Thursday, December 3, 2009

Say goodbye to your privacy - and perhaps good riddance?

The Greek media is awash with news of an appointee of the newly elected government that was fired only a week after his appointment due to posts he made on Facebook on election night criticizing the party. People are wondering - is it fair and just to fire someone for expressing a personal opinion on a public, but restricted, social networking site when he is otherwise perfectly qualified for the job?

This is far from being a Greek phenomenon. Stories abound of people getting fired or refused work due to Facebook updates or blog posts. Even 5 years ago, most people never published anything. These days everybody's a prolific published author of one sort or another. Photos, status updates, tweets, blog posts, comments - most of us provide a constant stream of information to the world at large.

George Orwell got it wrong. When he saw television he thought, what if you could transmit as easily as you could receive? But his thinking was still trapped in the centralised model of old media. The Internet does allow anyone to be published, but it doesn't go via any central choke point - in fact, it's exactly because it doesn't suffer from centralised control that it allows this. Orwell saw a totalitarian regime forcing people to share their private lives with a central authority - ironically, today regimes are scrambling to find ways to stop people from sharing their stuff, and finding it increasingly difficult, even impossible to do so.

Remember, this technology is still in its infancy. It's not going to be long before we have the storage capacity and network bandwidth to record - and transmit - full, 3D, high-definition video and audio of every moment of our lives. Will we have a choice? Probably. But which choice will we make? In the end, nobody took our privacy away, we gave it away willingly because we yearn to communicate and share.

Sceptical? 10 years ago I still knew a lot of people who swore they'd never get a mobile phone. Just look at them now.

Our kids will probably not even understand the concept of privacy, and the irony is that it won't be Big Brother that will take it from them by force, it will be themselves that give it up. Us old codgers will whine and express outrage at what we perceive as the loss of our God-given privacy, but I doubt a generation raised in a world of ubiquitous networking will even know what the hell we're talking about. The question is not if, but how this will change our society.

The pessimist view is not hard to come by, nor is it hard to understand. We're all obsessed with our public image, and the more public our lives are - politicians, athletes, entertainers, what have you - the more we try to hide behind a veneer of respectability.

And yet... maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kind of guy, and believe me when I say I share most people's fear of living my life on public record as much as the next guy, but maybe it's not such a bad thing after all. Maybe, just maybe, putting yourself out there will help people understand you more, and help you understand - and accept - others more. We pride ourselves in living in a society where someone can be openly gay, openly secular, openly communist, openly critical of the government and just generally open and honest about their preferences, actions, opinions and beliefs, but we're far from being truly tolerant. Yes, you're not going to be thrown in jail for being any of these things, but as we well know you might well lose your job, your friends, and you sure as hell aren't going to hold public office. Why? Because most people are still - for well understood, if not justifiable reasons - afraid of, even hostile to those who don't conform to their idea of normality.

Perhaps the pessimists are right. Perhaps our increasingly public lives will lead to more fear and oppression as we struggle to conform to this idea of normality in a world where we have little to no chance to be ourselves in private. But maybe, just maybe, if we can't be ourselves in private, we'll start being more comfortable being ourselves in public. Maybe when everyone - not just celebrities - lives in the spotlight, we'll learn to stop criticising and poking at every little detail of each other's lives and learn to accept each other for who we truly are.

Privacy? It's a notion on its way out. The question we have to ask ourselves is not how we can stop this - it's what good we can make of it.


  1. Totally agree. It's time we did away with privacy - the need for it is a vestige of the fear of unacceptability and inappropriateness. If we don't concede guilt for our preferences and lifestyle, social pressures will eventually subside. Gief true freedom!
    (Caveat: haven't thought through identity theft etc, but those are practicalities probably manageable in one way or another)

  2. Well put. I agree with everything you say about expressing yourself and your lifestyle, but when I'm on the 'net I'm mostly concerned about attempts to track me without my consent - a different kind of privacy.

    Probably no-one is interested in who I am, just in feeding my profile into a marketing contraption to show me relevant adverts. I was trying to work out why I think this is a problem, and realised I just don't like being treated impersonally or mined for information on the sly. I probably benefit from personalised advertising, but I feel like something has been taken from me without my consent. This isn't the same point you raised, but it's a privacy issue.

  3. Cf. etymology of "idiot":

    Social engagement and privacy are often at odds.