Privacy Disrupted

June 13, 2010

Privacy, to say the least, is a touchy subject and one that is widely misunderstood as the Web keeps expanding our ability to connect with each other. A hyperconnected culture wants to go one way, but our senses of community and self want to go another. We expect maximum transparency from those who want a piece of us but refuse to let go of even a speck of what we keep behind locked doors. This is an intriguing proposition and one that the culture seems reluctant to honestly discuss.

The discussion, however, is long overdue, for the very core of our understanding of privacy is being disrupted, and we're not going anywhere until we resolve it.

Let's begin with a review the cultural advances of the West and each's dominant mantra for human growth and understanding:

  • Premodern era, pre-Gutenberg: "I believe, therefore I understand."
  • Modern, industrial era, post-Gutenberg, pre-Internet: "I think (and reason), therefore I understand."
  • Postmodern, postcolonial, postindustrial era, post-Internet: "I participate, therefore I understand."

As new eras became entrenched in Western Civilization, they modified but didn't remove that which came before. However, the dominant cultural mantra shifted entirely, because the key transition point for each was the release of formerly protected knowledge into the hands of the masses. Gutenberg's Bible gutted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, prompting the famous quote, "The jewel of the elites is in the hands of the laity." The Internet is gutting the protected knowledge of the institutions that likewise govern culture today, and the result will be a vastly more participatory culture than history has ever known.

I have argued for years that the Age of Participation functions with different rules than the one it's replacing and that it's hard to understand how different the rules are, because we view them through modernist, top-down, command-and-control eyes. We have no choice, for the disruption is just now underway. I will never completely see that about which I write, but I have faith that my children will, perhaps in their old age. Between now and then, our culture will be at war with itself, because when a status loses its quo, there remain powerful remnants that will do everything in their power to make it otherwise.

The smart business person of today would do well to study 15th and 16th Century Western Europe for clues as to what to expect. I will say that until I am no longer able to speak.

Which brings me to the matter of privacy.

Mark ZuckerbergWhen Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg told Michael Arrington in an interview that the "age of privacy was over," he was immediately vilified as a naive zealot, at best. He said that if he were to build Facebook today, the default position would be that everything would be public. To Zuckerberg, it's because society is changing.

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

"A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change - doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it."

Most observers ripped Zuckerberg for his views, and Facebook has backed off since. However, Zuckerberg is absolutely correct, because a participatory culture cannot advance with modernist views of privacy. They are opposing forces that cannot be reconciled, and the collapse of the old view will be the biggest social change that future historians will note of the 21st Century.

Jeff JarvisJeff Jarvis has been exploring this matter for a new book. He sees the Facebook conflict a little differently:

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, itís public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

Jeff told me that his epiphany came while studying life in Western Europe after the printing press, when culture was first becoming aware of "publics." He's writing the book, because he wants to help people feel more comfortable with being public, and that's a big, but necessary undertaking. Why?

In Jay Rosen's seminal essay, "Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press," he speaks of our ability to connect horizontally and back "up" to the source, thereby weakening the authority of that source (I would argue any institutional source). The source doing the pronouncing is no longer the sole determiner of truth or reality about itself or what it promulgates, because hyperconnectivity spreads that authority omnidirectionally. We can see how this is disrupting media, but it will also disrupt privacy, because the same mechanism that disrupts one top-down or one-to-many paradigm disrupts them all. If transparency is required of the one, it is required of all, for the connections run in all directions.

We may not think of privacy as "top-down" or "one-to-many," but that's exactly what it is. It's that "sense of control" about which Jeff wrote, one deeply centered in self-awareness and driven, at least in part, by fear. It's our effort to control information about ourselves for our own benefit. We are the top; everybody else is the down. We are the one; everybody else is the many. "Everybody and everything else should be transparent, but not me." We want the authority that we're getting, but we want no part of any responsibility that comes with it. This will eventually have to change, and that will be culture's problematic quest for decades. "It's nobody else's business" is a lame intellectual argument in a hyperconnected universe. People want and need to be connected, and increasingly, we'll have to connect in order to participate in life, and at that point, one's business, in a sense, does become everybody's.

