Oh Privacy, Where Are You Hiding?


“Nothing endures but change”

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)


“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”


Steve Jobs


The pace of change in today’s world is unprecedented and exponential. We are taking extraordinarily creative steps, making possible solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. Our global connectedness promises untold local benefits.  Nevertheless, the pace is dizzying.  Occasionally, disquieting.

Whether the sweeping technological changes are more, or less, dizzying  than those wrought on earlier cultures is unclear. In the 6th century BCE, Heraclitus astutely noted that  shifts happen.   And although most historical changes were arguably less tectonic in nature than the 21st century changes, the affected cultures were much less accustomed and more resistant to change than ours.  Existentially, these smaller shifts may have been equally disequilibrating. Perhaps, impossible to know, but interesting to consider.

When I look to the future and try to gauge the trajectory of where we are going, where we will be, I feel awkward and clumsy: incapable of comfortably extrapolating from current trends a vision of what our world will look like in 50 years. Questions abound: we are  social animals, but what will being social look like in 50 years? How will we relate to one another?  What will we share about ourselves that hasn’t already been distilled from our digital shadow? Will we still enjoy the luxury of a “private” self, a self preserved, cocooned if you will, from an open-book world?  Will our connections be broader and shallower, rather than fewer and deeper? Will future relationships still satisfy the need to meaningfully and quietly connect, or will the need atrophy? As a future condition, will privacy be important, or is it absurd to even contemplate?

The impacts of our current information flow and data gathering give rise to these, and many more, elemental questions.  The changes to the way we conduct our daily lives and what we now tacitly accept are sweeping and often difficult to appreciate.  We enter into information transactions every day.  Many of us use apps and most make weekly, if not daily, credit card purchases.  All of this activity results in a data point, which contributes to a file from which our portrait is drawn.   Quite willingly, we  exchange information for convenience. Short-term, this transaction feels great.  However, often discounted is the permanent record of our choices.  This is not insignificant.   

Big Data is changing what we see and how we are viewed. Our digital shadows are staggering: our photographs, our adolescent follies, our enduring foibles, our diet, our friends, how often we shower, what exhilarates us, and what makes us sad.  It has all been captured.   Who owns and controls this data:the government? the corporations? do we?  How much government surveillance is acceptable?  How does this erode trust?  How will our digital shadows  frame our future opportunities and circumstances?  These  are monumentally important issues.  Issues which are unresolved.

This is not new.  Much has been written on this subject.  I’ve listed a number books that contemplate the vast technological changes that define our time, explore what our tendencies say about us as a culture, and address our responsibilities.  If we are going to be key players in this unfolding drama, we ought well know the script.

One of my favorites is Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptist Michel.  This book tells the story of the Google Ngram Viewer, a technology, developed by the two authors in collaboration with Google.  The Ngram Viewer deconstructs history and gleans meaning by discerning linguistic patterns and word usage now measurable because of  the more than 30 million of books scanned and digitized by Google.  This technology yields enormous insight into the economic activities and prevailing values of historical cultures, ranging  from shepherd accountants counting sheep with many little stones ten thousand years ago, through the Stone Age, which witnessed the development of of a stylus used to record commerce on one large stone rather than using many little ones,through medieval times, up until today.  The authors’ style is insightful, engaging, and very funny, which makes following a very important and complicated subject enjoyable.


Other books to consider:


Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Victor Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, by Michio Kaku