I gave a talk on privacy on Friday for Tedxsoma. I deviated from my notes a great deal, as this was a new talk for me. But here’s my talk, as written:
In my reading of history, this is the first time we’ve had to deal with the issues around privacy and openness that we’re dealing with today. My work largely deals with human identity- by which I don’t mean your driver’s license or your website logins, I mean the stories you tell yourself and others about who you are, what matters to you, and consequently what you can and will do.
I don’t have answers. In fact, hopefully by the time I’m done with this talk you’ll have fewer answers than you have now, but your questions will be more interesting.
Often when we talk about these issues, we use the idea of private information and secrets interchangeably. They’re not the same thing. Secrecy is a technical implementation, and therefore approachable with technology and policy. Privacy is, and always has been, a social norm.
Secrets are mostly boring. When we talk about identity theft, we’re talking about people stealing secret numbers for the most part. No one steals your identity, not really. No one is going to start telling people that they have a love of manga but never really like their mother’s cooking because they stole an identity of someone who loves Akira but really can’t take any more of that meatloaf.
Privacy is different. It often has emotional content, and we share private information, we want to and need to, but we also want control over who sees it.
This is the epitome of a private, but not secret, event, the height of the social construction of privacy. It’s an AA meeting. There’s no security to ensure secrecy, but the promise of private camaraderie allows people to talk about incredibly personal things. In fact, any technical enforcement would be destructive to the complex private/social magic that makes something like AA possible.
But I found a picture of that meeting on the net. It’s the control of privacy which we’re losing right now. The net is architecturally incapable of respecting social norms. Its default behavior could largely be described as save everything, transmit upon request. It’s like we have the universe’s biggest Asperger’s peering over our shoulder remembering everything we do. The biggest loss of privacy the net visits on us is the loss of the fourth dimension of privacy, ephemerality. Our ability to forget is key to how we form our identities and change over time. Our ability to forget what someone has done is key to letting them change, and learning to trust them. The net doesn’t forget, and it doesn’t talk less about our past as we go through time. It remembers and keeps all our previous selves ready at all times.
Weirdly, there’s some great benefits to that. The power of positive affinity networking turns out to improve our quality of life so much that it’s worth losing privacy over. Our ways of building intimacy and trust are moving from the shared secret to time and attention, and to shared media. We are encouraged to open up more, and we see the edges of our homophilies- we’ve never seen that. We even have a growing idea that living in homophily might be bad for us and the human race. That very notion is about as strange and new as anything we built in the 20th century.
We all need to lie sometimes, even if it’s lies of omission. We all need to have our own business to mind, and to not mind other people’s. Minding your own business is the greatest social lubricant ever.
It’s arguable that every vulnerable population put into proximate danger by the loss of privacy might also have its vulnerability reduced over time by exposure. And in fact, that was my biggest hope about a society that loses privacy. I wanted to think that a world where everyone knew everyone’s business, what everyone had been and done, that would be a world in which tolerance was cognitively enforced, were we had to learn to get along with people different from us.
That’s what I want to be true about humans, but I don’t know about that anymore. Why I don’t think that doesn’t works can be well described by the no true scotsman fallacy, which goes like this: (Explanation of the No true Scotsman fallacy) Because of our ability to rationalize, which serves us so beautifully elsewhere, a society of transparency will never lead to a universal tolerance. It’s simply different when I do it than when you do, whatever it is.
In 2007, partly in a fit of pique, I deleted myself off the internet. I took down my blog, deleted my Livejournal, canceled my Twitter account, made my old webpages non-readable, and with the exception of my Flickr account, I went dark. You could certainly google me, but you’d only really find other people talking about me, about things I’d done and said. I, myself, was a ghost in the internet archive.
When I did it I remember thinking, the grown up thing to do here is to sleep on it. But I didn’t want to, I had the energy and the will and I just wanted to do it before I lost the momentum. Some moments in life are like that. And when it was done, I felt like I could breathe deeper. I have never for a moment in the last three years regretted it.
I had been writing about my life online since 1994, when I put up my first webpage. I had gone through relationships, friendships, the death of my father, the birth of my daughter, the beginning of my marriage, and its end. A peripatetic career path that ranged from sys admin to school teacher to stand up comic. I took the net with me through it all, musing about love, technology, the people I met and the places I went. Lost dreams and high hopes.
When it went dark friends called to make sure I wasn’t going to kill myself. I told them I was fine, in some ways I felt better than I had in years.
I didn’t do it to reclaim what people normally seem to mean by privacy. I did it because my personal life had become a performance piece, and I didn’t want that much personal life anymore.
I did it out of a profound need to just be boring for a while. I had felt your eyes on me for years, and I had decided you could get your kicks elsewhere. I needed to be someone different. I have come to realize in the time since that I was doing the net’s best equivalent of moving away to start again. I was reclaiming the ephemeral in order to change the self. But I also did that at the cusp of it being possible- the privacy that time affords us is slipping away.
the room to grow and change hasn’t been common in human history. we have a model for the ephemeral and anonymous aspect of privacy diminished by small town life. There you are- consider the role of urban vs small town in modern and even somewhat in pre-modern life. Ee have a long standing story of going to the city to get the privacy we need to change as people. We go to the city to be anonymous, so no one knows about us and we aren’t tied to our past. It was even codified into the law about serfs in England at one point: a year and a day on the run unbound you from the land. That’s enabled a lot of great art and science in the time since we started having cities. But what if your small town is stapled to you forever, everywhere you go? Does that disrupt the velocity of culture? A friend of mine said to me the other day “everyone growing up in this society has a practical education in brand management.” I think that’s too much to ask of our children. I think that’s a bad new social norm.
I think maybe the better answer looks a little like personal space. We don’t enforce laws on when we’re allowed to touch each other. We learn and socially enforce that. And perhaps we need to learn not to ask questions we don’t want the answer to, so that we may give each other permission to be strange and grow and change with time.