Suntec City Mall, Singapore
Personally, I think the best privacy is not caring. I put a plethora of stuff online, but it’s all very curated. Beyond that I don’t really care. I share zero about family and don’t kiss and tell, except perhaps in vague, incomprehensible metaphor. There remains a lot of stuff nonetheless, but I’m aware and I trust that most of it will simply dissolve into the stream. Most people aren’t bloggers, but they are on Facebook. This really does raise privacy issues, but the bigger issue is what modern privacy means.
Privacy is not an abstract moral value. Beyond don’t look at my privates, it’s not well defined. What we call privacy is largely defined by the times and media we live in. It is not that our ancestors chose not to share their vacation photos with the world. They simply couldn’t. Now we live in an age where we have that choice and we don’t know what to do. Simply mapping the biases of a prior media onto this one doesn’t work. At some level one has to choose, except I don’t think even that is true. Modern media gives the illusion of choice when in fact most of us are too ignorant or lazy to make such a decision. This media contains multiple possibilities but, really, only one emerging reality. That is, largely, anything goes.
Younger people are more and more comfortable with sharing huge and seemingly personal parts of their lives. Mostly with friends, but also friends of friends, and then beyond. This ranges from the mundane to the profane and younger people are also getting more comfortable with more public (and embarrassing) displays of sex and sexuality. The Internet is becoming the high school hallway, and older people feel correspondingly awkward walking around.
The privacy here comes from not what is excluded but from what sticks out. That is, there is such a crapflood of information out there that you get some semblance of privacy from people simply not paying attention. The nature of the Internet as a medium is not that it has constant properties but that it is remarkably plastic.
The Internet can go from zero to a million really fast. That is, I can write a hundred blog posts that no one notices but then write one during election time that explodes. Well, for this blog explode is not the word. Let’s take the Charlie Bit My Finger video. There are thousands of cute kid videos on YouTube but this particular one caught and got almost 5 million views. The medium is such that it can sustain a lot of boring, low-traffic stuff and then suddenly stretch when interest is high.
So, in that sense, you could theoretically upload every moment of your life and have them safely ignored. They would exist in some sense, but the Internet is really more of an oral culture than a literate one. It has some preservative properties of the latter, but nothing is written in stone. Information is preserved in transmission, in communication, in repetition. If no one cares the information effectively disappears.
Hence, I think the main sort of privacy we’ll get is not through controls (though those are important). Besides the free-for-all identity is the big defining issue of both the Internet and, indeed, this Obamian age. Beyond that, however, the greatest privacy is being lost in the crowd. In having so much information out there that people stop giving a shit. Which is, ultimately, the problem. Not the information itself, but the social consequences. That is to say, we will gradually acclimatize to living in the high school hallway and things will get suitably boring again. Until mediums shift again.