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What if we abandoned the idea of privacy?

by Greg Krehbiel on 4 December 2017

We all know we’re being surveilled — to some extent by the government, but mostly by the tech hegemons. In many ways, Google’s algorithms might know more about me than I know about myself.

This technology is only going to get better and more “intrusive” — if that’s the way you see it — or awesome, if you like it and find it convenient.

People flip out when they know that ads are targeted to them based on their preferences, but at the same time, why should I see ads for pet stuff when I have no pets? I’d rather see ads that are relevant to my life.

Add in Google glass, or something like the implant concept I have in The Intruder, and it gets even spookier.

Right now, Google (et al.) collects tons of information on us all, but people don’t get to see their profile. The computer might have loads of data on the kind of chocolate I like, or whether I’m a credit risk, or if I’m likely to die in a car crash, or ten thousand other things, but it’s not as if one of you can look that up.

Why not?

What if we collectively said to heck with it and opened up all data on everybody all the time? So if I’m walking down the street and I look at somebody, facial recognition identifies him, pulls up his data, and I can look through whatever I want to know about him.

What’s his name and address, of course, but also whether he’s a nice person or not (based on other people’s votes), whether he’s dangerous, whether I have anything in common with him, what kind of food he likes, his favorite TV shows, his favorite music, his high score on Angry Birds …. You get the picture.

Not only is there no expectation of privacy, there simply isn’t any privacy. Everything is out in the open for the world to see.

We’d quickly realize how thin the veneer of civilization actually is. We’d know everybody’s sins and crimes and foibles. There would be no secret affairs, no hidden past. No lies. Everyone would immediately know if you were lying, so there’d be no point.

What would happen?

Some things would become incredibly better. Like if you’re at a dance and you want to know who does east coast swing, and how good they are … there you have it. You know exactly who to ask. Or if you’re looking for a date, or trying to find somebody interesting to have a beer with, or … you get the picture.

On the other hand, you could say that our whole social structure is built around layers and layers of deception. Once those layers are peeled back, how would society adapt?

If somebody sees that I don’t recycle, would they attack me? If some guy is a pedophile, would we gang up and kill him?

Maybe at first, but then all that information would be public as well. E.g., “this person is intolerant and beats up people he doesn’t agree with.” So you’d still be circumspect about what you did and said, because it’s all going to come out.

Would it make us better or worse people? Would it make a better or a worse culture?

2017-12-04  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 9

  1. Ken Crawford
    5 December 2017 @ 12:00 am

    I think it would depend tremendously on whether society was able to believe in the idea that individuals could improve over time, or whether their sins marred them for life.

    I could see no privacy forcing that issue, forcing us as a society to definitely decide which way we were going to go, but I can’t predict the outcome.

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 December 2017 @ 7:12 am

    That’s a good point, although it might go a slightly different way. Not so much that people would learn that people can improve, or even learn to forgive them, but perhaps people will see that a sin or a crime doesn’t define the whole person.

  3. pentamom
    5 December 2017 @ 10:38 am

    Well, a stupid social media incident at my son’s high school that’s making waves right now, has convinced me that the idea that greater accountability restrains behavior, is bunk, on the large scale. I believe it can work for a particular person who *chooses* to be more accountable in order to restrain his *own* behavior, because that person is conscious of the relationship, and wants incentive not to be stupid. But society wide — is the fact that what happens in private winds up on Facebook, stopping anybody from being stupid, that you’ve noticed?

  4. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 December 2017 @ 10:44 am

    Hmm. No, good point. Rather, people just take an “oh well, I guess this will be on Facebook” attitude. As if it’s inevitable, even if not preferred. (If you’ve listened to the S-Town podcast, they have another phrase, which I won’t repeat, for this attitude.)

    But right now that’s only an occasional thing. What would be the result if everything was obvious, not just on Facebook, but to everybody?

    I can see it going different ways.

    People might take the “oh well” attitude about lots of things and quit “pretending” — you know, things like dressing decently, being polite, etc.

    Or they might start putting on their “be polite, you’re in company” face all the time.

    Mostly likely, some would do one and some would do the other.

  5. Ken Crawford
    5 December 2017 @ 10:47 am

    Greg, that’s a good point about defining the whole person. I’ve had concerns about the fact that we’re letting bad (but not illegal) behavior ruin otherwise good people’s careers. Should a good actor or politician or businessman really no longer be able to contribute to society in what their best in because of sexual deviancy? Obviously there are limits to that statement and there should be consequences for people’s bad behavior (and not only legal consequences), but I’m beginning to fear the pendulum could swing too far that way.

  6. William
    5 December 2017 @ 10:56 am

    I suspect it would have a mixed impact. For those who are conscientious, it would likely restrain and encourage them to be more circumspect. Yet, for those who just don’t give a rip, this would likely be a platform for them to do more of what they desire and use information about others to justify their behavior.

  7. pentamom
    5 December 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    In the case I’m thinking of, the people put a picture of behavior that was clearly socially unacceptable on Instagram themselves. It wasn’t just getting caught, it was putting yourself way out there in a transgressive manner. So maybe the problem with depending on accountability, is that we forget about attention-seeking. People will do stuff that they know everyone will think is terrible, just to get attention. It doesn’t stop when people turn five, much as we’d like to believe it does.

  8. pentamom
    5 December 2017 @ 12:24 pm

    Or, what William said! 🙂

  9. Robin R.
    5 December 2017 @ 3:07 pm

    I think that all hell would break loose.

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