The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part One of that series.
Since I co-authored a book on Privacy and the Internet 15 years ago I've been writing about how to manage the various threats to the security and control of our personal information. But today I find myself in a completely unexpected discussion. A growing number of people argue that the notion of having a private life in which we carefully restrict what information we share with others may not be a good idea. This view goes beyond the famous aphorism of Scott McNealy, the erstwhile Sun Microsystems CEO who in 2000 stated "You have zero privacy anyway get over it." The new view holds that we should all be more forthcoming in sharing intimate, personal information with others, and that this would benefit us individually and society as a whole.
This is not a fringe movement. The proponents of this view are some of the smartest and most influential thinkers and practitioners of the digital revolution.
Jeff Jarvis, in a thoughtful book Public Parts, makes the case for sharing and he practices what he preaches. We learn about everything from details of his personal income to his prostate surgery and malfunctioning penis. He argues that because privacy has its advocates, so should "publicness." "I'm a public man" says Jarvis. "My life is an open book." And he provides elaborate evidence on why this has been enormously positive effect on his life, arguing that if everyone where more like him the world would be a better place. He concludes that while sharing should be a personal choice, privacy regulation should be avoided because it's more likely to prematurely undermine the benefits of sharing than to prevent the dangers.
Facebook is the leading social media that promotes information sharing, and part of the company's mission is to "make the world more open." In the book The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick explains that Facebook executives think transparency is not just an opportunity for companies and other institutions to disclose pertinent information. They believe it's an opportunity for individuals to do so as well.
The Facebook founders believe that "more visibility makes us better people. Some claim, for example, that because of Facebook, young people today have a harder time cheating on their boyfriends or girlfriends. They also say that more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things." Some at Facebook refer to this as Radical Transparency -- a term initially used to talk about institutions, and now being adapted to individuals. In other words, everyone should have just one identity, whether at their workplace or in their personal life.
Other influential thought leaders like Tim O'Reiley (he coined the term Web 2.0) or Steward Brand (author of the Whole Earth Catalogue) defend an individual's right to privacy. But they argue that the benefits of sharing personal information are becoming so beneficial to each of us and so widespread that we need to shift the discussion from what to share, to how to ensure the information we share is used appropriately. Says Brand "I'd be totally happy if my personal DNA mapping was published." Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Esther Dyson is an investor in the personal genetics startup 23andMe. She has made her personal genome public.
Stanford Professor Andreas Weigend, who was former Chief Scientist at Amazon.com, says that "the notion of privacy began with the creation of cities, and it's pretty much ended with Facebook." He says "our social norms are changing."
It may very well be that our fundamental ideas about identity and privacy, the strategies that we have collectively pursued, and the technologies that we have adopted, must change and adapt in a rapidly evolving world of connectivity, networking, participation, sharing, and collaboration. But this will take a long time and in the meantime there are many challenges and even dangers.
To be sure, the digital technologies in general and social media in particular are providing new benefits to sharing personal information, and not just from getting more birthday wishes. There is a real upside to participating in communities, seeing photos, hearing stories or knowing the location of friends and family. Sharing also helps companies deliver personalized products and services. It can improve advertising, as we are targeted for products and services that correspond to our interests. If you live in an apartment block you won't see ads on Google or Facebook for lawn mowers.
When we reveal personal information we can help society too. Every time a gay person comes out, or someone with depression opens up about their condition they break down stigma and prejudice. Fully 20 percent of all patents with the fatal disease ALS share intimate information about their treatments and conditions on the network PatientsLikeMe.com. And tens of thousands of others with rare diseases who use that web site report that sharing has helped them better manage their illness.
But it is important to understand the extraordinary volumes of data being generated and how this will increase exponentially in the near future. In the course of a day, we currently generate the same amount of data as had been captured since the beginning of history up to the year 2003. Much of this is information attached to individuals. Our digital footprints and shadows are being gathered together, bit by bit, megabyte by megabyte, terabyte by terabyte, into personas and profiles and avatars - virtual representations of us, in thousands of locations.
But this availability of personal information isn't just something that is being done to the public, it is also being done by the public. Many of us are willing accomplices in dissolving our own privacy rights, in exchange for new services, conveniences, and efficiencies. Before Facebook arrived, few would have predicted that hundreds of millions of people would voluntarily log on to the Internet and record detailed almost minute-by-minute data about themselves, their activities, their likes and dislikes, and so on. The degree of detail that a platform like Facebook gathers and will be able to gather about each of us is mind boggling.
Tomorrow's smartphones (or other personal appliances like sunglasses with a internal screen) will have a persistent connection to the Internet and record non-stop video and audio of everything going on around us. This might strike some people as bizarre. They wonder: "What could I do throughout the day that's so important that I would actually want to record it?" It's not unlike a question many people posed a couple of decades ago: "What's so important that I would need to carry a phone everywhere so people could reach me?" Today most people view their cell phones as essential survival gear.
Soon a manager could ask her personal recorder to retrieve the last five minutes of yesterday's meeting with a colleague when they agreed on action items. She'll transmit the video clip to her subordinates so they know what to do. Business people will archive meetings with associates or suppliers, so that if a dispute arises they can go back and prove they're right. Of course, since everybody knows everybody has a recording of the conversation, the dispute is less likely to arise in the first place.
Add to this the emerging "augmented reality" tools where you point your mobile device at the street and it gives you real-time information about the world around you. For augmented reality to work the device must know precisely where you are and have a detailed understanding of what interests you. If you can annotate the physical world a plethora of new capabilities open up. For example when walking down the street and through the screen inside your sunglasses perhaps you can see the names and profiles of people you're meeting.
Lest you think managing all this data would be a nightmare, companies are already working to help ease the burden. Microsoft has a research program underway called MyLifeBits. The program digitizes, catalogues and retrieves every conceivable scrap of information about your own life that you could want, such as photos, rock concert tickets and wedding invitations. It acts as a surrogate memory.
Google has a similar idea. Having tamed the Internet, the company sees the management and retrieval of the massive amounts of data each person will soon generate as an enormous business opportunity. Their software will run in the background on our recorders, automatically archiving the constant flow of video and audio. You simply ask for an image of the person who sat beside you at a dinner party a year ago and it will appear. Or you could ask for the sweater you saw in a store last week, or where you parked the car. Just like cell phones, we will soon wonder how we ever got along without our smartphone digital assistants.
Consider the implications of Apple's soon to be improved product SIRI. You digital assistant knows more than what you're searching or surfing. It knows and collects detailed information about your behavior, questions, intents and issues you face in daily life.
Surely this world of wonderful new capability raises some deep concerns about a dark side.
Next up: "To Share or Not to Share?"
Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott.