The End of Privacy as We Know It

In 1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau articulated his theory of "The Social Contract," which defined some of the tacit agreements we make among ourselves in order to insure a peaceful society. At the heart of his theory, Rousseau explains, is the need for each individual to trade away his or her claim to certain natural rights in order to be part of a civil society. Today, it seems that a new (and, naturally, digital) realm of social contract is evolving which requires an individual to trade away a significant amount of privacy in order to be part of the digital society.

A few days ago, I saw for the second time a fascinating documentary called We Live in Public. It chronicles the life of Internet pioneer Josh Harris, and showcases some of his forays during the late 90's into living social art. Harris set up a unique experiment that tears up a long-standing contract regarding our right to privacy. It reads like an Orwellian tale.

In what might be called the first Reality TV series pilot, Harris was somehow able to convince a hundred artists to live in an underground bunker in New York City where they would be under the constant scrutiny of strategically placed cameras. Long before the onslaught of ubiquitous reality TV and today's viral and fervid Internet social networking and self-narration, he envisioned a future where technology and media would dictate human social interaction and define our personal identity. He predicted that people would eventually be willing to completely trade away their privacy just to experience their fifteen minutes of fame. It looks like Josh Harris really had broadband ideas in a dial up era, since many of his predictions have become or are rapidly becoming true. Reality TV as product reflects reality TV as a social and intellectual activity, just as The Dick Van Dyke show portrayed suburbia in the 60's.

Although our current state of constant self-narration seems to be a radical departure from the past, perhaps the urge was always awaiting the technology, simmering under the surface of our psyches. Our environment has changed steadily and relentlessly, like that of the frog swimming, at first happily, in the water as it is heated to a boil.

A lot of behavior that was once frowned upon or considered narcissistic is today not only accepted, but also expected. We have somehow been handed a contract we are expected to fulfill with complete transparency. If you don't put your life out there for anyone to see, there is almost an unspoken assumption that you are hiding something or trying to be mysterious. How many times have I heard friends say things like: "Why don't you post more pictures? Why don't you have more updates?" Suddenly, people who might in the past have hesitated to express any curiosity about your personal life are expressing growing sense of entitlement to know what is happening to you at all times.

The context of social media creates an acceptable framework for complete disclosure. One of the most unexpected things for me was to see certain relatively conservative (or so I thought) members of my family behaving like wild animals escaped from their zoo cages. I've learned things about my family on Facebook never hinted at during family gatherings.

We certainly have all heard horror stories of information communicated on a social site being misused. But that is not the only concern. What is risked on a more subtle level when you live your life like an open book? How much sharing is too much sharing? There must have been some reason why a natural right to privacy has been included in our social contract since anyone can remember. What is the middle path between being too open or too closed? I am still navigating the course

The truth is that regardless of what we share voluntarily, we have, in ten short years, lived through the end of privacy, as we once knew it. Even for the most timid among us, who try to maintain some vestige of privacy, our online activity leaves a digital footprint that makes it impossible to be completely anonymous. Think about it: If someone knows what you are looking for online, what you spend money on, who your friends are, and what you read, you can be the subject of a detailed psychological profile without the exchange of a single word, digital or real.

The December issue of Wired Magazine had a great article about this topic. Writer Evan Ratliff embarked on a challenge to try and completely vanish for a month, he changed his identity and his appearance and told nobody where he would be going. In spite of all the precautions he took preparing for the adventure, he was caught days before he could consider his mission accomplished. Of course, the social networking sites led the search effort that finally located him.

We are still at the stage of infancy in this brave new world, so without descending into a Big-Brother-is-Watching-Me type of paranoia, I think we should be aware of the information that is available about each one of us online whether voluntarily disclosed or not.