THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Steven Strauss Headshot

The Claustrophobic Digital Village

Posted: Updated:
Shutterstock / Pitroviz
Shutterstock / Pitroviz

Privacy in the future will resemble that in a small village. As with any small community, dissent from the prevailing conventional wisdom will be easy to spot and punish. Welcome to the world of social conformity enforced by hashtags.

According to Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman of Google), in our digital present and future: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." For most of the 20th Century, our personal histories and actions could easily be hidden, particularly if you lived in a large urban area. Neighbors and colleagues would only know what you decided to disclose about your past and present. You could walk away from past behavior and social class, and reinvent yourself -- by a move from one city to another (or one country to another).

Those possibilities for reinvention -- or maturing in your views and behavior, without baggage from the past -- are disappearing. Pervasive rating and reputation systems record and punish bad behavior. And digital footprints follow us everywhere for our entire lives.

Transportation service Uber lets you rate the driver, but the driver also rates you (drunken misbehavior in an Uber car could affect that next ride). TripAdvisor provides consumer feedback on restaurants, among other things, in most major cities. So running a tourist trap (with high prices, bad food) will be an increasingly difficult business model. If you don't play nice on Ebay, or have been a bad (or good) guest/host at an Airbnb -- that will be noted. So Santa's not the only one with a list of who's been naughty or nice - it's increasingly anyone who does business with you.

But this isn't really new -- for most of recorded history, we lived in small villages with limited ability to reinvent ourselves. The 20th Century was the exception, not the norm, in human history. Traditionally most people lived, married and died within a few miles of where they'd been born, and everyone knew everyone else's business. Their pasts (and those of their friends and family members) remained with them all their lives -- just as our digital histories now follow us.

Some friends, living in an isolated town, find it idyllic in many ways. Residents are friendly, courteous and generously support each other in times of need. But that's largely because everyone knows and remembers who provided help and who didn't, and few actions remain hidden. Locals know which merchants are honest, and which you have to watch out for.

This snapshot of a small town reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses also found in the world of radical transparency. It will resemble life in a small intimate village, but on a global scale. Our future will be more polite and honest, but also duller. Few would consciously court the role of village fool, knowing embarrassing moments will follow anywhere in the world, for the rest of their lives.

In a small village, straying from political or social norms can be quickly crushed with boycotts or ostracism. Similarly, in a world with radical transparency, self-proclaimed thought police can quickly assemble a virtual mob to punish non-conformists.

The recent forced resignation of Mozilla's CEO (over a political contribution he made in 2008 to ban gay marriage) is a warning to us all. Our political contributions, blog posts, pictures or comments will be kept forever, and can be used against us when past views/actions aren't the currently accepted norm. Imagine the damage Senator Joseph McCarthy could have done if he'd had access to the Internet during his 1950's witch hunts for Communists. So before you contribute to Move-On.org (or the Tea Party), or to a pro-life (or pro-choice) advocacy group -- remember that your actions could be used against you if the accepted wisdom becomes a view you opposed.

In the future, we'll encounter fewer tourist traps on our vacations - in exchange for increased pressure for social and political conformity. Isn't technological progress grand?

Steven Strauss is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Immediately prior to Harvard, he was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Steven was one of the NYC leads for Applied Sciences NYC (Mayor Bloomberg's plan to build several new engineering and innovation centers in NYC), NYC BigApps and many other initiatives to foster job growth, innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2010, Steven was selected as a member of the Silicon Alley 100 in NYC. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University, and over 20 years' private sector work experience. Geographically, Steven has worked in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

From Our Partners