Some things in life are just taken for granted and are rarely questioned. Privacy is one of those things. It’s implicitly agreed upon by everybody that privacy is a good thing, and that maintaining personal integrity is one of the major challenges of web 2.0. I would like to question this.
Let’s go back to the early stages of the development of our species for a minute. The development of collaborative behavior is one of the major advancements in the history of humanity, without which we couldn’t have achieved anything but satisfying our most basic needs. And in order to collaborate, we need some form of rules and norms, at least when the advantages of collaboration are balanced unevenly between individuals over time. We’ve created institutions for maintaining these rules, but more importantly, we have a distributed control system where morals and norms are enforced by our peers. In fact, the punishments and rewards administred by our peers are so important to us that they could be viewed as an important part of the genome of the collective intelligence that makes up our culture and our civilization.
So, while this distributed control system is beneficial for the community as a whole, it also puts pressure on the individual. And individuals don’t like pressure. At least not instinctevly and in the short term.
Enter social media.
What social media did is that it opened up the flood gates of peer control. Suddenly we could follow each other much closer than before, seeing photos, updates, status reports and blog posts. We could administer peer punishments and rewards much more effectively than ever before and across previsously unthinkable boundaries.
This poses questions:
(1) Will the breakdown of privacy raise moral, improve individual behavior and ultimately make the world a better place?
(2) Why are people so reluctant to compromise their privacy?
I believe that the answer to (1) is likely to be yes. It makes sense rationally, and there are also psychological experiments performed that support this thesis.
The answer to (2) is more complex and is a combination of laziness and fear. A more publicly available life puts pressure on you to raise your moral standards and generally behave better. Lazy people are not attracted by this proposition. There is also a notion that public knowledge of your activities puts you at risk of being exposed to crime of different sorts, from stalking to burglaries (when your Twitter feed gives away that your home is empty for example). To some degree this could be a valid fear.
But if the answer to (1) is yes, then we owe it to ourselves to make sure the problems of (2) are solved. It is not a matter of protecting our privacy, but of protecting our right to be safe in public.