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Stephen Balkam

Stephen Balkam

Posted: August 23, 2010 05:29 PM

I'd like to share my private thoughts with you.

I have been thinking a lot about privacy and how we appear to be in one of those moments where we can actually experience a generational shift in real time. A bit like being at the base of a decades dormant volcano that chooses this moment to erupt, transforming itself and the slopes and fields around it. There's a lot of fire, smoke and fury and then things settle down, leaving behind fertile ground for new things to grow.

The forces of change are well known. The internet begot the web. The web gave birth to what we loosely call social networking. Then mobile devices not only got smart, but learned how to tell where in the world they were and to be able to broadcast that information to others. We got hooked playing silly games like Foursquare, becoming "mayors" of places by simply showing up more often than anyone else. So Woody Allen was right all along about the secret of success.

And then there's Facebook. At 500 million users, it's the third largest country in the world. Of course, it's not a country at all. More a staggeringly large state of mind that just got a lot more interesting with the launch of its own geolocation service, Places. Not only can you share what's on your mind, but you can pinpoint exactly where you're thinking and/or doing it. That thought-map can be instantly plotted by your "friends" and they can respond in kind - or rush over to the bar or gym or wherever you've just posted it from. You can check-in at a gathering and immediately tag others who are also there. Our friends can tag or point us out to others in their milieu - a way to increase the cohesiveness of a newly formed group or intrude on our privacy, depending on how you see it. (In the kids' game, Tag, one person is "it" and he or she tries to tag another to make them "it". With Places we're all "it".)

Most of the commentators who are getting very worked up about Places split into two camps that Adam Thierer describes as Internet Optimists and Pessimists . The Pollyannas cannot see what all the fuss is about. Geolocation services on social networking sites are just one more giant leap for Mankind as we ready ourselves for artificial intelligence, brain implants and The Singularity - when, among other wonders, machines become more intelligent than humans.

The techno-pessimists, on the other hand, wring their hands and cry out that we are heading down a slippery slope that threatens not only our privacy, but our ability to maintain control of our own lives and those of our children. Don't trust anyone under 30 - particularly not a particular Harvard drop-out and his cohorts when it comes to your personal information, they warn.

Then there's the issue of privacy itself. Richard, now Lord, Allan, a former Member of Parliament and now Facebook's European policy director, makes an interesting case that before the dawn of mass transit, there was next to no such thing as privacy. Folks lived in close, tight-knit communities where everyone knew each other and their actions and there was little presumption of personal space or information. Perhaps we are morphing both back and fast forward to a time where we live in a continual state of near-intimacy with our friends and friends of friends. New technology tends to disrupt and upset. Location-based social networking is just the latest manifestation of an upsetting trend that began with the wheel and has rolled on ever since.

As for me, I tend to put myself in the pragmatic optimist camp - happy to see technology's progress, while steering clear of Matrix-like prophesies. My guess is that we won't know how Places and other similar services will play out or what will emerge from their widespread use. Then, as with GPS in cars, it will become obvious and indispensable.

In the meantime, we need to remain vigilant and wary of how private companies gather and aggregate our private thoughts and actions. We must keep a special eye on controls and the means by which we can keep younger users from over sharing and by having their information and whereabouts abused by others. And we must continue to strive for that ever elusive sense of balance in our lives between our face-to-face interactions and those we engage with online. Between the time spent in front of screens and the time spent powered down, in reflection, in nature, in the moment.

So, with all that in mind, let's embrace this crazy ride. Let's not fall into panic over privacy the way some in the media did over predator-fear. We may not yet know what technology wants, but I'm certain we can handle it. There, perhaps now I've over shared.

 

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