Privacy Pt 1: Youth Wants To Know

UC Berkeley Sit-in with scattered nudity
Discussion of privacy on the Internet, and, in particular, in social media, hit a local maxima a short time ago in the nym wars on Google+ against a background of increasing public concern.  Pronouncement by pundits and officials, some informed and most ignorant, rocks steadily on. None of that had pushed me to add my 2 cents to the mix.

What finally took me over the edge was hearing yet another 20 year old explain that his generation doesn’t have the same concern for privacy that we old folks so quaintly maintain. The implication is that, because they’re from a younger generation, the young are better adapted to current conditions.

There is another possible explanation, however. It follows.

First, let me get my on geezer persona.

Allen Ginsberg's Exorcism of the Pentagon

Now there, youngsters, I’m from a generation that routinely showed up naked in public and engaged in such low profile activities as chanting to levitate the Pentagon. This was dropped onto an America barely emerging from the 50’s and massively less receptive to living publicly. Nudity was performance art aimed at letting some sunlight into the cloister.

Allow me to assure you that my concerns are not an attachment to some arbitrary, bygone, meaningless convention like, for example, not ending a sentence with a preposition. They are, instead, the result of years of observation and balanced analysis…primarily of the government. More on that later.

You kids may have a different concept of the value of privacy but that concept is not different from the concept I held as a kid. Experience, one of a few advantages of aging, has made me wiser.

I’d argue that privacy concerns come down, not to how you feel about living in public, but how you feel about powerful institutions– governmental organizations, primarily, but any institution large enough to have significant information gathering resources–being able to have easy access to your life’s details.

I think providing that access is dangerous.

Rather than get into point/counter-point or personal biography, I’d like to perform a thought experiment.

Draw a axis of government benignity. Start in, say, Amsterdam and end in Pyongyang. Route it through 6 or 8 cities you think span the spectrum of openness. (Let’s pick Berlin, Beijing, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Moscow, San Francisco, Tehran, Istanbul, and London for the purposes of this experiment.) Put them on the axis wherever you think they belong. Now, imagine yourself in living a Amsterdam. Assume you and your tribe share thoughts, interesting books and websites, music, purchases, shops and restaurants via a social media or two. Sometimes you flirt; sometimes you trade ideas and opinions; sometimes you blow off steam.

(Exclude for the purposes of this experiment the information streams created by your cell phone and credit card.)

Move the slider along until having all that information public becomes a significant threat to your well-being…until you cross a line where your behavior is now suspect and where simultaneously you have revealed who you associate with and much of your daily routine. If you get comfortably all the way to Pyongyang, you need to get a life. Commonly you’re in danger of loss of income, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, or disappearance at some point midway along the line for any of multiple reasons.

Of course, you say, you’re not in Pyongyang but near Amsterdam on the line…safe perhaps in San Francisco with me, and these concerns aren’t appropriate. Or are they?

At issue? These media are primarily built here but deployed globally. What seems benign locally becomes a tool for the police state with a slight shift of context. Regardless of local comfort, our systems would better be measured on a global yardstick.

Specifically, as the creators, early adopters, critics and evangelists for these systems, we have responsibility to take predictable consequences quite seriously as we design, create, implement, and sell. We are building history, brick by brick, and broad current flow through us and our shapings.

We need to take that seriously.

At least now and then.

It will be of general benefit if we lay down cover for our brothers and sisters that are under genuinely under siege. Perhaps they want to practice Qi Kung in Beijing or discuss their Armenian heritage in Istanbul…or draw political cartoons in Amsterdam.

The issues aren’t necessarily easy to engineer. We need to wrestle, for example, with the interface between criminality and dissent, and the interplay of persona and authenticity. But it’s up to us to do that rather than ignore complexity and the likely paths into the future. I have some ideas that might help in this discussion. Probably you do, too.

I’m urging us to design and discuss privacy in a wider scope–spatially, temporally, morally–and remove it from a discussion of personal preference.

In Brian Eno’s terms, we need to think in a broader here and a longer now.

Privacy Pt 2: Python Politics: the Economics of Knowledge Accumulation
Privacy Pt 3: Is there an Engineer in the house?

PS – A few notes in passing.

The US is not necessarily a safe haven.

Consider http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/23/washington/23habeas.html?ref=us in light of the recent National Defense Authorization Act. Or police raids to preemptively undermine protests at the 2008 Republican convention: http://www.salon.com/2008/08/30/police_raids/

You may not be a Judi Bari (they arrest you and search everywhere you hang out after someone bombs your car) or organizing widespread protest in Minneapolis (the show up the week before and take all your stuff) but note: systems integration is changing the game for law enforcement everywhere. It might not be J edGar Hoooover you need to worry about but some local middle-aged portly DA with too tight shoes, a sullen teenager, a nasty mortgage, and a depressed spouse that’s pissed off because some 20 year old is driving a car that costs his yearly salary

Finally, here’s a bit of gratuitous Chuang Tzu – the topic is gathering up treasures for thieves : http://oaks.nvg.org/zhuangzi10-.html

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