It’s 2012 – Why Are We Still Talking About Privacy?

Another title for this column might have been “Who Even Cares About Privacy?” or “Since There Is No Privacy Anymore, What Now?”

My firm belief is that even the notion of privacy as we used to know it has been subsumed into a larger discussion about the transformative power of shared information; and to an even larger extent, the value of readily available data to a world connected by addressable devices and more information than anyone knows what to do with.

This phenomenon has hit us all like the proverbial tsunami, and has wiped away all sense of perspective as regards privacy.

Long ago I was involved in “advocacy” for the Web Analytics Association and it resulted in my attending several meetings at very long tables where “industry people” would try to figure out how to educate Congressfolks about how tracking click-throughs on sneaker-selling sites was not the same as placing 360-degree video cameras directly above consumers’ dining room tables.

That seems rather quaint now.

With the December 2011 news about Carrier IQ and the way it stores every danged keystroke you ever put on your smartphone (available at any time to the carrier!), you have to accept that we have, either knowingly or with tacit consent, traded away any semblance of true privacy in exchange for access. Carrier IQ’s snooping has made for much hand-wringing in the media. But if the news did not cause millions to torch their smartphones and reach for the nearest pitchfork, we know nearly all we need to know about whether access is more important than privacy.

Would any but the most paranoid cookie-deleting minority among us even consider not using a smartphone because of this? Would we say, “Well, if you are going to know what I texted to my tailgate buds on game day, then no more mobile Internet for me! I’m outta here!” Does that sound silly? If it does, it’s because it’s not as silly as it is unimaginable.

We’ve been snared by the information loop, and we can no longer function in the world without access. We’ve always suspected that somewhere in the cloud, our data is being used in ways we’d rather not hear about. This dynamic is much the same as where we wouldn’t want to watch the manufacture of a tasty kielbasa, and yet we’re having that on a bun with mustard, thanks.

You’ll get no phony qualms from this quarter against the need for marketing data – we know that freedom isn’t free. And that the freedom to access incredible amounts of goods, services, and just plain silly stuff pretty much at no dollar cost must have a price. That price, in large part, is the information collected about how we use data. Somebody once said information wants to be free. It doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be offered in exchange like any other good on the market. Welcome to the marketplace everyone.

But to really understand the entirely transmogrified nature of the discussion of privacy today, let us go back to a time before time began, when there was no Internet and you had to get a court order to listen in on someone’s conversation. Back to an eight-cylinder past when TV ratings were extrapolated from an almost absurdly small sample of opt-in test-families. To a day when futurists suspected we would all become much more understanding of one another if only we knew more, could see each other, and could share our lives, our thoughts, and our dreams. No one was thinking about Twitter. Or LinkedIn. Or a quintillion emails and texts stored forever like so many closeted skeletons. But they may have been thinking about Dick Tracy’s radio wristwatch, or the Jetsons zipping around in a hovercraft and talking to the boss from a home office.

Would any of the futurists, even at their most dystopian, have suspected that the liberating devices we use today to find the best noodle shop in Katmandu or the name of the guy who wrote that song the title of which no one can seem to fully recall; that the devices that allow us to talk and write to one another and sometimes even see one another at costs that drop below even casual notice; would any of the futurists imagining this information-rich future have predicted that it would be the very devices themselves, sexy and indispensable, that would create the portal through which we would willingly and sometimes unknowingly pour out our own internal data in rivers and gushers and aqueducts-worth of bits and bytes? Had they known, would they have been so eager to create this world of information-for-the-asking?

The answer to this question is: it doesn’t matter. And that’s because it seems we’ve stopped caring about privacy (at least here in the U.S). Other developed nations may have their restrictions, but one gets the sense they’re just temporary polders against the flood.

There are some positive implications in a world with more porous privacy walls: and the main one is, that one had better get more tolerant of the foibles of those who’ve shared a little too much. Everyone today lives in a glass house. No one can afford to throw stones. And so we learn to live and let live – with more and more kinds of people in more and different kinds of ways than we would ever have been comfortable with in our innocent former world of books and magazines and one-way media.

We also suspect that instant access to information will not, as the cynics might say, make us dumber and more dependent. Did access to a steady food supply make our cave-dwelling forebears droolers and thumbsuckers? No – it turned them into cultural innovators. Because they didn’t have to worry so much about killing squirrels and had time to invent cool new stuff like “language.” Therefore, we can reasonably suggest that free information for all will lead to ever-increasing rounds of innovation and even evolutionary advancement.

Is that what we get for trading away our formerly precious privacy – a leap forward to a more highly evolved state? If so, then it seems we’ve already sensed it and have collectively signed up for the ride.

It seems we’ve stopped worrying about privacy and learned to live with the knowledge that we’re not invisible – much as at one time someone once looked in a pool of water and saw a face looking back; and, after splashing and running, came back to look again and again.

This is the full import of the diminution of privacy. We are moving beyond it. We are beyond it. Why are we still talking about it?

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