Privacy in the 21st century

Lately I’ve been thinking about David Brin’s non-fiction masterpiece The Transparent Society, in which he posits two possible futures. The first is the Orwellian nightmare, where Big Brother watches and sees everything, and all notions of privacy are but a distant memory. The second future is the more curious one, a “Transparent Society” in which all of Big Brother’s tools still exist, and indeed we’re still watched… but in this scenario, it’s democratic. The public is privy to the same images and feeds the police are (and indeed, can watch the police as easily as the police watch them). We can all watch each other, and know who is watching us. Privacy is still a distant memory, but the Orwellian dystopia is avoided by offering a compelling answer to the question of “Who watches the watchers?”: we all do.

Curiously, he wrote that book in 1998. Like all the best science fiction, I’m amazed at the novel’s prescience. I wonder if he realized, while writing it, just what the next few years would bring?

Since 1998, we’ve catapulted forward in both directions. On the Orwellian front, the Bush Administration has used the NSA to track and listen into our phone calls, track financial transactions, and has made moves to acquire the same data about our internet habits, all while conducting itself under a veil of Nixonian secrecy. Corporations collect even more data on us, ostensibly so they can get better at marketing towards us. On the transparency front, we now have Google, blogs, and MySpace. The former unearths mountains of previously shrouded information about the people in our lives; the latter two we use to put the details of our private lives out in public for anyone to see.

I’ve commented before that MySpace is symbolic of a pretty extreme cultural shift: the coming generation has a radically different notion of privacy than the one in power now. The idea of putting private details of your life (including but not limited to: nude photos, drunkenness, sexual exploits, and lots of stuff you wouldn’t want your employer or parents to see) onto the internet is completely alien to most of the older generation, as indicated by the rhetoric surrounding the moral panic about MySpace that recurs every other month. Google and MySpace, in a way, are the first iteration of the transparent society Brin was talking about.

What will our cultural attitude toward privacy be by the time this generation takes office? I think that a transparent society may turn out to be reality sooner than late.

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One Response to “Privacy in the 21st century”

  1. Musings of the Great Eric » Blog Archive » The Digital Generation Gap Says:

    […] This ties into what I said recently about how our cultural attitude towards privacy is changing. The internal workings of a corporation have always been terribly opaque, at least traditionally speaking. Teenage life gets recorded on MySpace. Think there’s a disconnect? […]

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