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(2010-04-15) On the matter of privacy

The ubiquitous paranoia is a sign of the times I guess, but those who fear for the loss of their privacy are too late to do anything about it now. I believe it happened something like this:

Factor 1 – No more media monopoly

Many years ago the news papers and the media saw themselves as the defenders of the peoples’ right to know when their leaders were corrupted. The media became the binocular where the people could look at politicians, industry leaders and other public persons without them being able to look back. The rule that divided the scrutinized from the anonymous was that you had to have some sort of power over others to be eligible to be watched. There were also a few unwritten and written “laws” pointing out things like the difference between a public person and that person’s right to private life. The media could criticize a person in his or her professional role but attacking their family or personal doings was avoided unless relevant to the story. In a perfect world, mind you!

But the times have changed. This change started when people got access to computers at home and it accelerated with the introduction of the Internet. In almost all cases this is a very positive thing, as it gives power to everyone (potentially). And you can learn a lot from people with no formal journalistic background or expertise. Projects like Wikipedia proves that community driven projects are viable alternatives or additions to commercial services and news outlets. But it has at least one problem: new generations grow up with no connection to the idea of what it means to be a public person. Everyone is fair game!

Factor 2 – Fear mongering

It’s easy to see that those of us living in the Western societies have never enjoyed more stability, safety and security than we do now. I don’t know about other parts of the world, but I think it applies to most of them as well. We live longer while being less likely to be murdered or fall victims to terrorism. In the US of A, more people die in accidents relating to taking a bath than being victims of terrorism.

But when you read the news papers, listen to the radio, browse through the Internet or watch the TV the world looks much grimmer. We’ve been fed a steady stream of horror stories about murder, rape, war and mayhem for many years now. Remember my discussion about Daniel Gardeners book “the science of fear”? We react with our “guts” (instinct), and fail to see how little of our lives are affected by actual crime and injustice. Gut reads the headlines and does not think about things like likelihood or media bias. Ok, no news here I guess. But stop blaming the politicians or the media! It’s the same people here as there. They also have their fears, happiness and pride. Most of them, like most of us, want to do a good job and help other people. The problem is that their decisions are like ours. The more they fear, the more they want to stop the danger. The system has become a feedback-loop, feeding itself with fear.

So in the end we get massive surveillance, the government reading our Internet traffic and “rubber band” laws. If you think big brother is scary, have you given any thoughts on little brother lately? You know people like you and me. I believe that in 20 years or so we’ll be part of a society where everyone watches everyone. There are few limits to what we will accept and even grow into liking when things gradually changes and we can hide behind the sentence: “but everyone is doing it”. This is the part that really makes me feel bad.

Factor 3 – Power struggles

Nobody like losing their powers and the Internet being a global thing, sites like Wikileak can be bad news for organizations with something to hide. This is something to watch out for. There are many organizations seeking to put sanctions on the right of free speech to protect themselves, their business models and the status quo. If this matters for you: consider giving money to civil rights project you believe in. I will not elaborate on this: but do look around.

So?
It might seem like giving up, but I think this is in part a wonderful and in part a horrible journey we must go through. The horrible part is the death of privacy and how innocent and guilty people alike will get their lives published on the Internet against their will. The good part is how ideas can flow freely. But ask me again in 5 years, and maybe I’ll just shrug it off, believing it is all right since we all get the same treatment. Sad but true.

… And no: it’s not that I want the bad parts or even approve of them. It’s because, for better and worse, no one can stop what is coming.

Posted: 2010-04-15 by Erik Zalitis
Changed: 2010-06-19 by Erik Zalitis

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