“It is well established that digital privacy exists only at the discretion of the companies that mediate our online engagement,” writes Sue Halpern in our 60th Anniversary Issue. “But what happens when those companies, an employer, school administrators, or the government has access to our thoughts—or what they interpret to be our thoughts—before they are articulated or shared? What if they can ‘see’ into our brains?” The question, as Halpern demonstrates, isn’t far-fetched. Already, Apple has patented sensors that can be installed in earbuds in order to track brain wave activity, while a company by the name of BrainCo has sold electroencephalogram headsets to schools in China “to track student engagement.”
Since 1988, Halpern has written more than sixty articles for The New York Review. Her frequent subject is the intersection of technology, privacy, and the law, but she has also focused on, among many other topics, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women’s rights around the world, Warren Buffett, and the meaning of happiness. This week I e-mailed with her to ask about the concept of “cognitive liberty,” privacy, and what makes a good essay.
Eve Bowen: In “The Bull’s-Eye on Your Thoughts,” you write about the concept of “cognitive liberty” and how it relates to the fields of neurotechnology and big data psychiatry. It’s a term I wasn’t familiar with until I read your essay. What does it mean, and why did you want to write about it?
Sue Halpern: To be honest, I didn’t know I was going to write about cognitive liberty, which is, among other things, the right to control our thoughts and the data generated by our brains. I was drawn to The Battle for Your Brain, by Nita Farahany, because I’m interested in the many ways tech companies have used us to acquire the data that powers their businesses, and neural data seemed like the next frontier. The idea that tech companies have access to our thoughts sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Without legal protections—of which there are very few—our brain activity will be fair game for data miners and anyone willing to buy their services.
You’ve written a lot about privacy and the Internet over the years, and in this essay you observe, “Rights do not protect us from ourselves if we are willing to waive them.” But it often feels as though we don’t have a choice—as you point out, our digital privacy “exists only at the discretion of the companies that mediate our online engagement.” How are we supposed to navigate this situation? How do you do it in your own life, and do you have any recommendations for the rest of us?
You have just asked one of the great questions of the twenty-first century! Ever since we became “the product,” we’ve been trading vast amounts of personal data for the privilege of engaging online. It had gotten to the point where most of us were inured to this, though when ChatGPT emerged suddenly in the public imagination over the past year or so, and people found out that it and other large language models had been trained on our social media posts, our magazine articles, our books and other written material, there was a moment or two of outrage—there have been lawsuits—and then a creeping resignation to the fact that we had lost control to the tech companies long ago. Short of abandoning social media—which is getting easier and easier to do—and using apps that have strong encryption, it’s just really hard to escape the surveillance economy. There are ways to do it, but they come at the cost of walling oneself off from the culture at large.
You’ve been writing for The New York Review for thirty-five years—more than half its lifetime! How did you first get started as a writer, and how did those early essays for the Review come about?
One of my good friends in college kept telling me I needed to meet his mom. I wasn’t so sure—Barbara Epstein was the storied editor of The New York Review, which intimidated me. At some point, though, Barbara invited me to lunch, and we hit it off. Later, she asked if I’d be interested in working for her at the Review. I went to the office, which was then in the Fisk Building on West 57th Street, to talk to her about it, and by the end of the meeting she told me that I shouldn’t work for her, I should write for her.
It took a while to get up the nerve to suggest something. My first piece was about disability, because I was a part of a working group that was advising the MTA about ways of making public transit accessible. (Some of our recommendations, like kneeling buses and curb cuts, were gradually adopted.) I was one of the few able-bodied members of that group, and I learned that to the disability community people like me were TABS—temporarily able-bodied: “It means that someday, perhaps not too long off, our bodies will begin to fail.” It’s how I began the piece.
I loved writing it and loved getting edited by Barbara, and when it was on its way to the printer, she asked me what I wanted to do next, and it went from there. Some of the time I suggested subjects, and some of the time she did. After Barbara died—and, remarkably, she edited the last piece we did together just a few days before she passed—it was the same with her coeditor, Bob Silvers.
Some of your earliest essays for the Review were on subjects you’ve come back to in various ways over time: disability, abortion rights, poverty, memory, urban wildlife, and so much more. It seems to me that issues of choice or choicelessness often come up—even when you’re writing about the New Jersey Meadowlands or hawks in Central Park, as in the essay “Fresh Air Blues”: “Nature, while seemingly obdurate, asserts itself precisely because it has no choice.” What drew you to these subjects originally, and why do you keep coming back to them?
I wish I could say that there is a through line connecting all of these diverse subjects, but there isn’t. I’ve had the great good luck—thanks in large part to Barbara and Bob and their legacy—of being able to follow my interests and passions as they arise. But some of these subjects do segue into each other: abortion and privacy, for example, or privacy and the Internet. One of the great benefits of writing for the Review is being given free rein to explore subjects that have captured my imagination, rather than focusing on a single topic or two. It’s like being in a lifelong graduate seminar on just about everything.
One particular essay of yours that caught my attention years ago, “The War We Don’t Want to See,” brought together a surgical textbook, a miniseries, a pair of documentary films, and a book of reportage to discuss the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On other occasions you’ve written about a novel and a memoir together, or a film and a book. How do you identify these combinations, and what do they allow you to explore that might not be possible otherwise?
I do like mixing media because it lets me explore a subject in a more dimensional way than if I focused solely on written work. Someone had sent me that surgical textbook, and it was graphic and disturbing, showing with dispassionate intensity the cost of war. I wanted to write about it, but it needed context, which is why I turned to firsthand accounts of the war wherever I found them. So much about the kind of work we do at The New York Review is about making connections between ideas, between events, between writers and other creators. When I am thinking about writing a piece, or when I’m writing it, I’m often looking for those connections. And I’m not the only one. I remember working on a piece about labor conditions at a factory in China that made Apple products when Bob called and suggested I go see an off-Broadway show because it might be relevant.
I tend to think of you first and foremost as a nonfiction critic, but I know better. You’ve written quite a bit about fiction too—whether on the stories of William Maxwell or novels by Larry McMurtry and Kiran Desai. And you’ve written several novels yourself, including one for middle-grade readers, Introducing…Sasha Abramowitz, which I adore and am about to read with my ten-year-old. How does fiction fit into your life these days? What are you reading now, watching, listening to?
Writing fiction is how I entertain myself. Reading it, too. It’s often such a relief to inhabit a world that is not our grim world. I recently read Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Ann Napolitano’s Hello Beautiful, and loved them both. I also enjoy listening to audiobooks when I’m driving long distances—detective series by Anthony Horowitz and Charles Finch have been mainstays—though last year, when I was on assignment for The New Yorker in Arizona, reporting on efforts to suppress the Native American vote and driving from reservation to reservation, I listened to a fantastic recording of Middlemarch.
I find writing about fiction harder than writing about nonfiction. With fiction, you can’t—or shouldn’t—assume you know the author’s intent. You have to respect the work in front of you as the author has conceived it, not the work you wished they would have written or, worse, the work you would have written. It was a tremendous privilege to be asked to write about William Maxwell, and, this being The New York Review, I read all of his books before putting pen to paper. After the piece came out, I received a lovely note from Maxwell. It remains one of the highlights of my writing life.
I wrote Sasha because, when my daughter was eight, she asked me why I didn’t write anything she wanted to read. It was a good question, so I decided to try to write something that I hoped she’d want to read. I gave her the manuscript the day she graduated from elementary school. She gave me notes.