Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Transparent World

-- By XiyunYang - 22 May 2013

Almost two centuries ago, the factories churned and drew us away from our land and our communities. We left for promises of steady wages and flush toilets. We flooded into the cities, into the tenements. We lived one on top of the next. We added anonymity to our lexicon of social relations, that bit of space we inflated to protect ourselves from the breath, the heat, the stink of each other.

This millennium, we stand again at the cusp. The process of disentangling ourselves from a physical sense of place is almost complete. We defined privacy by the power of anonymity. We wrote political manifestos behind its protective walls. We built a messy, contorted, exquisite system of democracy upon this foundation of autonomy. Our conception of privacy, having swelled out to the outer reaches of anonymity, is deflating.

The constellations of our social interactions is reforming. The very notion of human learning. We hold much more in our minds and on our hard drives about each other than ever before and we are ever striving for more. Machines gather millions and billions of minutae, but what could it possibly mean to me that the woman with whom I shared a desk in third grade bought a large coffee at Starbucks at 3:58 last Thursday? A single note of knowledge, compounded ad nauseum, rises to white noise. But we are not only a sum of all the data we create. Perhaps we can once again hide in numerosity, perhaps there is a way to decouple privacy from anonymity, even in the digital age.

Perhaps not, and the loss of privacy is self-inflicted and irrevocable. But the dissolution of one political protection may crystallize to form another, one that is more organic to the era of oversharing and self-promotion: transparency. The pendulum is swinging towards the public's right to know, away from our individual right to keep secrets. The shift may not be inherently troublesome. Abuse of power isn't inherent in knowledge and loss of privacy, it's what we do with knowledge that build and destroy. Hitler did not murder Jews because he knew who was Jewish. He murdered them because he wanted to murder Jews. Everyone may be watching when a Koran is downloaded onto a Kindle, but it's only the technological equivalent of wearing a hijab. Privacy is a safeguard against what we may do with knowledge, but it does not have to be the only one.

After all, the protections of privacy are not perfect: it shields the innocent and the malevolent alike. It argues for unlimited anonymous corporate money in elections. It excuses secrecy and the free flow of money in and out of the wrong pockets.

This new transparent world will be one in which no one is entitled to their secrets. Not the powerless nor the powerful. A world in which no Supreme Court clerk has the right to stay in the closet as Rome burns. A world in which true and perfect opinion polling will enfranchise the poor. A world were misinformation is instantly identified, along with the motives of those who propagate it. A world in which the power of anonymous speech is replaced by the power of mass speech. Just as anonymous speech derived its power from the fact that anyone and therefore everyone could have been the speaker, one day, technology may break down the barriers between individuals to the point where an author is no longer differentiated from the readers. Everyone truly is the speaker. To punish the speaker, everyone must be punished. This is a world in which big data and social media may be contributing to a solution for collective action problems. Transparency shifts power to the masses. Privacy protects us from what the powerful may do with the knowledge that they have. Transparency derives its power from what the powerless may do with the knowledge we share. It is the powerful who fear.

Still, transparency may not have an analogue to all the protections of privacy. It demands an extraordinary amount of trust in the wisdom of crowds, for there are no inherent mechanism to protect against the tyranny of the majority. The power of the masses may not be strong enough to protect against all the abuses of the government.

For those of us growing up in an age that cherished privacy, this world of absolute transparency is terrifying. A world without barriers is a world that is nothing like what came before. But dystopia or utopia, a world of absolute transparency is as unlikely to exist as a world of absolute privacy. There will always be the haves and the have nots. There will be a transition period. The functioning of society will demand exceptions, just as everyone right to privacy now is subordinate to the government's police power. Ultimately, the future may not look as starkly different for the power between transparency and privacy are two sides of the same coin: it is only where the barriers to information are built that will change. There is no inherent value in the barriers themselves, just in what they protect. Our autonomy. For us, now, the erosion of privacy is immediate because our technology and political system can better guarantee a baseline of privacy. Perhaps though, one day, technology will change. Society will change. Government will change. Our world will become a more transparent one.

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r2 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:50 - IanSullivan
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