Tag Archives: transparency

Privacy, Ephemerality, and Self @ Tedxsoma

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.

Wikileaks: No Substitute for Transparency

I’ve been disagreeing with a lot of people about transparency recently, and even though it’s kind of going out of fashion on the edge of my community, I’m still going to stand up for the principle. Transparency, real and true, is a good thing for many reasons. It’s not magic fairy pixie dust that makes the world a wonderful place, and anyone who sold it as such needs to do their historical homework. What is does it complex, important, but not sexy enough for many activists.

What a lot of people commenting on the debate about government transparency don’t get is that it’s not just about the information. Action always has an inherent politics to it; publishing data about itself is as much about telling government how it’s supposed to behave as it is about the data. Even if you’re wildly juking the stats, you’re at least communicating to yourself how different things should be. The action involved in transparency is the action of telling on yourself. No matter how subverted, two things remain true: you know that you should be doing better, and you’re going to accidentally expose incidental truths.

My least favorite argument about transparency is that it breeds complacency. This is an argument from a position of tremendous privilege that comes from forgetting why we fight corruption in the first place. It is always the case that corruption costs; right now it is taking a terrible price on a real and growing segment of the population which the corrupt entity is meant to serve. You can only forget the proximate hurt if you’re someone in a position to forget it, someone with money, health insurance, the right travel options. Someone with good schools, and probably, it’s easiest to forget the day to day cost of corruption in America as someone with white skin. Without transparency threatened populations have to take up common myths about why they are in the situation they are in. In short, they blame themselves. Not only are they the victims of corruption, but when it’s not discussed, they’re the victims of believing they’ve brought the situation on themselves. If you want a complacent population, ruining their lives and then getting them to believe they did it themselves is a pretty good way to start.

But this is a post at least partly about Wikileaks, and how what they do isn’t transparency. People keep bandying that word around and mixing up the two, and I want to disentangle them. Because it’s not only incorrect, it’s harmful. What they do is akin to whistle blowing, which serves a wholly different function. Leaks and whistle blowing are about arresting a malignantly broken institution. They are about appealing to a higher authority to step in and by force change the behavior of an organization so dangerously off the rails that it’s incapable of self-correction. It’s a place beyond where the gentler tool of transparency can help. This is the problem with leaking government secrets as well– there’s no higher authority to step in. (And no, the electorate doesn’t count. Sorry, but if it did, things we wanted might get done a bit more often.)

When we call for transparency we’re calling for a mindset. We’re calling on the government that ostensibly serves us to trust us, to treat us like adults. We’re calling on them to engage in an act of self reflection on a cultural level. Stealing their diary and putting it on a website might be needed sometimes, but it’s no substitute for the kind of cultural change we’re after. Leaks are not transparency. They are haphazard and adversarial, they do something completely different. They can often undermine the cultural conversations about transparency.

Transparency is about institutions talking to themselves by talking to the world. The changes it makes are slow, tiny, and not very rewarding, especially next to the wild splash of leaks. Transparency is a frustrating battle, but in the end it has much more ability to change a culture than whistle blowing, at least without a ultra-cop to step in. Government transparency is about telling ourselves who we’re supposed to be, and in the frustratingly long run, that will do more to shape who we become.

What makes a high order primate click a submit button

TransparencyCorps, with which I am currently obsessed, isn’t interesting because it’s crowdsourcing. There’s been plenty of that, even from the Sunlight Foundation (Creators of TransparencyCorps.org). Among their past hits were Where are they now? which tracked the staffer/rep to lobbyist revolving door, and EarMarkWatch which employed Sunlight’s thousands of screaming fans to watch earmarks. TransparencyCorps is interesting because it’s about doing the task rather than the specific goal of the task. When you log in you are presented with various projects which you can apply your boundless, or at least NP friendly, intelligence to, that we might make a better government and better world.

Also they give you points, and if you have the most points you get listed on a leaderboard. This concept of the identity resting with being part of a community that does the action (in this case the Corps) rather than the goal of the action (Get those earmarks watched!) seems powerfully important to me. In the online world it has most in common with the stated inspiration for the Corps, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. But psych studies would suggest an important difference: the turk is ruined by money. Social psychology studies have consistently shown that tasks people will enthusiastically do because they enjoy them lose their charm as soon as the people doing the tasks get paid for them. Being paid once can actually take away the pleasure forever.

What is this magic currency that is a disappearing polymorph in the presence of money? And why does TransparencyCorp have it in spades? Partly I think it’s the chance to beat the bastards in politics, to catch them at their game. Since their game is about corruption and money, it makes sense that introducing money dilutes the fierce sense of freedom that arises out of finding a web form that finally lets you stick it to The Man. In this case the disappearing polymorph is outrage.

But there’s more. When you hit done, another page comes up, subtly asking for another. Everything hints at stories. Who are these people? What are their lives like? In the case of earmarks, what do they want the money for, and how much is it? Given that there isn’t really a goal beyond ‘be part of the corps’ you’re free to wander mentally around what it all means. As Clay Johnson of Sunlight said, one of the reason people keep pressing the button is that “Everyone wants to be the person that finds the next bridge to nowhere.”

I predict stickiness, and a community that will grow up if Sunlight lets it, because there’s about four ways in which this set up is designed to make little primate brains go whir.

Participatory Bureaucracy

I’ve been playing with Transparency Corps, which I would like to write about. Besides being intriguing it would make my time marking up earmarks in the system research time rather than distraction from work.

It’s an interesting experience doing the earmark project, wherein you, the human, transcribe the vital data on earmark letters for the thousands of mysteriously funded projects that roll down the hill unto the masses. I am terrified of getting something wrong, and I already have once, but have no way of fixing it. Alas.

It’s nice to think of Sunlight getting all this civically-minded mechanical turk data, I’m almost more interested in the people, who, like me, are suddenly poking their noses in and wondering what these occult bit of government actually do. You simply cannot transcribe these earmarks without thinking about them. Some of them look like damn good ideas. Some of them seem just a bit off. Scariest, some of them so obviously have not been thought about by any human being between the requester and you- completely sliding through the government system in a form letter of appropriations. (Also, what the hell is with none of these earmarks giving funding amounts? )

Go to transparencycorps.org, sign up, and try out a few earmarks. For a boring task, it’s a pretty interesting experience.