In real life, when a customer walks into a store, the proprietor can take one look and make a pretty good guess about many things relative to that customer, including sex, age, race, marital status, children, income level, and interests based on where he or she looks. Online, however, we want to be able to shield that same merchant from the basic data she could get in real life. Moreover, we bring with us a record of places we've previously visited, which, we think, might give the merchant an edge in dealings with us. But complaining that the merchant can "see" this baggage is chasing the wind, for the customer doesn't "own" the record of where he's been and neither does the merchant; it's simply a part of life in the transparent world of hyperconnectivity.

This is why all the political gab about behavioral targeting in online advertising is demagoguery for political gain. The fears being fanned are deeply based in cultural command-and-control.

What we fear is that the merchant will somehow know that we've just been to the sex shop down-the-street, and that would reflect badly, not on our character but on the false front we wish to project. The Web doesn't do so well with false fronts, and yet this is what we want so badly to protect. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the mask of anonymity. I don't think so.

So as Congress debates behavioral targeting, and the industries of media and advertising (they're the same, BTW) attempt to influence how it all comes out, perhaps a better use of our time would be in debating the core matters of privacy in a hyperconnected world. That, however, is a highly problematic exercise.

We can't know what genuine transparency would be like, because we live in an opaque world. To the fish, air is death. Our minds can't even comprehend omniscience, for the same mind that seeks all knowledge must give away what it has, and that is not exactly a human characteristic. We're in it for ourselves, every one of us. We want every piece of information about everybody else, yet we want to do so by keeping ourselves private. Omniscience demands that all knowledge be shared. Any thing else is intellectual dishonesty.

How on earth will we all agree to be transparent? Perhaps it will never happen, but at least we should be honest about it before dissing the debate.

We fear loss of privacyWe view every transparency issue through opaque eyes, so our assumptions about our data include umbrage at the mere suggestion that somebody else might have access to it. We want all the benefits of hyperconnectivity without paying even a snippet of the price. Is it not theft to demand transparency from those who serve us while hiding ourselves in a fortress?

We fear the loss of autonomy, and rightly so, but our fear comes, again, from this opaque view. What would some "power" do to/with us, if that power had everything about us in the palm of its hand? This is modernist dystopia, best evidenced by George Orwell in the book 1984. Big Brother had open access to everyone simultaneously, and used that power to crush individuality in favor of the totalitarian regime, The Party. The problem with this fear today is that it runs smack dab into Rosen's "Audience Atomization Overcome," for Orwell only saw connections up to and down from Big Brother.

Every time some new view of culture comes along, it is immediately judged and pigeonholed based on that which has already been. This is a modernist necessity, for to the logical mind, there is nothing new under the sun, only discovery. The creative mind is, in many ways, at enmity with the mind of reason, but both are allowed equal footing in the overarching all that is humanity. This itself is illogical, so "reasonable" people put themselves in charge.

The problem for us today is that it's no longer working. Industrial age ideas badly need replacement, but with what? Those same "reasonable" people want and need to drag us backwards, while others want to head in different directions. Who will decide? You can bet on one certainty for this century: as long as we're connected, we, the people, will decide. It can be no other way in the Age of Participation.

So is Mark Zuckerberg prescient or crazy? I think we need to listen to his views, but Zuckerberg also needs to be able to defend those theories and beliefs, which he heretofore hasn't done very well. He may, in fact, be on to something, but when he opens his mouth, it comes off as self-serving. We need to air the fears that we all have, but we must do so in an environment that doesn't automatically dismiss the unusual or distinct.

At the University of North Texas, where I teach an ethics class, I find young people much more amenable to openness than my generation, so the shift in how we view privacy — if it's ever going to happen — will likely take a couple of generations. Educating for the value of transparency against the cultural opaqueness of the industrial age isn't going to happen overnight. Slowly, but surely, however, it will come about, to one degree or another.

Many will judge this utter madness, but those judgments will come from logic and reason imbedded deep within the opaqueness of modernism's mantra of understanding. One day, historians will write that this served humankind well for generations, but that the quest for omniscience drove us elsewhere. Only then would war, hypocrisy and exploitation become remnants of an ancient past.

As Spock said to Captain Kirk before his death, "The good of the many outweighs the good of the one. It is logical."