balance is really only an ethical imperative for privileged elites–a well-balanced society maximizes the capacities of its most privileged members. For this overall balance to work, oppressed groups need to live relatively “unbalanced” lives, lives that can never really get ahead.) This means that “privacy” as an individual liberty is more or less a red herring–it distracts us from the real focus and intent of contemporary ideology and practice.
Robin is on twitter as @doctaj.